The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that renewal of the license for WOL, once the top soul station in Washington, would not "serve the public interest" and ordered a full hearing into charges that the station's disc jockeys demanded payola to plug certain records.
But rather than proceed with the expected long hearing on the license renewal application, a source close to the station's owners, Sonderlong Broadcasting Corp. of Miami, said yesterday that the station may be sold although no decision has been made.
WOL for the last 14 years has been a voice to Washington's black working class and filled the air-waves at 1450 AM with jive-talking disc jockeys with such nicknames as Soul Papa, The Mighty Burner and The Saint Train.
But the station has fallen on hard times in recent years, even though the lastest Arbitron audience ratings still show it as the 13th most popular station in the Washington area with a weekly audience of 290-800. WOL, however, was once the top-ranked black-oriented station in Washington and now it is third, behind WOOK-FM, known as OK-100, and WHUR-FM, which calls itself Progressive 96.
The decline of WOL, according to broadcast industry sources, can be attributed to the payola scandal, first publicized 2 1/2 years ago, and to the station's adherence to a programming format "that didn't keep up with the times."
WOL still clings to the boisterous DJ sound, the screaming and hollering of the 1950s according to the source, at a time that much of the black radio audience has "become more sophisticated" in its listening habits.
In issuing its ruling last week, the FCC, in a 7-to-o to vote, said that it was "unable to find that a grant of the renewal application would serve the public interest, convience and necessity."
Under FCC procedures, an administrative law judge will soon be appointed to hold a hearing on the license renewal application, probably in the fall. If the judge rules against Sonderling's application, the decision could be appealed to the full commission for a ruling and later to the U.S. Court of Appeals here.
The source close to the company said that a decision would be made by mid-June whether to sell the station under terms of the FCC's so-called cdistress sale" provisions. Under these regulations, a company facing a license renewal hearing can sell a radio or television station to minority groups at a "distress sale" price, something less than the station's fair market value.
WOL is now reportedly worth about$3 million to $3.5 million, is less than half its worth in its heyday. The station is publicy owned but its chief stockholders are Egmont Sonderling and his son, Roy, who are white.
The FCC policy on distress sales to minority groups is aimed at increasing black ownership of media. While most stations facing license renewal hearings have recently filed for distress sales, only one television station, in Rhinelander, Wis., has so far been sold under the procedure.
While detailed charges against WOL will be filed in the next few weeks, the FCC said the administrative law judge should determine whether Sonderling allowed its WOL "employes to subordinate the public interest to their own interests in the selection of programming content."
At FCC hearings tow years ago, two major Washington-area concert promoters complained that WOL disc jockeys illegally used the airwaves to benefit DJ Productions, a concert promotions outfit run by the WOL broadcasters.
William E. (Bill) Washington, president of Dimensions Unlimited, and Jack Boyle, president of Cellar Door Concerts, testified that the DJs Productions by threatening not to air the groups' records. WOL ordered DJ Productions out of business.
The disc jockeys jockeys and the station denied the charges at the time and the source close to the company yesterday called the FCC allegations "patently wrong."
Coincidental to the FCC probe and the dispute over rock concert bookings was the execution-style murder of R. Seavy Campbell, the WOL disc jockey known as Soul Papa. His killing has not been solved.
In addition to determining whether the WOL DJs "subordinated the public interest," the administrative judge was asked by the FCC to determine whether the disc jockeys accepted payola, whether the station filed false documents with the FCC to determine whether the disc jockeys accepted payola, whether the station filed false documents with the FCC on the disc jockeys' outside activities and whether Sonderling "exercised adequate supervision and control" over the station's employes.
The commission's action against WOL apparently will not abort Viacom International Inc.'s proposed $26,675,000 stock and cash acquisition of Sonderling Broadcasting. However, lawyers for the two companies have not yet worked out details of how the merger would be accomplished while the WOL issue is pending.