Behind Hot 97's New VH1 Reality Show: ‘The More People See Our Faces, the More They’ll Turn On the Radio’

A still from 'This Is Hot 97'

News of a new VH1 program focusing on Hot 97 seemed to come quickly. Contractual details were ironed out in late 2013 and filming of “This is Hot 97” began inside the New York City-based hip-hop radio station’s studios in January before an early March announcement of the show was made. But the deal certainly didn’t happen overnight.
 
“I’ve been chasing [program director Ebro Darden] for years,” says Mona Scott-Young, CEO of Monami Entertainment, the company producing the new show.  “It was always like, ‘when are you going to let me bring cameras into the station? When are you going to do a reality show? When are you going to get the crew to agree?’ This has been an ongoing discussion for a very long time until Darden finally got comfortable enough.”
 
For Darden, the 39-year-old Hot 97 PD, VP of programming and co-host, the upside of signing up with the team that produced the wildly popular VH1 show “Love & Hip-Hop” is obvious. “The more people see our faces and get to know us, the more -- hopefully -- people want to turn on the radio,” he told Billboard. But his decision to do the show is not without risk. “'The Wizard of Oz’ was amazing until you saw it was a nerd moving the gears.”
 
And Hot 97's Darden is, in many ways, that wizard-like nerd. Since joining the station in 2003 as music director, Darden has built a track record of progressive, informed decisions. He’s proudly adopted a ‘Majors versus Minors’ lingo to differentiate between radio-worthy artists with songs that perform in the station’s ratings metrics and underground artists he feels need to earn the right to have their songs played.
 
As a means to publicly disprove the sentiment that Hot 97 doesn’t support up and coming New York hip-hop artists, the station sponsors the ‘Who’s Next Live’ concert series to highlight new talents and the ‘Battle of the Beats’ contest in which listeners vote for songs to be played.
 
Darden accepted full-time on-air duties in late 2012, when morning show ratings were stagnant. and smoothed over a squabble between Nicki Minaj and Peter Rosenberg, the on-air personality that insulted her. Most prominently, in September, he facilitated an emotional on-air discussion about sexuality in hip-hop with Mister Cee, a respected DJ, after he temporarily resigned after the release of an audio clip in which he appeared to solicit sex for money from a transgender person. Here, the issue of honesty and being true to oneself was repeatedly raised and discussed.
 
And now, Darden’s insistence that the television show featuring Hot 97 be smart, engaging and not built around the constant conflict that drives other reality programs is just the most recent example of his thought-out approach. “I want to show that hip-hop is more than just what you see in the music videos and what you see and hear about in the songs,” Darden said. “Hip-hop is a culture that has hardworking people that have families, love each other, and care about their workplace. I don’t think that’s shown enough.”
 
Darden and Scott-Young started working out the details, including getting Hot 97 staffers to sign on, before bringing the idea to VH1. “[VH1 has] never really done a show with a media company this way where you can absolutely join forces and leverage your audiences and get kind of the biggest bang,” Scott-Young said. “[VH1] thought it was a great idea right off the bat. It was a matter of us convincing Emmis.”
 
Hot 97’s parent company Emmis Communications, which recently purchased R&B station 107.5 FM (WBLS) and gospel station 1190 AM (WLIB), signed on without much convincing. “They trust our judgment in protecting the brand to a degree, so they know we’re not going to get out and misrepresent or embarrass or anything like that,” Darden said. “They were definitely aware and involved.”
 
Darden announced last week he would be giving up his PD duties to focus squarely on his on-air role. “Emmis let me choose where I would be happiest,” Darden said in a statement. “Mornings, TV & assisting in programming makes sense with everything Hot 97 and I have happening today, so I chose creative over corporate.”

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The first of eight episodes will air March 31 at 10:30 p.m. and features the station’s well-known talent, including Angie Martinez, Funkmaster Flex, Miss Info, Cipha Sounds and Rosenberg -- all strong personalities who don’t necessarily need a lot of media training.
 
“What we did was turn the cameras on these guys and they pulled off the rest,” Scott-Young said. “The way they feel about each other and the way they interact totally came though. It’s mainly because that is the real dynamic that exists in the station.”
 
Mike Tyson, Rick Ross, Wale, French Montana and Macklemore will also appear in the first run of shows as well as a scene of Flex driving wildly in one of his many vintage cars.
 
Cameras have been shooting footage for several hours each weekday, ducking in and out of rooms buzzing with work, planning the annual Summer Jam concert and forming business strategies for increasing market share in hard-scrabble New York radio business. The January Nielsen Portable People Meter ratings placed Hot 97 14th out of 37 New York stations with a 2.9 rating, trailing rival hip-hop outlet Power 105's 3.3.
 
“What we do everyday is distribute content we create across the frequency as well as online,” Darden said. “[“This is Hot 97”] is another piece of content that is separate from our primary business, so there was a kind of, ‘wait a minute, is this going to take our eye off what our priorities are?’ It’s my job to make sure that was balanced and managed.”

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