When Salt Lake City radio station KUUU, 92.5 FM, launched a hip-hop format in February 1999, some people didn’t think it would last.
“In a market like Salt Lake City where it’s very LDS-influenced, at the time, there was this thought that, ‘Yeah, it’s cool we have a hip-hop station in SLC, but it’s only going to be around a couple of years,’” said Curtis Booker, who worked at the station, dubbed U92, during three different stints, starting in 2001.
As Booker, who’s now a breaking news reporter and producer at ABC4Utah, put it in a tweet earlier this month, “23 years in a market where the station was only expected to last 3!”
The 23-year ride of U92, the only commercial hip-hop radio station in Utah, came to an end this month. Starting on Monday, Aug. 8, the station changed its format and branding. It’s now “92.5 The Beat,” with the tagline “Utah’s #1 for Throwbacks!”
To draw attention on the new format’s first day, the station arranged to have a South Salt Lake gas station sell gasoline for 92 cents a gallon for 92 minutes on Aug. 8.
The rebranded station will still play hip-hop, but the focus will be on throwbacks — classic tracks — in hip-hop and beyond it, according to Lexa ‘LP’ Penadillo, who has worked at the station as a weekend host for a year now.
U92 had been a low-rated station — recording a 1.1% market share in July, according to Nielsen Audio ratings (as listed in the trade website RadioInsight), which ranked it 23rd among stations in the Salt Lake City/Ogden/Provo market.
U92′s influence went beyond its ratings, Booker said. “Certain radio stations are more than radio stations,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle for the people in the hip-hop culture and pop culture as well. … [The station] was a way to connect Utah to what was going on in other parts of the country through music.”
The station had its fair share of triumphs, according to Kevin Cruise, who worked at U92 for around 14 years as the program director and producer of the station’s Summerjam concert series.
“The number one hip-hop station in the United States was right here in Salt Lake City,” Cruise said. He pointed to an award given in 2010 by the now-defunct radio trade magazine FMQB, declaring U92 the top station in the “rhythmic” genre (radio speak for hip-hop) in the country. Cruise credited the award to the station’s hard-working staff and its dedicated fanbase in the state.
U92′s fanbase, Cruise said, was made up mostly of “white kids that live on the east side of the valley.” Those were the kids who were buying hip-hop CD’s in the early 2000s, he said.
U92 launched before social media and streaming services dominated in delivering music to listeners. Back then, for people in Utah to find out what the hottest songs in hip-hop were, they had to tune in and listen to the station.
Booker said he loved that, through his “myriad of roles” on U92 over the years, he was able to connect with Utah hip-hop fans and with some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.
“I grew up a big Ice Cube fan, from movies to music,” Booker said, noting that the station leaned heavily toward West Coast hip-hop. “There was one day in 2006 where he came to the radio station. …. In my early radio days, I was starstruck.”
Many songs got airplay on U92 before hitting the top of the charts across the country, Cruise said. In the pre-streaming days, Cruise said, it was common practice for record labels’ marketing departments to send new music to stations a month or two before their “official” release to generate advance buzz.
One song to get that treatment was Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” Cruise said. “I was listening to an illegal copy of Rihanna’s album [’Rated R’] and I listened to the song, went ‘hold on’ and played it again,” he said. Cruise said he ripped the track off the album and started playing it on the air the next day, and listeners loved it.
“Rihanna never wanted ‘Rude Boy’ to be the next single,” Cruise said. “But because listeners blew it up here, it started moving up and became the next single off of that album.”
Penadillo said she grew up listening to U92, and credits the station for one of her best concert memories.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, and concerts weren’t something that were always accessible for me,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I won concert tickets [from U92] and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Penadillo said she walked into the building — the same Broadway Media building where she now works every weekend — saw the cool posters, and collected her prize: Four tickets to see Logic, and a new camera (which she still owns).
Now, she said, she’s come full circle, because she’s giving out tickets to people to see their favorite artists.
U92′s ultimate legacy, Cruise said, is that it gave hip-hop and gangsta rap fans the chance to see that the station was able to provide an opportunity for hip hop and gangsta rap fans to have experiences with artists, recalling moments of sending fans to Mardi Gras, Miami, New York and Los Angeles for events.
Even now, Cruise says he runs into people who talk about growing up and listening to him on the radio.
Penadillo said she’s excited for the rebrand. “For radio in general, and any musical industry, at some point you have to rebrand to continue to grow, learn and meet the needs of people that are consuming your products,” she said. “I certainly don’t think radio is dying. There just needs to be a new spark to get people excited.”
The “throwbacks” format will be nostalgic for some radio listeners, she said. “They want to listen to the music they grew up on, music they remember listening to when they had their first kid, or got married,” she said.
Penadillo noted that some listeners can’t pay for subscriptions to streaming services, or afford the cords to plug their smartphones into the auxiliary jack in their cars. For a few years, she said, she was among them.
She said she believes the rebrand will remind people of the station, and get them excited for a new beginning. “The biggest thing radio does is it unites communities,” she says.
Booker said the memory of the old U92, and the way it introduced hip-hop to Utah listeners, won’t go away.
“The U92 brand itself is heritage in this state,” Booker said. “People will always identify that 92.5 radio dial with U92.”