Call it "disintermediation" or "cultural fragmentation," but American culture is sliced up in so many ways that what's popular with one group can go virtually unnoticed by another. NPR's Fractured Culture series explores life in "a culture of many cultures."
Remember music videos? You can't find them on MTV anymore — partly because those same videos are all over YouTube. But music videos are still the heart and soul of the show 106 and Park on BET. It's a music countdown show in its 11th year that just this past November celebrated its best month in ratings ever.
Though the show airs on a cable network that targets African-American adults, 106 and Park aims elsewhere — at kids a little older than it is, regardless of their race or background. There is diversity of faces and styles on the show, from the audience members to the hosts to the celebrity guests that drop by, but not age groups.
26-year-old amateur rapper Blind Fury has dominated the rap battles on a segment called "Freestyle Friday" the last four weeks. He's a blind, white adroit rapper in a red Yankee cap from rural South Carolina. And he is sick! The oldest person you're likely to see on the show is probably Eminem, who's 39.
The common denominator on 106 and Park is hip-hop. If you don't like commercial hip-hop, you probably won't like this show. But if you do — and you're in eighth grade — you might feel like this party is just for you.
Last week, I dropped in on a bunch of 13 and 14 year-olds at Northstar Academy in Newark, New Jersey, to find a typical group of 106 and Park viewers. In between classes, I walked through the school to get sound for my radio piece — it sounded like a bunch of ghosts were unzipping backpacks and opening and closing lockers. There is no talking in the halls, and 13 year-old Zakkiayah Radney-Turner says she gets a lot of homework. Simply put, Northstar Academy is rigorous, which might explain why Radney-Turner looks forward to unwinding at the end of the day.
"It's fun when I get home," she says, "to get my food, lay back, turn on the TV — and it's sort of like I'm at a party." Not just any party — a party where the chances of meeting someone like you are high. "People there who like the music you like, who like the videos you like and ask celebrities the questions you would probably ask."
The party vibe is enticing, but so is the fact that when Radney-Turner watches the show, she sees people who could be her or her friends. That doesn't happen on every network.
"We don't really have another show that speaks entirely about our Black culture," says Sidney Dockery, a student at Northstar Academy.
Terrence Jenkins, one of the hosts of 106 and Park, takes pride in the void that his show fills.
"106 and Park is the only place where you can see, on a daily basis, African-American culture, African-American trends and African-American lifestyle," he says. "It is Black Entertainment Television. And there's no other place on TV that caters to us, at the end of the day."
Jamad Thomas, another student at Northstar, echoes Jenkins. "If you turn to MTV, VH-1, or Channel E," he says. "You don't really see that many shows where you can see your own people — African-Americans — having fun and having a lot of positivity."
To be clear, it can get a little racy on 106. Songs like "Birthday Sex" regularly appear on the countdown. Some of the Northstar students say they don't like to watch because of that.
And some of the kids in Radney-Turner's class prefer YouTube or other streaming sites to the TV show. As Shaquan Nelson puts it, if you Google a video, "you don't have to wish and pray for luck that your video makes it on the Number One countdown." But he says he wants to feel like he's experiencing the music with other people.
"The sole purpose of the show is for music," she says. "But you don't just want to hear it, you want to feel it. Like a dance. If you're doing it by yourself, it's just boring. Three people is boring. But 100 people?! That's fun. You're seeing people out there dancing with you, and you know there's somebody out there who's just like you and you're doing the same dance that they're doing."
Imani Johnson agrees, and adds that 106 and Park is really just for young people. Treading carefully as she gauges my age, she says that it's a safe place to escape from the cynicism of the over-21 set.
"Old and middle-aged [people]," she says, "are always criticizing our music. It's constant for us. Like, my mother is always, 'I can't understand what ya'll sayin'.'"
All of this — the party in your living room, seeing familiar-looking faces on the small screen, the escape from old people, even tweets that the show broadcasts from fans and amateur talent battles — gives 106 and Park a credibility with viewers (and advertisers) that's helped it outlast music video shows on other networks. Remember TRL?