360 Degrees of Black Experience, the Ebony Lifestyle System, and Washington's Moment in Black Radio History
Thirty-five years after Howard University's radio station came on the air as a voice of the ferment and protest then stirring in black Washington, WHUR has reached into its past to create a new, digital version of its original vision.
Using the throwback slogan "360 Degrees of Total Blackness," WHUR World, Howard's digital station -- available only on the new HD radios or online -- is playing a mix of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, blues and world music, along with black-history vignettes, all wrapped in promotional rhetoric harking back to 1971.
That's when Howard University accepted a donation of a radio station from The Washington Post and built WHUR (96.3 FM), one of the country's first black-oriented FM stations.
Black radio at the dawn of the '70s consisted almost entirely of AM soul stations, such as Washington's WOL, that were owned by out-of-town whites who made sure their stations played the hits and provided only the bare minimum of politics, overt discussion of race or black-community news.
Deejays at WOL credited its owner, New York radio magnate Egmont Sonderling, for letting them play the music they wanted to. But as riots tore apart cities in the late '60s, white owners of soul stations were tagged as carpetbaggers, and activists demanded that black radio reflect the community's surging desire for more control over their own news and entertainment.
Sonderling stations appealed to blacks with easy, cheap nods at racial identity. WOL jock Bob "Nighthawk" Terry would tell tall tales about his encounters with the "po-lice," then pause dramatically to take a long, vulgar slurp of his National Bohemian beer, exhale, and say, "Mmmm, them white folks sure make some good beer." Such antics felt increasingly insulting to a generation of blacks intent on rejecting stereotypes.
The FM band, its audience then still mostly audiophiles and classical buffs, was a white thing. Even when the first underground rock stations attracted a new audience to FM, they heard very few black artists -- often, Jimi Hendrix was the sole black star on alternative rockers.
In Washington, FM's complexion changed when The Post, anticipating new federal rules that would prohibit newspaper companies from owning broadcasting outlets in the same city, donated WTOP-FM to Howard.
WHUR -- Howard University Radio -- went on the air Aug. 10, 1971, and suddenly, black radio left behind jive-talking, proto-rapping deejays. Washington, then almost three-quarters black, was home to a burgeoning black middle class, as well as to thousands of students drawn to the black nationalist movement, the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and other political groups active in the capital.
Deejays on WOL had taken to calling Washington "Chocolate City," a phrase funkmaster George Clinton would later immortalize in an album of that title. The words reflected a new racial pride and determination to run the town. But while WOL urged Chocolate City to come together around the love and pride message of '70s soul tunes, WHUR attempted something far more challenging, offering difficult jazz pieces, lectures, political speeches, readings of folk tales and concerts of Delta blues shouters.
As soul stations stuck to rip-and-read headline summaries, WHUR hired full-time reporters and launched the "Daily Drum," a nightly news program that often ran for more than an hour.
The station reached out to black communities that had never heard themselves on the radio: immigrants, federal workers, academics, students discovering their African roots. Hours-long programs spoke to Washington's large Caribbean population with music and news from the islands.
"All of a sudden, you had this radio station that wanted to be doing something other than socking that soul at the capital city," said Milton Coleman, a reporter who came to the station in 1973 after several years in the black nationalist movement.
Kojo Nnamdi was managing the Drum and Spear bookstore, which specialized in black nationalist works, when WHUR went on the air. "I'd never heard radio like this before -- days-long discussions of the future of black people, hearings on government abuses, the entire score of 'Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death,' the Broadway musical by Melvin Van Peebles," Nnamdi said, "and it affected me so much. The station had a strong black identity, and it developed such a loyalty. I just felt drawn to it."
WHUR's slogan was "360 Degrees of Black Experience," and news was the key to the effort to saturate its audience in racial awareness.
Nnamdi, now a talk show host on WAMU (88.5 FM), got a job as a reporter at WHUR. "This was a news operation with a mission," he said. A public affairs program was titled "Ten Minutes Left." Reporters had beats covering African affairs, labor and other issues with a connection to black listeners.
The reporters were mostly veterans of the civil rights movement, with little experience in journalism but plenty in pressing their causes. Every cause was welcome on WHUR -- reports focused one day on the Panthers, the next on a back-to-Africa movement, the next on Jesse Jackson.
Like others who joined the news operation, Coleman had spent the previous several years moving in and out of various black movements -- cultural nationalism, pan-Africanism, various strains of Marxism. But he, like Nnamdi and others, came to believe that blacks "needed news, straight information, to make decisions for our lives."
In those first years, WHUR's daily news block stretched over three hours of evening drive time. "This was serious; this was something different and progressive, an alternative to R&B," said Coleman, who later moved from WHUR to The Washington Post, where he is the paper's deputy managing editor. "HUR was respected for what it was trying to do -- appeal to a different part of the black community."
Coleman then lived in suburban Prince George's County, part of a growing movement of black professionals out of Chocolate City and into the same kind of suburban dream that had been luring whites out of the cities for more than a decade.
WHUR's signal reached into the suburbs with far better fidelity than weak AM stations. As its audience grew, some WHUR managers grumbled that the emphasis on politics and jazz -- often, a way-out brand of the music, with lots of Ornette Coleman and late-period John Coltrane -- prevented WHUR from reaching the broader black community.
"There was a lot of very experimental stuff on the station," said Jesse Fax, WHUR's music director through much of the '70s and '80s. "We were pretty free-form. Now, my idea of successful radio is radio that has people listening to it, and I started to tighten things up, moving to the more melodic jazz and to a more contemporary sound -- Al Jarreau and Herbie Hancock, as well as some more popular hits -- the O'Jays and that sort.
"It didn't go over very well with some of the staff, but I knew that FM would eventually use whatever music philosophies had worked on AM."
Fax thought a three-hour news block was "crazy," a guaranteed turn-off to listeners. He lobbied to cut it back. WHUR still broke away from music to cover demonstrations against South African apartheid, but the station pushed ever harder to win ratings numbers and compete against the growing roster of FM music stations.
In 1974, a new general manager closed the door on WHUR's assertive politics and avant-garde music. Tom Jones introduced the Ebony Lifestyle System, a format heavy on popular music and far less focused on news and public affairs. The Ebony System didn't last long, but the pivot had been made. "Now, black stations wanted us to sound less black," said Jacquie Gales Webb, a longtime WHUR announcer and producer of a Smithsonian history of black radio. "They wanted to get away from the AM sound of the soul stations and they were hoping to attract the black middle class."
The person who perfected that appeal was WHUR's sales manager, Cathy Hughes (then Liggins). Hughes spurned the station's reliance on the vibe in the street and launched audience research studies that led her to divide the broadcast day into distinctive "dayparts," with, for example, more information in the morning and lively music at midday. Hughes's signature creation was her evening program, "The Quiet Storm," hosted by Melvin Lindsey, a velvet-voiced former Howard student.
Lindsey's magnificently cool voice and laid-back style combined with long sets of love songs -- Phyllis Hyman, Sarah Vaughan, Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass -- to attract the single, young black women Hughes knew were out there in the evening, obsessing over their love lives. "Cathy's logic was that between 7 and midnight, some guy is seducing some girl and he doesn't want to get up to change the record," Nnamdi said.
In less than a year after it became a nightly feature in 1977, "Quiet Storm" was the No. 1 show in its time slot. The station jumped to third in the market, becoming a substantial contributor to the university's bottom line.
WHUR maintained its hour-long newscast for years to come, and the news department bought into Hughes's innovations because, as Nnamdi said, "to inform people, you had to get them in the door. In other words, you had to pump the funk."
But as each ratings point came to mean millions in potential profits, the hour-long "Daily Drum" came to be seen as a drag on the bottom line. The news show was gradually whittled down to a 10-minute recitation of headlines and a quick phone interview, usually on some lifestyle issue.
By 2000, WHUR was telling potential advertisers on its Web site that "you never have to worry about your client's commercial being aired next to controversy."
Portions of this column are adapted from Marc Fisher's book, "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation," which will be published next week by Random House. There's more on the book--along with audio samples of all the major figures--at www.marcfisher.com
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