52 Year Old ‘MC’ Sneed Is the Most Powerful Force in Hip Hop Radio

Hip-Hop’s Unlikely Voice At 52, Shaping the Playlist for a Young Audience

Mary Catherine Sneed aka MC Sneed

Mary Catherine Sneed aka MC Sneed

LOS ANGELES — Mary J. Blige, in thigh-high green stiletto boots, grinds her hips on stage at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. “Got a jones in my bones,” she sings over the band’s jumpy hip-hop beat. “And it’s all for you, babe. Can’t leave you alone.”

Six thousand young people are on their feet bouncing and pumping their fists. Twenty rows back, between two young black women, sits a redhead named Mary Catherine Sneed, an Alabama native raised on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She sways and nods demurely as the two teenage girls in front of her shake it. Later, after the lights come up, while she waits for the crowd to file out, Sneed turns to her assistant: “She was great. Every song is like a chapter in the life of Mary J. Blige.”

Few in this crowd know how much this 52-year-old white woman’s opinion matters: She controls what many of them hear when they turn on their radios.

As chief operating officer of Radio One Inc., a black-owned company based in suburban Prince George’s County, Md., Sneed is one of the most powerful people in black radio. The company owns a fifth of the black stations in the country. Sneed, who likes to be called “M.C.,” helps oversee the business side, supervising station managers, and the music side, supervising the program directors who decide what goes on the air. In most radio companies, those are separate jobs.

Most weeks she leaves home in Atlanta for one of the two dozen cities where Radio One owns 67 stations. This week in December is her L.A. week, and Sue Freund, general manager of KKBT-FM (“The Beat”), Radio One’s local hip-hop station, is driving a steel-gray Land Rover through the office canyons of Wilshire Boulevard on the way to lunch. From the backseat, Sneed chats with the Beat’s program director, Robert Scorpio, who decides, with advice from Sneed, what music to play.

She was not a fan of the first two singles — “Flying Without Wings” and “Superstar” — from Ruben Studdard, the black man who won the amateur-hour TV show “American Idol.” The whiter network audience may have loved Studdard, but Sneed said his slow, crooning rhythm and blues singles are too mainstream for the station.

“I think they were trying to be mass appeal, but by being mass appeal they appealed to no one,” she said. {grv}{grv}Those songs weren’t urban enough.” {grv}{grv}Urban” in the radio business means {grv}{grv}black.” The rest of the album, she said, is a better fit.

Scorpio agrees. A 39-year-old white hip-hop fan, he is a veteran of black radio who was a morning DJ in Houston before leaving the air to program seven years ago.

After talking to Sneed, he adds Studdard’s latest single, “Sorry 2004,” with its more driving hip-hop beat, to the playlist. It becomes a hit. Sneed “definitely gets the whole urban vibe,” he said later. “Not a lot of corporate people do.”

Radio One’s L.A. Story

The Los Angeles station, Radio One’s first in the nation’s entertainment capital, is especially important to the company. Radio One bought it three years ago from Clear Channel Communications Inc., the country’s largest radio company. Federal competition regulations forced Clear Channel to shed the Beat after buying Dallas-based AMFM Inc. for $23 billion. Radio One’s strategy is to buy struggling stations cheap and turn them around.

Sneed forced out the old general manager but kept on Ed Lover and Dr. Dre of the TV show “Yo! MTV Raps” for the morning show. They flopped. She replaced them with Steve Harvey, a black comedian and TV personality popular with black audiences. The ratings jumped.

Although Radio One is doing better than the industry as a whole during a nationwide advertising slump, last winter a drop in the ratings at the Beat and a few other Radio One stations began to worry investors. The company has run up debt, spending $1.6 billion recently buying radio stations, and needs a steady revenue stream to repay it. The stock price began to drop from $16 a share to $13 last summer. It closed Friday at $19.48 a share.

Sneed then fired the production director and afternoon DJ. She spent three weeks running the station when the new general manager took maternity leave during the summer. Arbitron Inc., which measures radio and TV audiences, is to release the latest ratings while she is in Los Angeles.

From Country to Hip-Hop

Sneed grew up in Huntsville, Ala., where she went to an integrated high school in the 1960s and then across the state to Auburn University. She joined the Pi Beta Phi sorority to fit in at school, but rarely showed up for meetings. When the sisters had to nominate someone to volunteer at the campus radio station, they picked Sneed. They thought it was punishment. She thought it was destiny.

“I went to the [radio station] meeting, and I was really over the sorority,” she said.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, she programmed country music stations in Nashville and R&B, adult contemporary, pop and rock stations in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Then Summit Communications Corp., a small Atlanta-based radio chain, hired her as executive vice president, the second-highest executive in the company, which operated adult contemporary stations playing soft-rockers such as Phil Collins and Celine Dion.

“It was a big job to be a woman and vice president,” Sneed said. “There just weren’t girls in radio programming. It is still a position that is dominated by men.”

At the same time, another woman was making her mark on radio. Cathy Hughes developed the “quiet storm” format — heavy on slow, sensual rhythm and blues sung by soulful crooners like Luther Vandross — at predominantly black Howard University’s station in Washington. In 1980 she bought her own station, WOL-AM, for just under $1 million.

Now chairman of Radio One, Hughes made her son, Alfred C. Liggins III, chief executive. Liggins found Sneed in Atlanta in 1994 when he went to buy an Atlanta radio station from Summit.

Later that year Summit sold all its stations and Sneed, a separated single mother of one son, was looking for a job that would let her remain in Atlanta. Liggins wanted to expand Radio One beyond Washington and Baltimore. They started what was only the second all-rap radio station in a major market in the nation; the first was in New York. Sneed had never programmed a rap station before.

Radio One began to grow just as white teenagers began mimicking West Coast rappers by throwing gang signs, wearing ultra-baggy jeans and cranking the music up to parent-deafening levels. Today hip-hop and R&B — “urban music” — are among the most popular formats with listeners ages 12 to 34, according to Arbitron. Nationwide, 348 stations play urban formats and in many large cities they compete directly with about 600 pop stations that play Top 40 hits, since Top 40 is no longer overwhelmingly white: Many Top 40 hits these days are rap songs. Recently eight of the top 10 singles in Billboard magazine were by rappers, including Outkast, Ludacris, Chingy and Jay-Z.

The gansta rap genre of hip-hop and rough images perpetrated by some rappers is part of what has become a billion-dollar industry that markets music, clothes and movies to young people of all races. From its roots as an urban black music form, rap has become an integral part of mainstream culture and is used to promote such products as Coca-Cola and Old Navy sweatshirts.

The fact that Sneed is white and has a 23-year-old son may have helped her get a feel for young people. The company said it gives local programmers lots of leeway, but every two weeks she has a conference call with program directors telling them which rappers flopped at the Source Awards in Miami and which songs record labels are plugging. To stay plugged in, she goes to concerts and clubs.

“Realistically speaking, you don’t see that many white women in the ‘hood,” said Chris Bridges, a best-selling rapper who uses the name Ludacris and who was once a DJ at Radio One’s Atlanta hip-hop station. “She would come to clubs and events right in the ghetto. That says a lot for the chief operating officer of the company.”

Last year, the company earned $7 million on revenue of $336 million after losing $55 million on $277 million in revenue because of the billion-dollar station-buying spree in 2000 that vaulted the company into the big leagues. Liggins took the company public in 1999.

But everywhere it looks, Radio One is surrounded by giants more than twice its size. Its toughest competition in Washington is WPGC-FM (95.5), owned by New York-based Infinity Broadcasting Corp., a unit of Viacom Inc. that owns 185 stations. Radio One’s R&B station, WMMJ-FM (102.3) and WPGC battle for the top market share. The Infinity station is slightly ahead.

Rebuking Critics

Soon the Land Rover is parked and Sneed is eating a chicken Ceasar salad at a Marie Callender’s, a middle-market chain restaurant heavy on comfort food. She tells Freund and Scorpio a story about conservative TV pundit Bill O’Reilly berating white rapper Eminem for advocating the assassination of the president. “In hip-hop, ‘dead presidents’ means money,” she said, throwing up her hands. “He just didn’t get it. Come on, people!”

It is not just middle-age white conservatives who dislike the music. Lots of parents worry about songs celebrating guns and violence or demeaning women. And some rappers are not exactly role models. Unlike easy-listening stars, rappers tend to walk it like they talk it, and some have been shot and killed. Then there is the rabid consumerism, obsessed with “bling-bling” — jewelry — and expensive cars and clothes. Some rappers talk about the rough neighborhoods where they grew up while others offer views on subjects as diverse as politics to partying.

Sneed blows off the critics. “Until they listen and can have a conversation that lets me know that they actually spent some time monitoring what we are playing, we have nothing to talk about.”

Late that night, Sneed’s driver drops her and her 29-year old assistant for a meeting at Mr. Chow, an intimate celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills. Sneed steps out of the black Cadillac Escalade and is soon joking with a Geffen Records executive and his three assistants over champagne and lobster, chicken satay and shrimp dumplings. The conversation turns serious for a moment when the background music changes. The Geffen executive has secretly asked the restaurant manager to play young R&B singer Avant’s new record so he could pitch it to Sneed.

“Sounds good,” she said, but makes no promises.

As dinner progresses, there are lots of stories about hip-hop artists — who is the hardest-to-work-with diva; who is known to carry a gun. “If you ever see that guy,” the Geffen executive said, “you know he’s packing an arsenal.” Sneed laughs.

Then it is morning again in Los Angeles, in a conference room at the Beat offices on Wilshire, and the station manager and sales team gather around printouts of the latest Arbitron figures. The station manager passes a sheet to Sneed: The previous month the Beat ranked third in the market for the 18- to 34-year-old age group. It grabbed a respectable 3.3 rating, meaning that during any continuous 15-minute period 3.3 percent of Los Angeles listeners, or 343,000 people, were tuned in. The station gained ground on its competitor, an Infinity station, which leads the Beat but lost market share.

“Oh, God! OH MY GOD!” Sneed yelps. “That’s freaking awesome!”

By Krissah Williams



This was an important article which shed light on one of the most powerful people controlling the flow of Black music to the masses.. A week after this article came out Lisa Fager from Industryears, a watchdog group based in DC, shot off this response to the article..

Hip-Hop and Unheard Voices

Lisa Fager of Industryears breaks down many of the arguments put forth by Cathy Hughes of Radio One. Personally i am in opposition to her support of HR 848 and will hit this in a future column

In the Jan. 12 front-page article “Hip Hop’s Unlikely Voice,” Krissah Williams did a great job of painting the picture at Radio One Inc., in essence summarizing the bigger issue in the hip-hop industry — the exploitation by mostly non-blacks working both sides of the industry, radio and record labels.


Mary Catherine Sneed is a typical urban music executive: She launched the second hip-hop radio format in the country with no experience or connection to the genre or its typical listeners. Now she determines what music black kids hear with confirmation from her white program director.

Gangsta rap is not the reflection of the black community but of white music industry executives. Unfortunately we can’t even count on the black-owned radio stations to save black children from demeaning stereotypes, because stations have consolidated and work from regional playlists, and program directors no longer have the power to localize and choose music. Record companies direct radio stations on which singles to play.

Before this consolidation, program and music directors made these decisions. Now radio execs such as Ms. Sneed have the power to see that songs with offensive lyrics get daily double-digit spins, while other songs without offensive lyrics receive no airplay.

Where’s the balance?



The writer is a marketing consultant who has worked for radio and television networks and record labels.