Black Radio Today: Where Are the New Petey Greenes?
Sunday's Listener column
The new movie "Talk to Me," about 1970s Washington radio DJ and talk show host Petey Greene, celebrates a man who uses his fleeting moments between spins of hit records to give voice to the anger, humor and hope of this city's black majority.
But where are the Petey Greenes of today?
Has Hollywood's discovery of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene come only after black radio has ceased to be a force for organizing and uniting local black communities? Have satellite technology, the Internet and the rise of black ownership of radio stations so altered the media landscape that black radio no longer connects in the same intimate and powerful way it did during Greene's day?
Black voices on radio are more influential and draw far larger audiences today than when Greene worked at WOL, which was then Washington's premier (and white-owned) soul music station, and which today is an all-talk station and a flagship of the nation's largest black-owned broadcasting company, Radio One.
Across the country, syndicated radio hosts such as Tom Joyner, Russ Parr, Michael Baisden and Tavis Smiley win big followings with entertaining shows that sometimes tap into black radio's tradition of vehement advocacy on issues important to black America. Many of those programs have won audiences through the efforts of stations owned by Lanham-based Radio One and other black-owned companies.
But the tradition that Greene was a part of -- the phenomenon of DJs becoming the informal mayors of black communities by emphasizing intensely local social connections and political issues -- has largely disappeared from the airwaves. DJs such as WPGC's Donnie Simpson still attract loyal area listeners, but the influential local host has become increasingly rare on black radio because satellite technology has let stations buy cheaper, slicker programming featuring nationally known hosts, and because stations targeting audiences of all races have become more willing to devote airtime to black voices such as nationally syndicated talk host Larry Elder and public radio talk hosts Kojo Nnamdi on Washington's WAMU and Michel Martin on National Public Radio.
"In the 1970s, black radio was the drumbeat of the community," says Joe Madison, a former NAACP official who started out as a talk host in Detroit in the '70s and who now runs a morning show that airs simultaneously on WOL (1450 AM) and on XM Satellite Radio's black talk channel. "As an NAACP official touring the country, if I wanted to get information out about an issue or event, my first stop was always the local black radio station.
"Syndication doesn't really allow for that. The issues have to be national. If I'm pushing a get-out-the-vote rally in Dayton, Ohio, that's not going to be on 'The Tom Joyner Show.' "
Madison has to stage a daily balancing act because his show serves two audiences: the Washington listeners who grew up on WOL's diet of intensely local programming, and the XM audience that knows nothing about Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rep. Al Wynn or other figures who populate the local news.
"I can talk about Fenty taking over the D.C. school system because mayoral takeovers are a good issue in New York, L.A. and Detroit," Madison says, "but if I want to do a show on a special election in Ward 4, because that's very important to that WOL audience, I have to go to the issues of gentrification and development and broaden it out to the rest of the country."
The legendary figures in black radio history had no such worries. In the 1940s, Washington's first great influential black voice on the dial, Hal Jackson, used his DJ shows to organize charity drives and benefit concerts, and to lead protests and pickets that integrated whites-only restaurants and forced Connecticut Avenue shops to open their dressing rooms and restrooms to their black customers.
In Atlanta in the early 1960s, one of the country's first black-owned stations, WERD, let "Jockey Jack" Gibson slip political messages between hit songs. Martin Luther King Jr., whose Southern Christian Leadership Conference had offices directly beneath the station's studios, would sometimes bang a broomstick on the ceiling to let Gibson know to lower a microphone out the window so King could go on the air with a statement.
In Washington, Greene's down-home manner and compelling personal story -- he learned to be a DJ by playing records for fellow inmates while serving time at Lorton for armed robbery -- won him a special place in listeners' hearts.
"Petey was easy to listen to, easy to understand, by everybody," says Ambrose Lane Sr., whose talk show, "We Ourselves," has run on listener-supported WPFW (89.3 FM) since 1978, and who, like Madison, now juggles local and national issues because his program also airs coast to coast on XM. "When Petey warned people during the '68 riots, it was real, because people knew he was real. He was a phenomenon created by a combination of that time of great change and his personality.
"Today, we have different times and a totally different scene."
What changed, Lane says, is the corporate structure of radio, as the 1996 deregulation of the medium allowed a handful of huge companies to buy up thousands of stations. Subsequently, those new owners cut costs by reducing local programming and using nationally syndicated shows.
That transition in black radio is personified in Washington by Cathy Hughes, who -- with then-husband Dewey Hughes -- bought WOL from its last white owner in 1980.
Cathy Hughes, whose seminal role in reshaping black radio is written out of "Talk to Me," dropped WOL's soul hits format to create something new: an all-talk station aimed at black Washington. On her own talk show, Hughes rallied the audience to become part of her "WOL family." Loyal listeners traveled with her on pilgrimages to Africa and to demonstrations in the District.
Hughes became a firebrand and a political power broker -- more influential than Greene ever was -- but by the mid-'90s, she had found a higher calling, leaving the airwaves to devote herself to her company's burgeoning role as a purchaser of black-oriented stations across the nation.
Having won entree to ownership, Hughes and the next generation of black radio executives -- led by Hughes's son, Radio One chief executive Alfred Liggins III -- focused on creating stockholder value more than on the street-level bonds that black DJs formed with local listeners.
WOL's lineup today consists mainly of nationally syndicated talk shows -- a sports show from Atlanta, a radio lawyer from Chicago, rabble-rouser Al Sharpton from New York. Madison tries to take on enough local issues to make Washington listeners feel as if the station still connects as it did when its studios were a storefront on H Street NE. (In the Hollywood version, WOL is in what looks like a bank building in Toronto. Go figure.)
"The trick is to find a healthy hybrid, where you can make money with good syndicated programming and still emphasize local news and issues," Madison says. "That's my challenge every morning."
By Marc Fisher |
July 21, 2007; 10:39 AM ET
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