There hasn’t been enough in the trade press about what’s happening at Radio One’s WAMJ (Classic Soul 102.5) Atlanta. About a month ago, Radio One added its syndicated talk hosts Michael Eric Dyson and the Rev. Al Sharpton to a lineup that already included afternoon host Michael Baisden’s syndicated relationship show, “Love, Lust, and Lies.” Then last week, WAMJ announced that it would pick up Steve Harvey’s syndicated morning show.
The announcements didn’t get nearly as much play as KKBT (the Beat) Los Angeles’ format change from Urban to Urban AC, which happened around the same time. That’s not surprising given the prominence of the Beat as a major-market reporter and the under-the-radar nature of most R&B Oldies stations. KKBT’s addition of Baisden and syndication veteran Tom Joyner was described as a change from Hip-Hop/R&B to an Urban AC/personality hybrid, but there are already plenty of Urban ACs around the country with foreground personalities in both mornings and afternoons.
But even before Harvey’s addition, WAMJ’s change was a key moment in the history of the African-American N/T format. If that format finally takes off after more than two decades’ worth of attempts, WAMJ will be the station that made it possible. And even in a market with plenty of well-entrenched local personalities, and even given the strength of market leader WVEE (V103), it’s hard to imagine that an FM station with Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden will not do something.
If [the African-American N/T] format finally takes off after more than two decades’ worth of attempts, WAMJ will be the station that made it possible.
Like the concepts of News/Talk on FM or a younger leaning N/T format, the notion of an African-American-targeted News/Talk format goes back to at least the early ’80s, well before even general market N/T boomed. For her part, Radio One founder Cathy Hughes had tried it on flagship WOL Washington, D.C., in 1980, before reverting to music at the much-publicized insistence of investors, then segueing back over the course of a decade.
There have been other breakthroughs. WDIA Memphis, which now bills itself as “The Best Songs and the Best Talk Too,” has two long-running high-profile programs, “The Bev Johnson Show” and “The What’s On Your Mind Show.” Like WOL and WDIA, many heritage R&B AM stations parlayed their heritage of community involvement and prominent personalities into at least one talk show, after losing the music franchise to FM in the early ’80s.
But the costs of doing N/T, lesser signals, and post-consolidation station swaps all combined to eliminate or marginalize many heritage AMs stations. WVEE’s AM, WAOK, is one of the few exceptions, having gone to N/T in recent years as “The Voice of the Community.” Like general-market N/T in the late ’80s, the format needed syndicated programming to be viable for some stations, and, for that reason, Radio One’s launch of the Syndication One lineup on WOL, WILD Boston, WERE Cleveland, WCHB Detroit, and several other AMs earlier this year was significant.
But African-American talk also faced one of the other key obstacles that slowed down the growth of a younger-targeted N/T format. In the same way that it was hard to do FM Talk for the rock generation as long as Howard Stern was on another station across town, there were already shows filling the function of African-American N/T, specifically Tom Joyner, the syndicated Wendy Williams, and, more recently Baisden and Harvey. Even though those shows all played some music, it was their between-the-records content that made them prominent. And they were appealing to an audience that hadn’t checked out AM for a long time.
Even with the concerted effort of the Radio One AMs, the most obvious point of entry for the format was going to be if somebody in a crowded R&B market decided to take one of their FMs and put on as much name talent as possible. When Dyson and Sharpton were added to WAMJ that left only the question of mornings. Radio One, which has brought Joyner over to its own stations in Detroit and Philadelphia, would have had to wait a while to take Joyner from Cox’s WALR. Harvey was an obvious choice, given his recent multi-market success, but given his publicly contentious departure from KKBT, showing up on another Radio One station was hardly a given.
All that is left now is the question of whether a major syndicated nighttime show will emerge and what form it will take. Some sort of “Quiet Storm with enhanced content” is the most logical entrant, particularly since it’s Urban AC or R&B Oldies stations that are the ones evolving into full-service outlets. Then again, there are already a lot of strong local Quiet Storms, unlike, say, AC, which had little of its own to compete with Delilah or, later, John Tesh’s syndicated nighttime programs. So the national show that’s too good for stations not to run may well sound nothing like what’s available now.
The notion of African-American N/T emerging as a syndication-driven format is not without its issues. Joyner gave his audience a national Town Hall, but the spread of syndication also meant that discussions of specific community events had to go either into the local inserts or into afternoon drive. And now there are syndicated shows in afternoons as well.
Entrenched local hosts like WPGC Washington’s Donnie Simpson or WVEE’s Frank Ski aren’t going anywhere. Another veteran host, WEDR Miami’s James T., has ended up as the morning man on Radio One’s Miami N/T AM – another story that was more significant than its coverage would have implied. But there is always the question of whether the next generation of local talent will emerge – a question in any format but a major one in any format with relatively few outlets already.
Baisden and Harvey are also likely to inspire PDs to look for talent from non-traditional outlets, so it’s worth remembering that, like many successful rule-breakers, Joyner and Williams had decades of traditional format grounding. Even Harvey has been on the radio for a decade now. And the lesson of Air America where the surprise star is p.m. driver Randi Rhodes – a host with less national stardom than Al Franken but more of a history of being funny and entertaining on the radio – should not be lost as African-American talk develops.
It’s often said that the 1994-midterm elections were a galvanizing issue for conservative talk radio. There have always been issues that could have energized an African-American talk format and there is certainly no shortage of them in 2006. What we’ve learned from the emergence of FM talk in general is that you need the combination of established content and the right location – preferably with some pre-existing cume. That makes WAMJ the best potential vehicle for the format to date.