It isn't hard to find the intersection of 106th Street and Park Avenue in Harlem. Just follow the hundreds of teens clad in their hip-hop finest, lined up in front of the warehouse where Black Entertainment Television tapes its daily music countdown show. "106 & Park" has become a wildly popular program by featuring guest appearances by the likes of Puffy and Mary J. Blige, hip-hop video countdowns and, each Friday, a talent contest for would-be rappers. On this particular "Freestyle Friday," a 17-year-old Queens kid who calls himself Gin is rapping about street life in New York City and hoping for his seventh win in a row.
Some 60 blocks south of here, a nearly identical scene plays out every afternoon, as teenagers line up in Times Square to see many of the same stars on MTV's "Total Request Live." The uptown audience is mostly black and the midtown one largely white. But there's a far more surprising difference between the shows. "106 & Park," which airs at 6 p.m. ET, draws 673,000 viewers a day. Carson Daly's "Total Request Live" (which airs at 3:30 p.m. ET, when, admittedly, many kids are still wending their way home from school) brings in just over 651,000.
Borrowing MTV's countdown format and infusing it with urban flava, BET has created the biggest hit in its two-decade history, part of a broader move by the network to improve a programming roster once criticized as lowbrow. Now in its second season, the show was the brainchild of MTV alum Stephen G. Hill, BET's vice president of music programming. "We wanted to do first and foremost a show with tons of energy," says Hill, "as well as a show that reflected the desires of young black kids and what they want to see.''
Each day, the show's funky duo of Free (Marie Wright) and AJ (AJ Calloway) host hip-hop royalty and rogues from Will Smith to Suge Knight in front of a studio audience that's flocked from up and down the East Coast. The show features mostly minority performers, but occasionally likes to flip the script. Late last year "106 & Park" hosted the golden boys from 'N Sync--not once but twice. The appearances helped get 'N Sync's song "Gone'' major play on urban radio, and allowed the group to push past the Tiger Beat crowd. "It was weird, because we really didn't know how the kids in the audience were going to respond,'' says AJ. "But I went out to quiz them before the show and they knew everything about the group. Justin [Timberlake] and the rest of the guys were so happy to reach a different group of fans.'' The fans were there all along, just 60 blocks uptown.