A Breakthrough For African-American News/Talk

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.

12 replies
  1. Harvey Mednick
    Harvey Mednick says:

    Thanks .. very informative and enlightening. But is it really NewsTalk when a basically music show expands the time between records to allow the host to add his/her thoughts? Let’s not forget what Rick Sklar, the late and lamented PD of WABC told us during a visit to KABC in the early days of Talkradio, “In Talkradio, the conversations are the records and a good host has to be able to differentiate between the McArthur Park (7:14) hit conversation and the Surfin’ Bird (55″) stiff one.” I think that says that what you’re talking about is old traditional MOR and/or a (the word of the era) “Hybrid” format as opposed to pure talk — and it does have the bonus of broadening the audience by including music.

    Reply
  2. Kirk Tanter
    Kirk Tanter says:

    Great article Sean. I am delighted that the new format is looked at as one to be reckoned with, despite the “seemingly” new format. Black talk is new in many markets, but not new here in the nation’s capital. Harvey Mednick, in the previous comment, is correct in that there exist a combination of music shows and talk. But it is obvious — to those who know — that Harvey Mednick is very unaware that both of the drivetime “music shows” (Steve Harvey in the morning and Michael Baisden in the afternoon) have excessive talk segments, and both shows are more better known for their interactions with the audiece (in Baisden), and for long celebrity interviews (in Steve Harvey). By placing “Total Talk Shows” between the drive times, is a natural progression of the African-American Talk format. Michael Eric Dyson is a talking machine, and the political civil rights opinionated activist Al Sharpton bring in the 35-64 baby-boomer crowd. Even with these two “Total Talk Shows”, Dyson and Sharpton’s focus is totally different. Dr. Dyson is an educator (Ivy League Professor) interviewing mostly experts in various social fields; while Sharpton is more political discussing issues with politicians on Capital Hill and Civil Rights leaders. And considering that Harvey is more of an entertaining show laced with Comedy; and Baisden tackles “Women Issues”, you have “four” totally distinct, yet aggressively listener-demanding programs.
    The Atlanta Experiment could take off in other markets, if the ratings numbers steadily increase. In other markets, mornings could be Tom Joyner, in place of Steve Harvey…with the other timeslots remaining the same. I am sure that would have been the top choice in Atlanta, but Joyner is already on another station in Atlanta already. Joyner having Tavis Smiley would be a PERFECT mix, during campaign time.
    Another great observation by Sean, is that the Conservative Talk format took off during the elections of 1994. During the “fall book”, the elections are coming, and I am most certain that the Atlanta station will be on fire, especially in the middays with Dyson and Sharpton. Established News/Talk stations — that normally take the top spot in major markets during election time — now have African-American talk competition, taking away those valuable ratings points. If you think about it, when WAMJ takes away ratings points from those established News/Talk stations, Radio One’s music stations also benefits. If this Black Talk format, with the same lineup in Atlanta, goes to other Radio One markets “quickly” to compete for those valuable adult “talk” listeners, then the highly ranked Radio One music formats will flourish, espcially with “cross cluster” promotion. And/or Radio One’s talk station will be a major political player period, especially with Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson, overtaking the established News/Talk stations in markets with a high percentage of African-Americans. Adult African-Americans that normally go to established News/Talk formats (and Conservative Talk) during election time, NOW will turn to Al Sharpton and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson.
    Kirk Tanter

    Reply
  3. David Martin
    David Martin says:

    Bravo Sean! Kudos and cheers for putting this subject matter on the radar. Another initiative of merit is the network development being led by [Radio One’s] Lee Michaels and Zemira Jones. Best, David Martin

    Reply
  4. B.J. Ellis
    B.J. Ellis says:

    After reading this column, I have to first express appreciation for Mr. Ross meaning well in the writing of this column. However, I must address several concerns about the things contained in the column. From a personal and professional standpoint I’m nowhere NEAR impressed with what Radio One is doing with WAMJ in Atlanta. I do believe that many of these changes can have a positive result, however–especially given their previous track record of recent failures. The main problem in their chosen method of action is that it is merely typical, at best. In the entertainment business, growth isn’t attained by TYPICAL means–it is attained by BOLD moves. Black radio (especially) doesn’t seem interested in making BOLD programming moves, and that’s why they tend to suffer in comparison. This general rule can also be applied to how blacks run businesses in general. It is a shame that the project at WAMJ could be a immensely successful one if they actually were more interested in adhering to the listeners desires rather than promoting an agenda for their “Democratic Plantation” so-called “friends”. This is the bind that black radio finds itself in time after time after time.
    I’ve spoken to black programmers, and radio station owners, and they have similar outcries–that they can’t “compete” with bigger, white-owned stations. However, when I try to explain to them the real reasons why, along with the possible solutions, they are reduced to a “brook trout” look. Why? Because my suggested solutions are not filled with “Adding more liberal-based programming to maintain the black’s voting LOCK on the Democratic party,” nor does my proposed solutions contain advice to “find the highest-credentialed LIBERAL to put on the air, REGARDLESS if he/she has the ability to entertain the listening public or not.” The last sentence contained the key to putting together a successful radio station–ENTERTAINMENT. Black radio doesn’t prioritize this NEARLY enough when it comes to whom they decide to bring to their station. Why? Because they know full well that the obsolete, useless, and totally irrelevant civil-rights nonsense has virtually NO entertainment value. However, that isn’t their #1 priority–it is pushing their political agenda down the throats of their listeners–with the hopes of keeping them permanently entrenched on the Democratic plantation forever.
    What concerns me the most is the fact that this brand of radio has be misrepresented as Black, or “African-American” Talk, when the truth of the matter is that it is merely another form of Liberal and Democratic talk, just like Air America. Don’t get me wrong, however, it is not about the liberal versus conservative debate–it is about entertaining and INTELLIGENT radio versus NON-entertaining and NON-intelligent (i.e. STUPID) radio. Talk radio today that’s considered “Black” is FAR from entertaining, FAR from intelligence, and even further from a conservative viewpoint. Regardless if one might think that blacks in general are not conservative, no one with a functionally operational brain can deny the fact that blacks WANT to be entertained. WAMJ’s additions are far from the best entertaining options that are available–I know this full well, and more importantly–THEY KNOW IT.
    Michael Eric Dyson was a travesty of a selection as a talk show host on this network, and continues to be a travesty on this network. He has NO entertainment value, no substance, and no professional ability to host a talk radio show. However, since his claim to fame was challenging Dr. Cosby’s ACCURATE statements, thus putting black people in their common position of “blaming others for their PERSONAL poor decisions”, coupled with their warped view that their rescue from despair is just “one government program away”, made Michael Eric Dyson a legitimate candidate for a nationally-syndicated talk show. Furthermore, Dyson doesn’t even understand how to facilitate intellectually stimulating conversation, either. He, like other useless and self-appointed black “leaders”, believe that the key to sounding intelligent is using a litany of big words–no matter if the SUBSTANCE within the context of the discussion is intelligent or not. Not only is this type of discussion NOT entertaining, it is downright annoying. Unfortunately, however, none of these things matter to the “powers that be” at Radio One, because they are more interested in political ideology then they are in the ability to do the JOB at hand–ENTERTAINING the listening public.
    Call the Radio One “project” whatever you want to call it, but it has virtually NOTHING to do with “African-American” (or Black) talk. I wish they would stop insulting us so. There are too many of us that are intelligent, (truly) independent, and are not enslaved on the Democratic plantation. What do we have to listen to? Why can’t we find a talk show host that speaks for this listener? Doesn’t it concern you that there is virtually NO intelligent and entertaining show that’s hosted by a black person? It definitely concerns me, especially when there are a variety of opinions expressed in the white community. We do NOT share ONE view–politically, socially, or religiously. These diverse views need to be expressed in “black” talk radio before it can truly be considered “Black”. To be honest, corrections should be submitted in this column, due to the insult of the race by calling this virtual “garbage” representative of them.
    SiMan should NOT have been moved, but I understand the move. He deserves a drive-time slot, however. Why not put Michael Baisden on at night with all his sex and relationship talk (which IS appropriate at night), and put SiMan on in the afternoon drive? Al Sharpton is a zoo of a show as well, but has much more entertainment value than Michael Eric Dyson will EVER have on his show. As long as people continue to ignore the blacks of intellect–which are the ones who are carrying the race in general anyway–then NO talk network that’s currently “considered” black, like Radio One, will EVER be taken seriously.

    Reply
  5. Andre Washington
    Andre Washington says:

    Your article on African-Americans in N/T was great. One Question: Why is it that experienced African-American radio professionals can not get into general market news/talk? I know there are plenty of educated, well read, experienced radio people out there, but in general that format is off limits to us. Not trying to cause a stink, but would like to know if I’m missing something. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  6. regularjoe
    regularjoe says:

    B.J. Ellis,
    Good post, especially your comments about Dyson. I listened to him on the radio and he was using big words, but making little sense.

    Reply
  7. Greg Hardison
    Greg Hardison says:

    I was born two blocks north of the Martin Luther King Center, and have always adhered to his core principles of the color-blind. This desperately needs expansion into Talk-and all other forms of Radio. Certainly many Urban-tinged issues affect folks of all races; many are also realizing the only really-important color is Green! B.J. Ellis is right; thinking is NOT monolithic among African-Americans, or any other ethnic group, and the idea of such merely amplifies good ol’ all-American racism. I cringe every time I hear a big-three-Network commentator refer to “the Black Vote”, or some other such racially-ignorant catch-all. — Additionally, the hybridization of Talk and Music catapulted Chicago’s WGN into the Ratings stratosphere for years running; why shouldn’t this work now for Urban listeners, such as those being courted by WAMJ? (Sean Ross actually downplays the success of such an approach, as noted with WDIA in Memphis!)

    Reply
  8. Maxie C Jackson III
    Maxie C Jackson III says:

    Interesting article but tragically flawed due to the absence of real news/talk programs such as The Tavis Smiley Show (Public Radio International) and News & Notes with Ed Gordon (National Public Radio). What is worse is how your article exposes the dreadful job of awareness to the African American community – even its intellectuals who would be the perfect target.
    Let’s be clear. The programs highlighted in your article don’t come close to the depth, production value and overall excellence displayed in Smiley’s and Gordon’s programs. I would invite your readers to invest time in public radio and the stations in their market who are bold enough to include them.

    Reply
  9. Kingsley H. Smith
    Kingsley H. Smith says:

    B.J. Ellis obviously hasn’t listened to Michael Eric Dyson’s program recently.
    I’m a regular listener, and I can tell you, Dyson is much improved since his launch.
    Dyson is an articulate entertainer, who can hold his own with the best talent talk radio has to offer.
    A good communicator speaks the language of their target audience. Dr. Dyson does so effectively, using jargon, jive, hip hop alliteration, or intelligent discourse as needed.
    The statement “Michael Eric Dyson was a travesty of a selection as a talk show host” is absurd.

    Reply
  10. B E L L A M Y
    B E L L A M Y says:

    New White Owner Cancel Black Radio Talk Show
    Today the new owners [Chris McMurray cmc@pdq.net] canceled the only Black Radio Talk Show in Mahoning County. The once Black owned radio station [WGFT 1330 AM (330) 744-5115] was taken over by the White owned Bernard Ohio, LLC company. One of the first decisions of the new White station owners was to limit Black voices the access to Freedom of Speech. They did this by cancelling the very popular radio talk show

    Reply
  11. chuck
    chuck says:

    Let’s fast foward to the present 2009, what that article didn’t tell you was that a recent study released found that black radio listener’s are 25 times more likely to be tuned into syndicated programing, than there white counter part. Also station WILD in boston was sold in 2006 by radio one WILD fm that is WILD am is still owned by radio one, but has been relegated to a station of total sydicated programming, leaving the black community of boston without a black station talking about local issues, what all this says and we all knew at least i hope some know, is this “Sydication” Kills local! so the next time some 1 asks you in fla and ur in texas did you hear steve harvey today? you’ll say yes, but if u ask them did you hear about my city’s new budget proposal? they gonna say whhhaaat? Lets also fast word to the present about a few dirty secrets we refuse to admit is happening in black america today, I won’t say urban american, because the word urban has became a mask term of hiding the word BLACK. We have owners of stations who are black, but like anybody who has worked or works in radio will tell you madison ave says black folks don’t talk don’t listen to news and are not into information, radio has cornered the national market when it comes to black talk radio, but the recent hrh 848 bill gave a really telling insight into what radio one’s black show hosts want to know and what they don’t want you to know, ofcourse we know this bill has now been turned into a save black radio campaign by radio one, radio one has been bleeding debt for most of whats left in this decade, but radio one’s talk show hosts will tell you this bill would put them out of business, if you have over 3 quarters of a billon dollar debt, I would say you are most likely already on your way out of business, but we should be very careful who we champion just because they may seem to provide news and information, because they may be trying to continue to dumb us down. And they may be using the airwaves to do it.

    Reply

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