It is 5 p.m., and what you are hearing on radio station WOL is called "drive time" music. Bobby Bennett, one of the country's top rockin' soul disc jockeys, wants to know if you can smell it. Of course you can, because he is not just spinning records this afternoon.
"Brother Bobby here in a disco inferno, cooking all over your radio, burnin' a hunk of funk," he says.
Imagine, then, some kind of rock and roll alchemist, huddled over two hot turntables, spinning out potions to release from within the real funk built up by working all day.
To his rush-hour citizens band buddies:; "I got my hammer jamming, got my pedal to the metal, got a hold on my soul," says Bennett. "Let's roll."
By 5:15, an estimated 100,000 listeners are tuned in during the crucial ratings check period. WOL, 1450 on the dial, is the Washington area's most popular soul music station and Bennett, whose real name is Marshall S. Payne 111, is "The Mighty Burner," practitioner of therapeutic music.
In some ways, he sounds like a DJ from days gone by - that cool cat in wraparound sun shades, with waxed hair, a diamond ring, a gold tooth, a silver tongue. He was a master of jive, a noted dancer and "dame tamer" of local repute. "He was a transiet," says James Kelsey, WOL's general manager. "On the go and out to make a buck." His salary was $6000-$8000 a year.
But Bennett, like the other five WOL disc jockeys, represents the vast changes that black radio has undergone in the past 20 years. Three of the five are suburban family men. All are in their early 30s and earn $20,000 to $30,000 a year.
WOL was the first rhythm and blues station in Washington to have public affairs broadcasting. That came in 1965, and the station served as a major outlet for a simultaneous explosion in black music and social protest. Now it is the biggest moneymaker in the Sonderling Broadcasting Corp. chain and one of the most influential stations in the country's fourth larges music market.
"The secret of our success," says Kelsey - himslef a rockin' jockin' jockey before becoming station manager - "is that we gear our programming to readers and non-readers alike.
He sees WOL as a cornucopia of music and news and locally oriented public affairs that is usually ignored by the major newspapers and other media. He says WOL is "black people communicating about black people" in a way the Moynihan Report, for example could not.
"I want rhythmatic, talkative flexible DJ's on the air. If I'd wanted a computer to play music, I could have one," he says.
Yet, as Bennett sits at the turntables these days, his face is often blank and solemn. Despite his high ratings and rhythmic incantations, these are not good times for him or the other disc jockeys known as the WOL Soul Brothers.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission ended a 13-year recess in its nationwide investigation of payola at radio stations, focusing first on WOL. Two major Washington area concert promoters had complained the disc jockeys were illegally using the airwaves to benefit DJ Productions a concert promotions outfit run by the broadcasters.
William E. (Bill) Washington president of Dimensions Unlimited, and Jack Boyle, president of Cellar Door Concerts, testified at the FCC payola hearings last month that the disc jockeys forced rock groups to play for DJ Productions by threatening not to air the groups records.
So far, according to FCC sources, the charges have not been substantiated enough to warrant criminal proceedings, and last week the hearings were recessed until May. Meanwhile, owners of WOL have ordered DJ Productions out of business, saying the disc jockeys do not have the time to promote concerts.
"Yeah, I'm depressed," says Bennett, once his "on-the-air" light goes off. Then it comes on again and "It's the rockin' OL about to roll into some Natalie Cole soul." And the light goes off again. "I think it's really unfair, all these accusations and nobody has proved anything.
Bennett describes what he sees as two big-time promoters forcing out the little guys. But, he says, "We have to take the good with the bad." Then he smiles resolutely, slipping his headphones onto a patch of thinnedout hair. "And the show must go on," he says.
And it has, but without Melvin L. Edwards, a WOL disc jockey who was fired the day after the payola hearings recessed. Station owners said Edwards had not told them the truth about the extent of his involvement in the concert promotion business.
Edwards, who earned $20,000 a year, worked as a parttime disc jockey Saturday and Sunday and was researcher for the station's three-member music selection committee, which determined what records were played on the air. He also was manager of a local rock group, called Ureaus, which had cut a record on his label, Mel Mel Records.
He was also president of DJ Productions and involved in several other concert promotion ventures including Mel Edwards Enterprises.
The show goes on without R. Seavy Campbell, another WOL disc jockey who, coincidently, was shot to death execution style at the height of the dispute between DJ Productions and the other two promoters. The crime remains unvolved.
It is ironic that a pall should linger over WOL so soon after the station began to focus more on its upbeat, "good time music" format as a way to make many Washingtonians feel better - and get them to listen more.
In a rather seductively scientific manner, WOL has attempted to identify the main moods of Washington at various times of the day, and has selected six disc jockeys to complement those moods. Washington, the disc jockeys say, is a very grumpy, uptight town.
Responding mainly to competition from the "disco sound" of radio station KYS, WOL asserts that music can soothe and motivate and, if offered in the right doses by sensitive disc jockeys, listeners just might stay tuned for the next commercial.
"Sometimes you feel like a 10 cents performer," said Roger Bethel, WOL morning disc jockey known as Raymond St. Janes, "The Saint Train." "You got to be happy when you're sad, talking to a piece of steel, trying to picture an audience, listening to records that all sound the same after hearing them so much.But we are professionals too, and we know how to do it."
Ron White is "The Midnight Mover." He had worked in Detroit as an all-night disc jockey - midnight to 6 a.m. - for the past nine years. Eight months ago he took over the graveyard shift at WOL.
He says the mood of the disc jockeys is beginning to improve. But Washington at night remains filled with lovelorn insomniacs, he says.
"The one thing I've learned about Washington is that this is a love town, be it frustrated or not. It's seasonal too, like I've never seen before. In the winter, they request mostly songs about love with a heavy beat. In the summer, they want love songs with a mellow beat. It's wild," says the newcomer.
Dressed in jeans, a cotton pullover, tennis shoes and a "bebop" cap (to keep his headphones from pulling his hair out), White enters the studio and jams three sticks of Gonesh incense No. 12 - "perfumes of a citrus grove" - into the acoustic walls and lights them, "to get the mood going," he says.
On the average, about 30,000 people are listening to the "Midnight Mover," mainly, he says, because love won't let them sleep.
"People call up with these long drawn-out raps about some undying love that died on them and when I try to explain that I'm suppose to be on the air now and can't talk anymore they tear into me, 'Wow, you stuck up or something?'
"When I'm rapping on the air though, I don't talk specifically to the ladies. Never. I talk to the dudes. You see, if I'm talking to the ladies, then the dudes with them start to feel that they don't have the chick's undivided attention. And they don't. I got their attention. So the dudes will turn me off," he says.
Like Benett, White is cramped inside a 12-by-15-foot room occupied by a huge console containing two turntables and a panel of 27 levers, eight volume control knobs, an array of multicolored flashing buttons, six cartridge tape machines and eight telephone lines.
There are two windows. One overlooks Wisconsin Avenue at Reservoir Road in Georgetown. White cannot see through it because it is dark outside. Through the other, he can see where the news staff sits on the other side.
"I try to program my music for people in bed basically," White said. "You know, when you are sound asleep and the radio is down real low and this familiar melody seeps into your subconscious and just wakes you up . . ." he laughs mischievously. "Don't nothing come to a sleeper but a dream," he chuckles. "But I tell 'em again and again, please don't turn me off, just turn me down."
The disc jockeys see themselves as a brotherhood, each trying to prepare the audience for the next man's shift. Bethel, the "Sain Train," wakes you up in the morning and tries to send you to work with a smile. He grew up on a plantation in Mississippi, picked cotton and corn and
Whe he arrived in Washington four years ago, he held an 86-hour "rockathon" for RAP, Inc., a Washington area drug abuse organization. The effort netted $28,000.
Nat Washington is the early afternon disc jockey. "He keeps the housewives company," says Kelsey Chuch McCool, whose real name is Charles Green, is the "Musical Fool." He is the after-school disc jockey, and has one of the largest teen-age followings in the country. Greg Hynes is the station's parttime disc jockey, working on weekends.
Each disc jockey operates by a playlist, consisting of the top 16 songs decided on by the station's music committee. They use a special clock that tells them what order to play certain kinds of records - a super hit, followed by an oldie goldie, followed by an up-and-coming record. It also tell them when to air public service announcements, news and weather.
"You have to pace yourself," says White, "or else you can get burned out. For me, that is very important because the worst thing I can do is fall asleep at the microphone."
"We all enjoy our work," says Bennett. "None of us just woke up one morning and said 'Hey, I want to be a DJ'. You have a job that you don't particularly like and you meet someone who works for a radio station and boom, you know. . .
"We're humans, just like anybody else. We feel good and we feel bad. When I got problems, I leave them at 3 and rejoin them at 7. They will still be there."
Meanwhile, "Brother Bobby cockin' on outta here. Y'all be good like ya should 'cause if I could I would but I can't so I ain't.
"UmmmmmsmmaaackPOW," he kisses you goodbye.