Station Identification | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Station Identification 

WAMO, the city's historic black radio station, once had the community to itself. Now it's counting on that sense of community to compete against monoliths.

No one at WAMO radio seems to be sweating their new market competition, judging by their Downtown Penn Avenue office, where DJs, program directors and producers -- bouncy black men who all look fresh out of college -- are goofing off, calling each other names, scarfing down boxes of pizza and trading notes on where they purchased their latest gear.

"Nick Neezy!" announces Director of Productions Emmai Alaquiva as the resident white-boy on-air personality Nick Nice mosies into the snack room. They all entertain each other with the same amplified energy as they have when entertaining their listeners.

Never mind the fact that according to the latest Arbitron ratings, WAMO (106.7-FM) carries only a slight lead over the other three networks in the urban contemporary music market. WAMO currently controls 3.7 percent of the market while runner up "Kiss FM" holds 3.6 percent, and behind them is "B-94" with 3.3 percent. It's a lead WAMO earned just this summer. Before that, Pittsburgh's oldest black-owned and -operated station -- for decades the only station playing urban music -- had been trailing at a distant third, and over the past two years was sometimes in last place.

WAMO's slogan is "number one for Hip Hop and R&B," and since at least 1974 it was the only station for such sounds. But today stations once known for Top 40 pop music -- notably B-94 (WBZZ: 93.7-FM), Kiss (WKST: 96.1 FM) and "The Beat" (WJJJ: 104.7-FM) -- are playing less Backstreet Boys, Green Day and Hootie & The Blowfish and more 50 Cent, Ginuwine, Jay Z and Ashanti.

With hip hop dominating music sales now, stations that claim pop formats have no choice but to play the songs once heard only at WAMO. R&B snuck in the charts in the form of New Edition in the '80s, Boyz II Men in the '90s and B2K in current 2k. But in those decades hip hop hardly ever made it to the charts save for PG-rated acts like Will Smith. Now you can here the gulliest of rappers, such as 50 Cent, on any of these stations at any time of day singing "I don't know what you heard about me/A (mute) can't get a dolla outta me/no Cadillacs, no birds you can see/that I'm a motha(mute)in' P-I-M-P."

It's been tough for WAMO, one of the few independently owned radio stations in the Pittsburgh market, since many of the others --including all three of WAMO's main competitors -- are owned by mega-broadcasters like Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting. WAMO's parent company, Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation, runs a cluster of stations: two FMs (106.7 and 107.1, which simulcast programming) and two AMs (one gospel and the other adult contemporary and oldies). All four have a special history with blacks in Pittsburgh as some of the oldest black-run stations in the country.

In 1991, Sheridan established the American Urban Radio Network, with 400 radio affiliates nationally -- the largest black-owned radio network in the country. WAMO was named "Urban Station of the Year" by the National Association of Broadcasters. WAMO recently celebrated its 55th anniversary aboard the Gateway Clipper Fleet. This summer it pulled off its 10th annual Juneteenth celebration -- a concert and festival date (June 19th) marking when slaves in America found out they were emancipated. And this spring the station held its ninth annual African-American Awards Show, recognizing prominent local black entertainers.

These are ways, WAMO representatives say, that they give back to the communities listening in; they say you won't find any of the other stations offering the same kind of interaction. It's probably the one advantage WAMO has.

"Two words," says DJ Emmai Alaquiva, "'community presence.' We are the streets, bottom line. You can and will see us in the 'hood. A lot of stations have computers running things -- that's cyber-presence. The people at WAMO can be seen at high schools giving inspirational speeches, community centers playing hopscotch with kids or at Popeye's eating a two-piece."

"Quiv," as he's called, says he took it as a compliment when he heard the other stations were entering the urban market once theirs exclusively. WBZZ and WKST have promoted and sponsored shows featuring prominent hip-hop and R&B artists, but most of them are staged at Station Square or the Post-Gazette Pavilion, the latter some 25 minutes away from the city. Meanwhile, minivans plastered bumper-to-bumper with WAMO logos and images can be found every day, driven by the WAMO "street team," parading through Pittsburgh's inner-city neighborhoods.

And while the competition might not have the same visibility in Pittsburgh's more urban neighborhoods that WAMO does, perhaps they don't need to. The WJJJ and WKST stations are owned by Clear Channel, the largest radio broadcasting network in the country, with more than 1,200 stations, 6 percent of which have urban formats. WBZZ is owned by Infinity Broadcasting, which is the second-largest network (with 138 stations) in the country both locally and nationally.

Budget-wise, Sheridan is low-frequency compared to multibillionaires Clear Channel and Infinity. The dividend gap affords the mega-broadcasters certain luxuries such as stronger wattage, ownership of major concert venues and the power to lure employees from smaller stations. Radio DJs Cue and Ray Love are but two examples of former WAMO employees who are found today spinning with WAMO's competition.

A Black Enterprise May cover story, "Will Black Radio Survive?" spells out gloom for the black radio market nationwide. The big scare is someone like a Clear Channel clearing out a station like WAMO by buying it or squeezing it from the market.

"Now we have people at urban [formatted] stations that don't know anyone in the community," radio network executive William Saunders, who co-owns WPAL AM in Charleston, S.C., tells Black Enterprise. "[They] just play music and come up with new ways to make money."

"Now that there are three other stations playing hip hop, those stations are really hurting WAMO," says DJ Cue. Cue began his career at WAMO but now spins for WBZZ. "The problem with WAMO is they've been here for 50 years with not another station with any kind of hip-hop format. But as soon as one popped up, WAMO wasn't ready for it. They'll probably never recuperate from these other stations coming into the market."

Deregulation in the radio industry has added additional pressure to small networks like Sheridan, which are now forced to expand or perish. The recent FCC ruling allowing for cross-ownership of differing media outlets in certain-sized markets hasn't made the situation any more comfortable for small networks.

"I've been in this business for 15 years -- nothing scares me," says Alan Lincoln, president of Sheridan's radio division, who declined to share its annual reports. "They can play our music, but they can't live our lifestyles."

Even when their ratings were lagging, Lincoln says, he had no fear, chalking up WAMO's decline in popularity to people's natural gravitation to novelty. But Lincoln does admit that it's "pretty sad." when WAMO has to hold its events at venues owned by the competition -- a less-than-empowering showing for their target communities.

"That's how it is across the country, though," he says. And Sheridan has no desire to go into the concert venue or promotions business. "Clear Channel owns most concert venues across the country. We're broadcasters. That's what we do. We just have to consistently do what we do better."

Though there is much support for WAMO among black communities, there are some who feel the station isn't fulfilling its responsibility. Some say that for a family station -- a "community-oriented" station -- much of the music WAMO plays is inappropriate for the kids who tune in.

"There's no clear difference between WAMO and WBZZ: not until these radio programmers start playing more responsible music, because there is room for it," says Kevin Amos, a veteran radio DJ and local director of a national black music-lovers' collective called Soul Patrol.

He considers the current popular music playing on urban-formatted stations over-saturated with sex and violence. It's an argument that can be made about other musical genres, but Amos says WAMO has more of a responsibility as a black-owned station catering to black communities that are suffering high rates of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and violent crime.

"WAMO shuts their own selves out" of the market today, Amos believes. "We realize money is the bottom line but we need positive images on air, not stuff that has 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds singing Lil' Kim. How can you be supporting the community and playing music that promotes violence and thug life?"

"We play the music the majority of our listening audience requests," says Lincoln. "If you look at music played on MTV or BET you would get alarmed, but this is where society is. Those who'd like to push us back to the '50s or '60s -- there were issues then. I remember James Brown being criticized for some things he said in his lyrics."

But Amos believes stations can play less popular, more progressive music and still be profitable because he's already done it. Amos was once a deejay for WURP (1550-AM), where he says he ran a successful show that was more substantive for black audiences. He now runs a Sunday morning show on Carnegie Mellon University's WRCT (88.3-FM), where he plays a variety of old soul, R&B, reggae, blues and jazz.

Lincoln welcomes the criticism and acknowledges that there's always room for improvement. Right now, though, the focus is on keeping WAMO's footing in black communities: providing college scholarships, for instance, and working with the NAACP and the Urban League.

Sheridan's Rhythm & News newspaper, meanwhile, which is distributed mainly from black-owned businesses across the city, appears to be doing well, landing more (and larger) ads in its two years of existence than some similar-sized newspapers that have been around for decades. ("What can I say? I'm a brilliant businessman," jokes Lincoln.) Lincoln is mum on Sheridan's expansion plans but says the company is always looking for opportunities -- even outside the black or urban music markets. WAMO reps remain optimistic.

"Radio needs to be involved in the community on a daily basis," says Lincoln. "That's the only way we can remain competitive. As long as we're focusing on the community, then we can survive."


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