Chalking up success by playing to strengths

Commentary: Radio One stations in Baltimore are a strong presence in the community and on the air - despite a weak signal.

TV and Radio

September 06, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Veteran Baltimore disc jockey Randy Dennis has a rich voice that implies a chuckle, at once drawing confidence and confidences from his listeners.

His weekday morning show on WWIN-FM (95.9 FM) offers love songs from black balladeers, riffs on the news and good-natured banter with callers devoted to the program. "Hey - I saw you at the movies recently," one fan crowed on yesterday's show. "I was at the Blockbuster and so were you!"

With that mix, Dennis dominates the morning drive time among area listeners aged 25 to 54, a testament to the power of the black consumer in Baltimore. His station is the top with that age group, the demographic most coveted by advertisers.

Dennis and his on-air sidekick Sasha did this, mind you, on a station with a 3,000-watt antenna, which emits a signal that fades outside the Baltimore Beltway. By comparison, the 50,000-watt antenna of WBAL radio (1090 AM) reaches Canada and Bermuda.

Before becoming one of WWIN's mainstays by emphasizing Motown hits and crooners such as Toni Braxton and Luther Vandross, Dennis had been playing hip-hop for WXYV (102.7 FM). In an interview, Dennis said he made the switch several years ago after realizing that he was much older than his listeners.

"Hello, there's gray hair on your head," Dennis, now 46, recalled thinking. "The kids that were listening were calling me Grandpa or Uncle Randy. This is more me. I can relate."

Overall, the top station in this region is WERQ-FM (92.3 FM). The two stations, both appealing to black listeners, complement one another. WERQ is younger and rawer, with an emphasis on hip-hop and dance music. The older siblings and parents of its listeners are likely to tune to WWIN.

Both are owned by Radio One. Together, they have largely led the local listener surveys for the past few years. A marketing director at a rival station calls them a "one-two punch" in serving African-Americans in the Baltimore area, which is about 26 percent black.

None of this is by accident.

Based in Prince George's County, Radio One went public last year. Founder Cathy L. Hughes started with just two stations in Washington. During the 1990s, she added four stations in Baltimore, including talk station WOLB (1010 AM) and gospel-oriented WWIN-AM (1400 AM).

Mirroring a national trend toward consolidation in the radio industry, the four Radio One stations combine to attract black listeners from adolescence through retirement. According to station executives, Hughes and her son, company president Alfred C. Liggins III, intend to use the Baltimore model in other markets.

Last week, Radio One completed the purchase of 12 radio stations from Clear Channel Communications Inc. and its subsidiaries for $1.3 billion, as it seeks to reach new listeners in some of the country's largest metropolitan areas: Dallas, Houston, Miami and Los Angeles. That brings the company's total stations to 51, making Hughes the chief executive of the largest U.S. radio empire appealing primarily to a black audience. While its stock is markedly off from its high earlier this year, the company recently reported that revenue was up 67 percent for the six month period that ended June 30.

"They're not only powerful,they are the hot radio broadcasters in town, when it comes to revenues," said Ed Kiernan, general manager of WBAL radio. "They are the envy of a lot of people in this market."

In Baltimore, the Radio One model has included a resolute emphasis on locally generated programming, although it has aired Texas-based Tom Joyner's morning show in Washington and other cities. After the scandal that cost him his seat in the state senate, for example, Larry Young has been reborn as a talk jock on WOLB.

And the company's community involvement has been both extensive and linked closely to its listeners' interests. Dennis and hosts from other Baltimore Radio One stations helped to raise $65,000 for the medical bills of homeless advocate Bea Gaddy, now a city councilwoman. And last month's company-sponsored Stone Soul Picnic in Druid Hill Park, attracted 200,600 revelers for food and live music, according to city figures.

"Baltimore likes what we do here," said James Slater, the general sales manager for WOLB, WWIN-FM and WWIN-AM. "Washington likes the thought of being a cosmopolitan town. Baltimore likes being Baltimore."

Hughes' relatively proper sensibility (given radio's tendency for raunch) and her interest in area politics leads her to keep a tight rein on the tone of her stations' programming. In one move that drew heat from some listeners, Liggins fired C. Miles Smith from his talk show on WOLB in 1998 for suggesting that then-Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier must have kept his job by possessing compromising pictures of then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. At the time, station officials said the remarks were inappropriate.

In addition, the company's corporate maneuverings have attracted some criticism. Postings on chat rooms dedicated to the radio company have accused Radio One of selling out. But those working at Radio One's Baltimore stations say they're trying to preserve their identity in a world where the coin of the realm is, well, money.

"You're playing to win in a corporate world," Dennis said. "As you play, you try to maintain your sense of integrity. To some people, you may not be radical enough. You may not be black enough.

"How about green?" Dennis asked. "Is it green enough?"

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