Two years ago, on Juneteenth, HYFIN played its first tune, “Milwaukee,” by Al Jarreau. Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas and announced that the remaining 250,000 enslaved people in the state were free. The day continues to hold great significance for Black people around the United States of America, as demonstrated by the successful movement to have Juneteenth finally recognized as a federal holiday as of 2021. That year, Radio Milwaukee secured a significant matching grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In 2022, with the support of the CPB funding, HYFIN, “a digital-first media platform that celebrates the richness and diversity of Black culture,” was born. 

HYFIN’s mission is to amplify underrepresented Black musicians, creatives, professionals, and entrepreneurs. The online stream is the offspring of Radio Milwaukee, a Wisconsin terrestrial station. It was developed with the leadership of Program Director Tarik Moody, a 17-year veteran of Radio Milwaukee. Jarreau’s homage to his hometown, Moody explained, was an intentional choice to launch the stream:

“The lyrics reflect Jarreau’s deep connection to the city, acknowledging it as a place of nurturing while also recognizing the challenges associated with leaving it. This resonates with the broader narrative of Black talent often leaving Milwaukee for better opportunities, a trend HYFIN aims to counteract by fostering local talent and creating new opportunities through its media platform.”

Moody shared the HYFIN blueprint with Greater Public to inspire fellow non-profit leaders to pursue innovative investments in their communities.

Who Are You and Who Do You Serve?

Despite the increased calls for public media stations to equitably represent their local constituencies, many legacy stations are still failing to deliver on this need for younger, more multicultural audiences. In Milwaukee, almost 40% of the city’s population identifies as Black or African-American, and 20% identifies as Latinx. However, according to Maxie Jackson, Executive Director of Radio Milwaukee, the station’s audience demographics did not reflect the diversity of the city, counting no more than 20% people of color tuning in. 

With the CPB grant, Moody, who is originally from Atlanta, GA, saw an opportunity to test HYFIN, creating a new format in the public media space for Milwaukee’s majority Black population. He developed a manifesto to answer who they are and who they serve. They platform four priorities: showcasing the breadth of Black music, creatives, professionals, and entrepreneurship. “Everything has to be tied to that,” Moody says. “If it doesn’t tie to that, we don’t do it. If it doesn’t serve the audience we’re trying to reach, we don’t do it. We’re not distracted by what others are doing.” According to Nielsen, HYFIN’s audience, like its home city, is 40% Black.

“Focusing on local helps you grow.”

They built the stream, but would the audience come? As a digital-only stream, HYFIN didn’t have the advantage of an FM tower like terrestrial public media stations. And though it arrived in the booming age of streaming music, it did not have the advantage of a large marketing budget like the for-profit tech behemoths. To get the word out about the launch, Moody, a small team, and their bootstrapped budget, met their target audience where they were. They popped up anywhere in Milwaukee that aligned with their mission, such as attending Juneteenth festivities and a “Heal the Hood” mural painting. “It didn’t matter if there were 20 people or 100 people at the event,” Moody explained. “If it aligned, we wanted to be there.” 

The HYFIN team met people within the Milwaukee community and shared their vision. On-air talent announces, “You’re listening to HYFIN: R&B, hip-hop, soul, funk, and so much more.”  They program expansively, forgoing the limitations of genre to showcase Black music from Midwestern jazz to South African Amapiano. Moody wondered, “Can we play Black rock artists next to Black hip-hop artists?” The audience responded with a resounding yes. Since the 2022 launch, HYFIN’s audience is about 10,000 cumulative listeners and growing. The typical public media station audience listens for an average of 2.5 hours per session. In May, HYFIN had its highest time spent to date, clocking in at almost ten hours. “Hearing people say they can’t turn it off is a win,” Moody shared. In one listen, I heard Lenny Kravitz, The Roots, Cakes Da Killa, Tems, Tyla, Milwaukee-native Diamond Banks, Keyshia Cole, and Mad Lion. Their programming range reflects a refreshing depth and breadth atypical of popular radio. I couldn’t turn it off.

Their innovative co-branded collaborations with Black artists and entrepreneurs make a splash around the city. The stream launched alongside their Juneteenth-inspired HYFIN-aded beverage, created with Soul Brew Kombucha. It is Milwaukee’s first Black-woman owned kombucha tea brewing company. HYFIN also partnered with Chicago-based Funkytown Brewery, to create “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a Hibiscus Ale. In addition, they designed a sweatshirt with Unfinished Legacy, a local streetwear brand. They tapped their CPB grant funds to pay their collaborators. Moody believes in using their resources to invest in their community: “Focusing on local helps you grow,” he said. 

Invest in Events that Invest in the Community

Packed with purpose, HYFIN connects online programming to offline experiences spotlighting Milwaukee’s dynamic Black culture. They play one to two local artists per hour on the stream. The monthly event series “Latest and Greatest” brings those artists in-house to perform for the community. “Tarik recognized that they weren’t going to build an audience [just] through the HD2 signal,” Jackson explained. “They had to be seen doing things in the community, creating events for the Black community. HYFIN hit the ground running and embraced digital and social media strategy as part of their toolkit.”

In August 2023, HYFIN held the inaugural Anti-Gala, Radio Milwaukee’s largest fundraiser to date. According to Moody, the event “exceeded expectations.” The sold-out event for creatives and young professionals invited attendees to embrace the Afrofuturism theme or dress in whatever brings them joy. The night included a curated menu by Chef Jason Alston, owner of Heaven’s Table barbecue restaurant, and performances by Madison McFerrin and Milwaukee-native Silas Short. An awards ceremony honored local innovators and trailblazers, some of whom may have been overlooked in their industries. The mayor and other regional politicians joined in the festivities. “People really appreciate what we’re trying to do in the community with our events,” Moody said.

Moody observed that HYFIN programming naturally connects music and entrepreneurship. “HYFIN is an opportunity to amplify and create opportunities for entrepreneurs and Black businesses to thrive in this market,” Jackson shared. “Tarik’s motivation is to make this a destination for Black professionals. That drives us.” Their Blackity Black Holiday Market featured 60 businesses from the Milwaukee area. Over 1,000 people attended the market held in partnership with We Got Soul, the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, and the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District. Held on Small Business Saturday in 2023, it was sponsored by Verizon and the Educators Credit Union, and covered by local media. The HYFIN team continues to “heavily” support Black entrepreneurs in 2024. On May 18, in partnership with 37 Oaks, they hosted an inaugural E-commerce Summit. 37 Oaks is a Chicago-based, Black-woman owned, commerce development and learning laboratory founded by “The Queen of Commerce,” Terrand Smith. The summit was sponsored by Verizon, American Family Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c., and United Way Techquity, the latter which provided laptops to attendees. HYFIN’s entrepreneurship programming also includes a partnership with Operation HOPE and Shopify’s One Million Black Businesses Initiative. In addition, they will be awarding six Black businesses with free underwriting for six months.

Wisconsin is the home of beer, but only has one Black-owned brewery. HYFIN’s Brown, Black, and Brews event, now in its fourth year, showcases Black-owned breweries across the Midwest. As it grows, they will bring in wineries and liquor brands. “What HYFIN has done so well under Tarik’s direction is build community. They literally operate like a ‘street team’ and have gathered fans,” Jackson stated. HYFIN, he explained, has become a role model for community engagement, inspiring Radio Milwaukee to reconnect with their audience through events.

Hustle Hard

How did a small team with a bootstrapped budget accomplish so much in only two years? “We punched above our weight… We’re a bunch of hustlers,” Moody said. 

They successfully activated their local-first strategy, earning their CPB grant match through partnerships and events, rather than through membership and other traditional public media fundraising channels. “HYFIN is a testing ground to try new things in the space,” he said. “We can take more risks than senior stations. That’s the exciting thing about what I do here.” 

More than a station, Moody sees HYFIN as a media brand and a cultural hub. He asserts that building the HYFIN digital platform is essential to growing their brand. They’ve hired on-air talent with a focus on platforming more Black women, freelancers to write culture stories for their website, and consultants who are experts in marketing, grant writing, and corporate fundraising. To sustain their growth, they launched a giving circle focused on fundraising within their community. As they grow their online and offline footprints, they see more opportunities for sponsorship. HYFIN is a “family affair,” he says, receiving support along the way from Radio Milwaukee.

Moody believes the public radio value proposition must evolve. He sees radio as one distribution channel in a strategic media mix that includes events and social media. Public media leaders, he says, “can’t sit in the booth and rely on the same audiences anymore. We’ve got to get out into the community and add value.” HYFIN’s success, he concludes, is reflective of the team’s understanding of their audience and their willingness to do things differently. As their reach expands, they’ll tap into other urban centers in Wisconsin, like Madison, Green Bay, and Appleton. Their vision is to become the voice of Black Wisconsin. They are inspired by the growing Black digital and experiential platforms of the last two decades, like Blavity, a media technology company, and Afropunk (founded in Brooklyn, NY), Dreamville Fest (of Raleigh, NC), and Broccoli City (of Washington, D.C.), three popular music festivals. HYFIN aspires to host a major festival that features local Black musicians, creatives, professionals, and entrepreneurs, and brings the global artists they play to Milwaukee. Moody’s mantra? “Champion the local and grow from there.”