Listeners of the Big Phat Morning Show on 92Q (WERQ) got a surprise when they turned on their radios yesterday morning.
The on-air team of Troy Johnson, Marc Clarke and Sonjay, known for its lively discussions of current events, social issues and politics sandwiched between Jay-Z and Chingy tunes, was no longer intact.
In typical radio fashion, the changes came swiftly and silently -- with no on-air explanation offered to listeners. Johnson was told Friday that his contract wouldn't be extended, the longtime DJ said. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the station played reruns. Sonjay was transferred to a mostly behind-the-scenes production job. And Clarke, who will continue in the morning slot, was joined yesterday by "Pork Chop," another 92Q DJ.
The shake-up was a "business decision," said Howard Mazer, the station's vice president and general manager. Although the show will still include current events and news segments, he added, it needed to move in a different direction.
"We're looking for more laughs and more entertainment and more things like that," Mazer said. "We're talking about what's happening in the clubs and in the community in Baltimore. We're bringing in a person who lives in Baltimore and knows the streets of Baltimore."
For his part, Johnson expressed bewilderment at the station's action. "I think it's an unfortunate decision," he said. "It hurts to no longer be a part of something that was so successful." (Clarke, whose cell phone voice mailbox was full yesterday, could not be reached.)
Some fans of the hip-hop show, which holds the No. 1 slot for urban listeners 18 to 34, aren't buying Mazer's explanation. They wonder if a "new direction" means taking away the seriousness of the show.
"For you to take that away is just showing that it is no longer about the community and educating people, but keeping them entertained, blind, deaf and dumb," said Hassan Giordano, a political strategist and analyst who owns Giordano & Associates and is a fan.
Rumors about the impending demise of the Big Phat Morning Show began flying this past summer as Clarke and Johnson's contracts neared their expiration dates. Hassan and other fans in August began circulating a petition titled, "Campaign 2 Keep the Big Phat Intact." The Association of Black Media Workers, to which Johnson and Clarke belong, encouraged its membership to write letters. ABMW President and Maryland Public Television reporter Charles Robinson wondered in a phone interview yesterday if the station was trading the quality of the show for cost cuts.
This kind of outcry is typical when a radio station makes format or on-air talent changes, Mazer said. Another Baltimore station, which, like 92Q, is owned by Radio One, moved popular DJ Tim Watts from the afternoon to midday slot and replaced him with syndicated DJ Michael Baisden. About 100 people wrote complaint letters about the move at 95.9 (WWIN-FM), Mazer said.
The station executive received more than 100 letters and e-mails about the Big Phat Morning Show, but said the numbers represent only a small portion of the station's thousands of listeners.
Although the show is the top in its format, there was room for improvement, he said. Johnson wasn't out in the community and clubs enough, he said.
But Johnson said he made appearances at many clubs, including a three-year stint at Club Choices in Baltimore. He also helped to start many community initiatives, including partnering with the Baltimore Freedom Academy school and the introduction of Big Phat College Tour, which took Baltimore youths to visit historically black colleges.
"I am not a saint or anything. I like entertainment," Johnson said, adding that he hoped the show still feature discussions of serious topics. "But I think there should be balance. Especially in a city like Baltimore where there are so many issues we face every day."
His fans aren't ready to give up. They might have a chance: Pork Chop is on a trial run and has yet to sign a contract.
"I am all for entertainment," said Nolan Rollins, president of the National Urban League Young Professionals, who lobbied on behalf of the 92Q morning show. "I would be the last person to say we should quiet a communication because we don't agree with it. But we should certainly keep talent that ... knows and cares about the community. Troy was one of the reasons I listened to the show. He educated people without them knowing they were being educated."