Swing gospel penetrates every wall. The secretaries, the publicist, the general manager and casual visitors at Washington's newest radio station are laughing and moving subtly with the beat as everyone works frantically on the final preparations before their broadcast debut. One staffer looks over some old newspaper clippings, from the first uncertain days of the black-owned station's fight to get on the air. "Look here where they talk about the Negro community' - oh, that was so long ago, before the riots, before so many things happened." There have been dozen years of waiting and wrangling - including legal battles all the way to the Supreme Court and $465,000 spent just fighting for the chance to broadcast - in addition to the hundreds of thousands more dollars needed to equip and operate the station. But finally, tonight at 8, Washington Community Broadcasting's WYCBAM 1340 will indeed go on the air with its own brand of "inspiration and information." It is one of only about 50 block-owned radio stations in the county (out of more than 8,300 on the air). But more important, the people who have fought so long to bring it to life say it is the first black-owned radio station in Washington.
In the beginning there was Drew Pearson. The late columnist, liberal and ever-active Washingtonian started to hold luncheons at the Cosmos Club during the spring of 1966, gathering together other prominent names from business and the professions. It was interracial, and at first an informal organization, but everyone shared the same basic concern.
Washington's black majority, they thought, lacked a voice in the broadcast media. Or, as Pearson said, in those days, "The Negro population of Washington has been treated to a mixture of rock and roll far beneath its dignity."
Few alumni of the Cosmos lunches expected that it would be easy getting on the air, but even fewer could have guessed it would turn out to be as difficult as it was.
First there were certain attitudes to overcome. "Can't the mass of Negroes," wrote onelocal media critic in 1966, "find something to their taste on . . . stations where Negroes are quietly being integrated into the on-and-back-stage operations?"
The backers of Washington Community Broadcasting fell emphatically that they could not, so they went ahead. In the course of their 12-year fight, they ran into nearly every classic problem encountered by a minority trying to get a piece of the air-waves for its own - and quite a few that no one could have anticipated.
Foremost was the problem of money. Though the rules have recently been changed in 1966 the Small Business Administration was not funding any organization, including broadcasters, who dealt with the dissemination of ideas.
Another recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission, allows a station owner who is in danger of losing his license to make a "distress sale," at a reduced price, to a minority-owned corporation.
But in 1966, Washington Community Broadcasting had no such advantages.
Fortunately, the idea of Washington Community Broadcasting attracted stockholders for whom an SBA loan was not vital. Eventually they would come to include such local figures as entrepreneur Theodore Hagans, banker Norman Bernstein, columnist Jack Anderson, former juvenile court judge Marjorie Lawson "now president of the corporation). City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker. Chief Judge of the Superior Court H. Carl Moultrie - all together, 36 influential investors.
They raised $1.6 million, which would seem a healthy sum for a fledgling broadcast enterprise - but it was worth exactly nothing if there was no frequency over which to broadcast. And in Washington, their wasn't.
Theoretically anyone can start a new AM station, given the basic financial resources. All you need is a broadcast engineer to find you a frequency that won't interfere with anyone else. But officials of the FCC have a way of laughing when they recite the theoretical rules as they apply to the Washington area. In a crowded market like this, one said, "there is just no way."
Another possibility is to purchase an existing station. Again, if you can get the money - somewhere from $500,000 into the millions - it sounds easy. But according to Catherine E. Liggins, the intent young vice president and general manager of WYCB, it just isn't. "Minorities who are, generally speaking, outsiders to the rarified air of broadcast board rooms) just are not aware of what frequencies are available." Liggins said with a shake of her head as she hurried around WYCB offices the other day. "For a long time minorities only found out a frequency was going to be sold after it was gone.
"Usually they're listed with private brokers if they do go on the market, and they do not usually approach minority corporations because they say they can't come up with the capital."
So, how to get on the air?
Every station comes up for a license renewal by the FCC at least once every three years. If you can make a successful challenge for that license - prove both and its current holder is doing a bad job and you can do a better one - then there's a chance. Even today, that chance is a pretty slim one. And in 1966, it had scarcely ever happened.
But Washington Community Broadcasting set its sights on Richard Eaton's WOOK-AM, the first black-oriented station in Washington, established by Eaton, who is white in [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]
Eaton know how to tight back. A former newspaper correspondent, editor and publisher whose [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Broadcasting Co. by the 1966 owned four radio stations in the Baltimore-Washington area, as well as others in New York, Miami, Richmond and Cleveland Heights. Ohio, was familiar with the intricates of the appeal process.
The issue dragged on through technicality after technicality, rule after rule, and the endless bureaucratic proceedings of the FCC. By 1969, three years after the fight had begun, Pearson died having no idea whether it would succeed.
But then the break came.
Part of WOOK's programming was devoted to religion: out, as FCC investigators and Washington Community Broadcasting stockholders listened to the programming, they concluded that it was airing something besides the Holy Word.
Eaton, they charged, was allowing bogus preachers to run a bizarre numbers racket on his station. The preachers would give out tips on the illegal street lottery by citing passages from the Bible, chapter and verse.
"The first three figures is 547 - My God, my God," said one recorded by the FCC. "And take the mysterious two that was blessed through last week, if you place it on the five you'll see it's still working for you, and the 74th and the seventh verse was a blessing to Washington, D.C."
Listeners were asked to call or visit for further blessings, at a price.
Eaton was also accused of deceptive advertising practices and various failures to abide by FCC regulations.
He denied the charges and fought on, until in 1975 and FCC revoked his license. But he appealed the reversal all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost, and it wasn't until this April that he finally left the frequency.
Through a twist in the regulations, however, Eaton's United Broadcasting Co. still did not lose WOOK. Instead he switched WOOK's frequency with that of Spanish-language FM station, WFAN, so that when he finally signed off the air, it was Radio Latino, not WOOK, that disappeared. (By that time however, Washington had become known as an FM city. Consequently, WOOK's new frequency stands to be even more useful and incrative than the relatively weak AM channel.)
"After 12 years," said Liggins, "this corporation winds up with a thousand-watter (the power output of the station), Richard Eaton gets the FM, and the Latinos just kind of got thrown through the cracks."
It was late Friday afternoon in the station's new Connecticut Avenue offices, and Liggins looked harassed. Though there was a mood of celebration among the more than 20 staff members, there was also the frenzy of last-minute crises. The soundproofers for the studio were demanding to be paid up front in cash.
"The suppliers and the vendors have no idea this is a 12-year-old corporation made up of very reputable people," complained Ligginsi. "Nearly 95 percent of our efforts to establish credit have been fruitless."
That situation will probably not improve until advertising revenues start to flow, but again the prospects are not especially encouraging. "The biggest problem confronting minority owners," said Liggins, "is that most major advertisers have two budgets - a general market budget and an ethnic budget. Needless to say the ethnic budget is a mere fraction of the general, so you have a group of blacks fighting over one small piece of the pie.
But WYCB intends to do the best they can with that slice. The station will broadcast seven days a week, 24 hours a day, with a mix of progressive gospel, inspirational and "message" music, along with public affairs programming and almost an hour of news per day concentrating on developments in the local community.
One example of what staffer Peola Spurlock calls "home town" radio ton" program from 6 to 10 each weekday, a combination of half music, half news and sports with announcer Dewey Hughes and others. On Saturdays, the "Good Morning" show will be given over entirely to youths - "no older than 14," Hughes said - who will broadcast material specifically tageted to a young audience.
No matter what the program, said Liggins, "whatever we broadcast will have a philosophical message - which is not 'Let's meet up at the disco.'"
Without money from advertising, however, there will be no way to provide the kind of detailed community news that WYCB ("We're Your Community Broadcasters") has vowed to supply, no way to buy the upbeat gospel records they want to play. Unlike many stations, they have yet to get most of their records free.
The ad salesmen are working over time, but after 12 years it may be that WYCB's fight has just begun.
But at least it is a fight in which they will have some company. Several prominent Hispanic American businessmen in the area, resentful at being "thrown through the cracks," have been getting together in dicsuss the present lack of a station response to their community's needs. They are looking, they say, at the possibility of challenging an existing station's licensee.
That possibility is not as remote as it once was. A considerable tax incentive has recent been given to station owners who sell to minority-owned companies, and the FCC has made a number of administrative changes designed to increase the number of minority stations on the air.
The National Association of Broadcasters, moreover, has held workshops and published booklets promoting such a trend - perhaps, as one member put it, for fear of "quotas" eventually being imposed.
But in 1966, these advantages did not exist, and even today, though they are present on paper, they are not always available in fact.
And after looking at the experience of WYCB, none of the would-be Spanish language broadcasters expects the fight to be a short one.