'Talk,' in the Past Tense: Why There Are No More Petey Greenes on Local Radio

Don Cheadle, left, as '70s Washington radio icon Petey Greene, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in
Don Cheadle, left, as '70s Washington radio icon Petey Greene, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Talk to Me." (By Michael Gibson -- Focus Features)
Sunday, July 22, 2007

The new movie "Talk to Me," about 1970s Washington radio DJ and talk show host Petey Greene, celebrates a man who uses his fleeting moments between spins of hit records to give voice to the anger, humor and hope of this city's black majority.

But where are the Petey Greenes of today?

Has Hollywood's discovery of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene come only after black radio has ceased to be a force for organizing and uniting local black communities? Have satellite technology, the Internet and the rise of black ownership of radio stations so altered the media landscape that black radio no longer connects in the same intimate and powerful way it did during Greene's day?

Black voices on radio are more influential and draw far larger audiences today than when Greene worked at WOL, which was then Washington's premier (and white-owned) soul music station, and which today is an all-talk station and a flagship of the nation's largest black-owned broadcasting company, Radio One.

Across the country, syndicated radio hosts such as Tom Joyner, Russ Parr, Michael Baisden and Tavis Smiley win big followings with entertaining shows that sometimes tap into black radio's tradition of vehement advocacy on issues important to black America. Many of those programs have won audiences through the efforts of stations owned by Lanham-based Radio One and other black-owned companies.

But the tradition that Greene was a part of -- the phenomenon of DJs becoming the informal mayors of black communities by emphasizing intensely local social connections and political issues -- has largely disappeared from the airwaves. DJs such as WPGC's Donnie Simpson still attract loyal area listeners, but the influential local host has become increasingly rare on black radio because satellite technology has let stations buy cheaper, slicker programming featuring nationally known hosts, and because stations targeting audiences of all races have become more willing to devote airtime to black voices such as nationally syndicated talk host Larry Elder and public radio talk hosts Kojo Nnamdi on Washington's WAMU and Michel Martin on National Public Radio.

"In the 1970s, black radio was the drumbeat of the community," says Joe Madison, a former NAACP official who started out as a talk host in Detroit in the '70s and who now runs a morning show that airs simultaneously on WOL (1450 AM) and on XM Satellite Radio's black talk channel. "As an NAACP official touring the country, if I wanted to get information out about an issue or event, my first stop was always the local black radio station.

"Syndication doesn't really allow for that. The issues have to be national. If I'm pushing a get-out-the-vote rally in Dayton, Ohio, that's not going to be on 'The Tom Joyner Show.' "

Madison has to stage a daily balancing act because his show serves two audiences: the Washington listeners who grew up on WOL's diet of intensely local programming, and the XM audience that knows nothing about Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rep. Al Wynn or other figures who populate the local news.

"I can talk about Fenty taking over the D.C. school system because mayoral takeovers are a good issue in New York, L.A. and Detroit," Madison says, "but if I want to do a show on a special election in Ward 4, because that's very important to that WOL audience, I have to go to the issues of gentrification and development and broaden it out to the rest of the country."

The legendary figures in black radio history had no such worries. In the 1940s, Washington's first great influential black voice on the dial, Hal Jackson, used his DJ shows to organize charity drives and benefit concerts, and to lead protests and pickets that integrated whites-only restaurants and forced Connecticut Avenue shops to open their dressing rooms and restrooms to their black customers.

In Atlanta in the early 1960s, one of the country's first black-owned stations, WERD, let "Jockey Jack" Gibson slip political messages between hit songs. Martin Luther King Jr., whose Southern Christian Leadership Conference had offices directly beneath the station's studios, would sometimes bang a broomstick on the ceiling to let Gibson know to lower a microphone out the window so King could go on the air with a statement.

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