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Stations duel for black listeners' ideals

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 23, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Olivia Fox, in the WBTP-FM 95.7 studio during her first show Feb. 3, says the Tampa Bay area has been craving shows like hers.

The question at hand was an important one.

You know you're ghetto when . . .?

One caller's answer: When you give out a beeper number at job interviews.

Another listener's reply: When your kids are named after luxury cars, such as Mercedes, Lexus, Porsche, etc.

Sitting in the studio at WBTP-FM 95.7 (The Beat) a few weeks ago, midway through her first show as a Tampa Bay area radio personality, Olivia Fox knew she'd struck a nerve.

"That was just huge for the first day of a show . . . (watching) the phone lines lighting up," said Fox, who admitted having a pang of nervousness just before starting her first broadcast Feb. 3. "It shows people have been wanting this type of stuff in the morning. Now we're providing it for them."

Already she may have made a bit of local radio history, as one of the first black women to lead a morning show at a big Tampa Bay area FM station.

But Fox's show was also the latest step in the development of WBTP: the area's first 100,000-watt FM radio station openly focused on black listeners.

To be sure, other FM stations play music rooted in black culture, from the rap of WLLD-FM 98.7 (Wild 98.7) to the club jams on WFLZ-FM 93.3 and the smooth jazz of WSJT-FM 94.1. And on the AM dial, WTMP 1150 in Tampa and WRXB 1590 in St. Petersburg reach out to the black communities.

But on FM, where the sound quality and reach are greatest, no large Tampa Bay area station occupied a role similar to WTLC in Indianapolis, WGCI in Chicago and WAMO in Pittsburgh, all active in their city's black communities with a focus on reaching black listeners.

"You're going to see us in the projects, at the community centers, in the alleys. . . . You're not going to see us in suburbia," said Ron "Jomama" Shepard, program director at WBTP. The station, owned by radio giant Clear Channel, was known as modern adult contemporary outlet WSSR (Star 95.7) until November, when the formats switched.

"We're going to be the voice of the urban community," said Shepard, who hosted a "quiet storm" show featuring sultry R&B tunes on WFLZ for more than a dozen years. "We are catering to the African-American community. You won't see a Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake on this station."

But to one competitor, talk like that sounds, well, racially divisive.

"What you're posing to me is an ethnicity battle, which we don't focus on," said the singularly named Orlando, program director and morning show personality for WLLD, the station that might be WBPT's closest competitor. "This station is focused on trying to be the (station for listeners ages) 18 to 34 . . . a lifestyle station that's not divided by race or anything."

When WLLD took to the airwaves in 1998, its mascots were two white slacker guys named Josh and Brian. Screaming "We rule!" and "Tampa Bay rocks," they raised suspicions the station was really targeting white teens by playing hip-hop music drenched in black urban culture.

Orlando said he has grown tired of journalists trying to emphasize race whenever they write about the success of the station, rated No. 1 with listeners 18 to 34 in the Tampa Bay area, the nation's 21st-largest radio market.

"Hip-hop did something huge between 1996 and '99. It became palatable to the masses," he said. "It wasn't about an ethnicity; it was about a music group that wasn't being played on the radio. And our audience has grown outside the box people wanted to paint us in," Orlando said.

For Glenn Cherry, general manager and owner of WTMP, the issue boils down to community connections.

Since the medium's beginnings, black-owned stations have spoken to communities of color beyond the music they've played, sponsoring social events, reporting news and talking about issues mainstream stations rarely have broached.

Thanks to the mainstreaming of hip-hop, corporate-owned stations such as WBTP have realized they can target black audiences and still get a huge crossover crowd, Cherry said. But he wondered if they will offer the same community connections as stations such as WTMP, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

"The reason there became a need for black media is because the mainstream media would not touch those things that were controversial in the community, whether it was civil rights or anything that had to do with social justice," said Cherry, who remains irked that some people think WBTP is a black-owned station. "If there are any local issues that would cause the powers that be or the advertisers to get uncomfortable . . . you won't hear it on corporate radio."

Shepard disputes such criticisms, saying, "We're going to be there for the community. The proof will be in the pudding."

It's a grim irony for station owners such as Cherry who have spent decades trying to sell mainstream advertisers on the power of black radio. Now that their efforts are paying off, huge companies such as Clear Channel and WLLD owner Infinity Broadcasting are reaping the rewards, he said.

(Clear Channel made similar format changes last year at stations in Miami, Hartford, Conn., and Des Moines, Iowa.)

"It's up to the black community to decide if they want to be entertained or informed," said Cherry, who also operates a low-power FM station, WTMP 96.1, with limited reach. "If you want to sell your soul to hear some music, that's your choice."

In radio industry-speak, WBTP is an urban station, and WLLD is considered a contemporary hit radio/rhythmic outlet. Dana Hall, urban editor for the trade magazine Radio and Records, said there are few differences between the two formats, other than a sense that rhythmic stations might be quicker to feature harder-edged rap.

"If a company like Clear Channel owns three stations in a market and one of them is an urban, getting those extra advertising dollars might be easier," Hall said. "They see it as not only feasible financially but a good programming tactic."

It's still early days at WBTP, which has only two personalities hired, Fox and Shepard, who hosts his "quiet storm" show from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday. A syndicated midday show starts today, and the station may add shows, including a gospel music program.

Fox came to WBTP about a year after leaving the syndicated Russ Parr Morning Show in Washington, D.C. (She said contract negotiations broke down without warning.) In town with her husband, Chad, and 6-month-old daughter, Nina, she is hopeful listeners will respond to her direct, no-nonense style.

"It's a positive for the community because you've got somebody who is talking to you, not at you," she said. "I know what it's like to go somewhere and not be able to get the right weave. That's not something maybe I saw on TV. That happened to me, and I can speak to it, because it's who I am."

- To reach Eric Deggans, call 727 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com

[Last modified February 20, 2004, 13:56:46]


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