Can WURD get it back?
The traditional closeness. The call-and-response between community-based African American radio in Philadelphia and its listeners.
The field is open. The past decade of radio change has led to what one 2008 documentary called Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio. WURD is a small station, 1,000 watts of power, with an audience the station estimates at 140,000 (based on broadcast and online traffic, and attendance at community-outreach events).
And it's now the lone 24/7 African American talk station in Pennsylvania, much less Philly, once a bastion of the genre. Sara Lomax-Reese, president of WURD, sees "a chance to resurrect and re-create a genre for the millennial generation."
Taking ownership. In Philadelphia and nationally, "black talk radio" has seldom been just talk, random listeners calling in to unload their gripes. It has always included a commitment to community radio, broadcasting awareness and activism. Listeners expect it. And while you can hear nationally syndicated figures such as Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey on local radio (and Al Sharpton on WURD), the tradition calls for Philly voices on Philly concerns in Philly terms.
Barbara Grant, longtime Philly radio host, now works as a consultant for WURD, functioning as the program manager. "Coming from New York," she says, "I can tell you, Philadelphia is a special place. African American listeners take ownership of their radio here. Listeners feel they have and need this kind of voice, and value it."
That puts WURD (born in 2002) in a tricky position, much like that of many newspapers: An aging core audience still loves the old format (in this case, AM radio), but the future lies in being a diversified multimedia organization. Time to straddle the generational media divide.
"AM is clearly on the downswing, but our core listenership is still very much wed to radio," says Lomax-Reese, "and we intend to super-serve them. But we can't do only that." She points to a media world in which "things are moving in a totally different direction - toward mobile devices, tablets, and the Internet."
The mix: (1) go multimedia, with a radio station that's a website and vice versa, accessible by all routes; (2) create original things to hear and do that listeners can't get anywhere else; (3) do frequent mobile broadcasts ("our bread and butter," Lomax-Reese says) on-site at events and places important to the community, and (4) offer outreach events - as in the symposia series "WURD Speaks" - with local experts discussing issues of importance to black business, health, society.
"The idea is to create events, not just react to them," Grant says - "position the station as a leader and actor in the city."
In a Dec. 2 on-air Quit-a-Thon, doctors and experts discussed the health effects of smoking and quitting. Listeners were encouraged to call in and tell their stories. Grant says, "I just found out we got more calls during that roundtable than we usually get all day."
"That roundtable will be a podcast by tomorrow," says Lomax-Reese.
Grant likes the Nov. 17-Jan. 1 series "Kwanzaa 360," which has explored a different Kwanzaa value in the seven weeks leading up to the holiday. "The idea is to get businesses and customers to think about how they do business," she says. Programs include broadcasts from black-owned or black-themed businesses in the city. On Wednesday, the station broadcast from the African American Museum for a candle-lighting ceremony, dance and drumming workshops, and arts and crafts.
"We want to raise consciousness to support African American-owned businesses, cultural institutions, and also businesses with a commitment to the community," says Lomax-Reese. "Be conscious about where you spend your money. Give a gift membership, say, to the African American Museum or to Philadanco. Support smaller businesses.
"How do we bring more vitality to 22d Street, Germantown Avenue, these commercial corridors that are struggling, and figure out how to bring jobs and business to create more of a sustainable environment?"
For a "WURD Speaks" event Jan. 22, the station is inviting listeners to a Philadelphia Theatre Company performance of The Scottsboro Boys musical at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. A post-play panel will focus on the American justice system. Speakers include prominent lawyer Michael Coard, Pulitzer-winning playwright Charles Fuller (A Soldier's Play), and Princeton professor Imani Perry.
And a sensitive ear is primed for news. When on Dec. 7, prosecutors dropped their pursuit of the death penalty for Mumia Abu-Jamal, one of the first interviews he had was with Grant on WURD.
A radio tradition. According to Arbitron estimates, there are more than 2,100 talk-radio stations in the United States, attracting about 50 million listeners. Fewer than 8 percent of those listeners are black. But in Philadelphia, 43.4 percent of residents identify as black, according to the 2010 census, arguing for the kind of tradition WURD seeks to join.
Since at least the 1940s, the city has been prime ground for community-aware talk radio. WURD inherited a tradition long associated with stations such as WWDB, WHAT, and WDAS, which ran various community-based formats. Perhaps the biggest name associated with the genre is that of Mary Mason, who debuted on WHAT in 1958 as a gospel DJ, and in 1970 began her Mary in the Morning show, which ran into the late '80s. (Mason last did WHAT radio in 2007.) She brought on city leaders, politicians and newsmakers - and often, when they were not on, criticized and questioned their moves. Hers was a show with recognition and clout.
But WDAS, once the home of Georgie Woods and Ed Bradley, joined the Clear Channel family in 2000 and now does urban contemporary music. WHAT, once home to Mason, is now El Zol, a Spanish-language station.
The dearth of community-based radio led Cody Anderson, former WHAT owner and WDAS exec, to approach Walter and Beverly Lomax, Philadelphia philanthropists and the parents of Lomax-Reese, with the idea of investing in a station to reconnect with the tradition. A corporation was formed (LEVAS, for "Lift Every Voice and Sing"), Spanish-language station Mega at 900 AM was purchased, and in 2002 WURD sent out its first vibrations.
Is now the time? Is the idea of "black talk radio" passé, renewable, a chimera? "National statistics don't break out urban news/talk stations and shows from the larger category of news/talk, so it's hard to determine whether or not the format is growing," says analyst Scott Fryberg of 100000Watts.com. He says that while most African American-oriented stations offer some community-conscious programming, "I don't think that at any one time, there's ever been any more than a few dozen 24/7 black talk stations in the country."
The format per se started in the mid-1980s. "That's when Cathy L. Hughes of Radio One acquired Washington station WOL, taking it to black talk, then farming out that format to WOLB in Baltimore," says Sean Ross, executive director of music and programming for Radio-Info.com, an industry analysis site. "It has never been a national wave, but some such stations are stalwarts in their community, as with, say, WBOK in New Orleans. But in the past decade, there has been a renewal of interest."
A family affair. Support of WURD is but the latest chapter in the Lomax family story. Walter P. Lomax began as a Philadelphia neighborhood physician. As of 1958, he expanded his practice into a group operation with a staff of more than 20 doctors, and from there became a philanthropist and creator of health-care and business foundations aimed at making life better for the African American community, Medicare and Medicaid recipients, prison inmates, and other underserved communities. "It's really huge for the community, that a family as visible, as successful, and as active as the Lomaxes is part of WURD," Ross says.
Ross says WURD is "definitely swimming against the tide, both because AM is a challenge right now and because they have to bring in a younger audience, which doesn't know either AM or the tradition."
Lomax-Reese acknowledges the tide is strong, but says she's a good swimmer: "It's a slog, it's hard, with business the way it is, and the uncertainty of the media world. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it." She sees momentum, however, in a surprisingly successful membership campaign this summer, and in a growing network of African American businesses supporting and sponsoring the station.
"This town is ripe for a radio that gives it a voice," she says. "The key is to get all the pieces working together. The key is to get into the rhythm."
Sara Lomax-Reese talks about continuing the tradition of community-based radio at www.philly.com/WURD