For over 40 years, Black talk radio has played a pivotal role in shaping the dialogue in the African-American community. It has been the eyes, ears and mouthpiece for some of the nation’s most meaningful periods of change — from the civil rights era to the election of the nation’s first African-American president.
Philadelphia — and WURD Radio, LLC specifically — has been at the forefront of creating its own unique imprint on this important medium. In 2002, Walter P. Lomax Jr. M.D. purchased 900AM-WURD, providing the resources that would allow Philadelphia to keep an independent, African American-owned radio station on the airwaves. Since that time, WURD has become, not just the only Black talk radio station in the City of Philadelphia, but the only such entity in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
This year, the station’s line-up was rocked by the death of veteran journalist Fatimah Ali, who hosted the popular mid-morning show, “The Real Deal.” After several weeks of guest hosts, Stephanie Renée (songstress, songwriter and self-described “VibeMistress”) was selected to be a permanent talk show host. Music fans are quite familiar with Renée’s voice, which has been featured on several major label commercial recordings, including “Who Is Jill Scott” and Patti LaBelle’s “When A Woman Loves.” Within the span of two months, “The Mid-Morning Mojo” has launched Renée as a media voice to be reckoned with.
“One of the things that I am very thankful of is being the only female voice that is consistent five days a week in the line-up — I don’t feel any pressure to be anything besides myself,” said Renée during a rare moment of downtime. “There is a certain level of ‘Mama-Bearness’ that I naturally have, and so being able to bring that kind of awareness or sensibility to subjects like education or the problem of violence in our city, to be able to look for stories that appeal to that side of me and to share that with the audience, brings a different kind of voice than we have in any other slot during our line-up during the week. I appreciate the opportunity to be able to bring that consistently to the listeners, and they’ve reacted very positively to it.”
This month, WURD Radio released a free mobile app for both iPhones and Androids so listeners could have easy access to live on-air programming wherever they go. The WURD App screen includes an icon to access the 900AM website, as well as an email icon that links directly to the phone user’s email system to send feedback or troubleshooting issues to the station’s business office. With the recent launch of new programming — including new hosts Renée and Nick Taliaferro — plus the Night Al show, the new app makes it easier to listen to the station on mobile devices across the entire broadcast day.
“The expansion of our ‘On Air, Online and In Community’ presence is further positioning 900AM as the destination station of choice in the tri-state area,” said Sara Lomax Reese, president and general manager, WURD Radio, LLC. “Strengthening our digital assets and presence in the marketplace is an important component of our overall growth strategy.”
Stephanie Renée hosts “The Mid-Morning Mojo” on WURD 900AM, Monday–Friday from 10 a.m. to noon. The WURD app can be downloaded through mobile app store providers.
The country is rapidly transitioning to a globalized economy where lack of access to information, computer and technology skills and access to internet/broadband, are impairing the community’s economic and cultural advancement. These “digital divides,” however, not only affect people, but businesses within the communications industries, particularly those businesses that have historically served minority and low-income communities. Over time, the rising costs of communications infrastructure, changing of business models to online platforms, as well as a tremendous shift of online consumer behaviors are causing these businesses to struggle to stay alive.
On Monday, this matter will be discussed with three longstanding communications and telecommunications companies in Philadelphia: Wilco Electronic Systems Inc., one of the largest African-American owned private cable operators in the Eastern United States, 900AM-WURD, the only African-American owned talk radio station in Pennsylvania, and The Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest continuously published African-American newspaper in the United States. The panel will feature a special keynote address from Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — one of only five African American FCC commissioners.
One of the issues being addressed on Monday will be the FCC National Broadband Plan to narrow the digital divide for underserved individuals and communities. For example, according to Reuters, the recent Comcast-NBC Universal merger created “a $30 billion media behemoth that controls not just how television shows and movies are made but how they are delivered to people’s homes.”
“Having heard a perspective from a policy standpoint that is really at the forefront of talking about the digital divide and being that voice to make sure that the Comcast NBC Universal merger had stipulations incorporated specifically to address broadband access and making sure that low income and different franchise communities would be included in that merger, and part of that merger was the reason it got okayed was because they agreed to make low-cost and affordable broadband access available to low income communities, world communities, etc.,” explained Sara Lomax-Reese, president of WURD. “So, that recognition that the digital divide is a real chasm in terms of access on many, many fronts and it is racial; it is socioeconomic; it’s age — there are so many elements that kind of create that disconnect but it really does come down to racial and social economic issues.”
The panel will explore the challenges that these companies have to stay relevant in the digital age, what they are doing to change with the times and remain trusted community providers. Lomax added: “I wish that our community was a little more concerned about the way we are being spoonfed information and culture — if you even want to call it culture — through the mainstream media, and the only way that we are going to be able to counter that is if we support Black-owned media like The Philadelphia Tribune, WURD and Wilco Electronics, and that is the reason for Monday’s event: is to really bring our three Philadelphia long-standing Black-owned media entities together to talk about our past, our present and our future — and then also integrating some digital media experts into that conversation to talk about what it takes to create a real successful digital enterprise because that is the next frontier.”
“Blackout: Reinventing Black Media In The Digital Age” is a free public event on Monday, April 22, 2013 - 5:30pm to 7:30pm at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street. Listen live on 900amwurd.com or watch it live on phillycam.org and Comcast 66/966 or Verizon 29/30.
After serving as a guest host on Wednesday and Thursday last week, on the Walter Lomax-owned WURD radio station in Philadelphia, I am absolutely convinced that Black talk radio is the original social media platform. Black radio is simply not being recognized as such by the mainstream experts on social media or, sadly, by members of the Black community itself.
Think about it.
There’s been a lot of buzz about social media in recent years, and its value for getting the word out instantaneously to wide, networked, audiences, and to stimulate engagement, or the two-way flow of information, on any given topic.
Social media have also been praised for providing previously unavailable access to public figures in entertainment, government and business, and for facilitating direct and immediate interaction between them and the everyday individuals who comprise their mass audiences.
According to Sally Falkow, an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America, “Markets have become conversations. Social media are the online platforms and locations that provide a way for people to participate in these conversations. For individuals, it is a way for people to participate in these conversations.”
When you cut through all of the 21st-century digital-focused definitions, you quickly recognize that Black talk radio has been doing precisely that – for years.
It’s interesting to see the new on-line “experts” taking credit for the invention of two-way media-enabled conversations. It’s interesting that they’re all pretending that Black talk radio didn’t actually pioneer the concept.
All of those who are newly fascinated by trending topics on Twitter, for example, should simply tap into the conversations on any Black talk-show-formatted station. In many more than 140 characters, they’ll find several topics of the day – sliced, diced and analyzed from a Black perspective.
Just like blog posts, the “Twitterverse” and any other online platform, the input from Black-talk audience members is not always based on copious research or expert opinions. It does, however, represent an immediate and honest reaction, by certain members of that Black community, to whatever happens to be in the news.
Those early Black talk shows were the places where we discussed civil rights, racial insensitivities by the mainstream, boycott plans, sports results, achievements by community members and a whole lot of politics. Those on-air "villages" were the place to go for incumbent and aspiring politicians, at election time. It was also the place for any person in our community – no matter how humble or unassuming – to go to speak directly with mayoral candidates, CEOs of major corporations, or their city’s most important religious leaders. It was direct access. And it was immediate.
We took it for granted. We still do.
As the Black community has rushed to social media, becoming leaders in the use of mobile devices, as well as Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, we’ve paid less and less attention to the format that was the communications birthplace of the phenomenon – local, Black, talk radio.
While we’ve been busy moving on to the newest, latest technology, mainstream, conservative, right-wing Americans have quietly and profitably doubled back and co-opted the talk radio format. They're also doing it digitally. The concept of streaming talk radio carried on the Internet on satellite radio, has been a prominent source of radio growth in recent years.
According to Talkers Magazine, the top-rated radio shows in the U.S. now include seven talk formats” Sitting at the top of the list is the Rush Limbaugh show, with 14.75 million listeners. In second place, but coming on strong, at 14 million listeners, is Sean Hannity. In sixth place, with 8.3 million listeners, is their fellow-conservative talker, Glenn Beck. Limbaugh, by the way, has claimed the top-rated radio show in the country, for more than five years.
A few prominent Black talents have parlayed their local talk show expertise and moved into national syndications also. That short list includes Tom Joyner, who’s now heard live in more than 100 cities, on air and by streaming audio. By comparison, the dynamic Black talk personality Steve Harvey plays to six million listeners in 60 markets nationwide, while he’s not also running his new, highly rated TV talk show or hosting the “Family Feud.”
Last week, Arbitron, the marketing research firm that produces audience ratings for the radio industry, disclosed that radio listenership among Black listeners had increased by 920,000 persons over the past year, and that radio now reaches about 92.4 percent of the Black population.
As proud as we are of Joyner and Harvey, the challenge now is to preserve and support local Black radio talk formats, and not let them fall by the wayside simply because we’re all listening to nationally syndicated shows. The local message and its ability to influence political and economic issues still remains vitally important.
In my opinion, as we move into 2013, a conscious effort to preserve Black-owned radio and newspapers has to be at the top of the Black community’s New Year’s resolutions. Without them both, we’re far less able to be aware of, or to impact, the social, political and economic environment.
All of that came crashing home to me during my two days at WURD last week.
As some may be aware, I actually hosted a show along with Anthony Fullard and Billy Brown at noon on Saturdays on that station, for four years, ending in 2008.
It was good to be back in the studio, and to be back among the members of the loyal and close-knit “WURD family” of listeners. Folks such as Ron from North Philly, Debbi from the projects, Cliff from Yeadon, Dr. Burton, “OBM,” Dave-the Rave and Billy “Puppet” Smith, all chimed right back into our topics, as if we had never left the air.
On Wednesday, Fullard and I invited in a long list of local influentials and entrepreneurs to thoroughly discuss the state of Black-owned businesses in Philadelphia.
Our invited guests included City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, fresh from his announcement that he is planning to convene public hearings to ensure there will be Black and minority workers and businesses involved as part of the $6.4 billion airport expansion project.
The councilman was followed by Donna Allie, the principal owner of Team Clean, the Black-owned company that happens to be the largest, single employer of Black people in the city; Joanna Harris, an African-American woman, who owns her own successful construction company; and Steven Bradley, chair of Philly’s African American Chamber of Commerce. Also joining in were two young Black entrepreneurs, Ontario Armstrong, of the high-end men’s fashion brand Armstrong and Wilson; and Dominic Landry, of Common Ground Management, who shared their start-up frustrations, including their surprising difficulty in attracting business from Black customers.
What a lively, brutally honest conversation that turned out to be!
On Thursday, I was back, at 7 a.m., to co-host on WURD, this time with former chair of the School Reform Commission and current CEO of the American Cities Foundation, Sandra Dungee Glenn. Our invited on-air guests included U.S. Sen.Robert Casey, nationally respected economist Bernard Anderson, Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, and Irv Randolph, managing editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.
The dialogue about the Fiscal Cliff and the presentation of a Black action agenda to the incoming Obama administration was stimulating. Lessons were learned. Commitments to follow up were made on air, and there was mucho open engagement and “interaction, as the social media platforms like to claim for themselves. On Black radio, we always described that as “the phones were jumping” By the way, as I was leaving, I was reminded to download the new WURD app to my iPhone. Ouch!
It makes me wonder why we, here, in Philadelphia, and nationwide, don’t do more to support our Black talk radio formats.
What do you think?
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management, Inc.