WOL-AM, the leading radio station in Washington's black community during the era of riot and protest, is being sold to a new breed of rising black professionals who say the city has mellowed and now demands more subtlety and sophistication.
The change in WOL's ownership, effective in six to nine months, signals the end of a legend in Washington.
For more than a decade, beginning in the mid-1960s, WOL featured finger-popping disc jockeys whose claim to fame was "The Rap" -- incessant adlibbing that made them almost as celebrated as the artists whose records they played.
"The day of the rapping jock is over," said Dewey Hughes, head of the newly formed Almic Corporation, which recently purchase WOL for just under $1 million. "Radio is generally toning down because of a new concern about contemporary adult music."
His wife and partner, Cathy Liggins, says, "All that 'Good morning baby cakes' stuff is over."
James Kelsey, WOL's current general manager, disagrees. "I think the 1980s will bring a return to entertainment and personality radio," said Kelsey, who will turn over management of WOL to the new owners next year. "People love their chitterlings and collard greens because that's our diet, man, and I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of. People love to be entertained, and we like our music in abundance and we like it loud."
No other medium in the city had WOL's influence and credibility among black Washingtonians from 1965 to about 1975. The disc jockeys, flamboyant in tailored, three-piece suits and "conked" hair, could sell anything from used cars to politicians.
And they were outrageous, speaking directly to black working class and poor Washingtonians, reflecting their sense of rhythm, humor, prejudice and despair. With finger-popping, hand-clapping and foot-stomping, they were the broadcasters of gospel-influenced, inner city culture.
From a midnight program in April 1967: "Awright out there in Soul Land, this is the Nighthawk speakin'. Italians of America unite! Pick up your pizza pies . . . and olive oil. Here comes your leader. Frankie Sinatra, blue-eyed and pale, but he really can wail."
The station popularized references to Washington as "Cholocate City," and took it through the mid-1960s, playing music with titles and lyrics that reflected the mood of the times. Stevie Wonder's "Uptight," Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave" and James Brown's "Cold Sweat" preceded the burning of Washington in 1968, and in the confusing aftermath of the riots came the "Temptations with "Psychedelic Shack."
But in the mid-1970s, WOL's dominance came to an end.
The appeal of stereo's surrounding sound combined with the latest pop music fad to give upstart FM stations a sudden rise in the ratings. WOL's 250 watts proved no match for two-channel, 50,000-watt FM's pumping disco from Danville to Delaware.
There were other, even more serious problems. One morning in May 1976, WOL disc jockey R. Seavy (Soul Papa) Campbell was found shot to deathe alongside a rural road in Virginia, his hands tied behind his back and a small caliber bullet in his head.
The Federal Communications Commission that had been investigating black radio stations nationally focused on WOL and charges of payola. As the long, drawn out proceedings appeared headed toward revocation of WOL's license, the owner took advantage of special FCC regulations for such situations and put the station up for "distress sale."
Black groups throughout the country bid for the station. Even though it was only a low-watt, AM outfit, WOL still had the prestige of broadcasting in the nation's capital as well as a colorful history. Muhammad Ali was part of one contending group; former senator Edward Brooke was part of another. Baseball player Reggie Jackson, Johnson Publications, Essence Magazine and Motown Records were among many others competing to buy WOL.
The winner was Dewey Hughes, 40, a local broadcaster personality and promoter who began a radio career more than 20 years ago as an errand boy at WOL. Later Hughes was the station's community affairs director, and for 10 years, a successful producer at WRC-TV, the local NBC-owned and operated station.
Hughes' group won WOL not on price but on promised performance. Under FCC provisions for a "distress sale," the station had to be sold under fair market value to a buyer selected by the current owners.
Hughes and his backers, the current owners said, were longtime local residents, oriented to Washington's black community and highly respected here. rThey contend they will maintain or even sharpen the station's local focus.
Second in command is Cathy Liggins, Hughes' wife and a former general manager of Howard University radio station WHUR, who broke with tradition when she created "The Morning Sound" and The Quiet Storm," two of this city's most listened-to radio programs.
"The Morning Sound," on the air from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., features news, rock music and running patter about community events. There are forums about the issues of the day that include politicians, doctors, nutritionists and college professors. A city official known only on the show as Willis gives periodic traffic reports.
"The Quiet Storm" is a sophisticated potpourri of soft, mood music directed at single women, home from work -- and alone. It is broadcasted from 7 p.m. to midnight.
Other members of the Almic Corporation -- names for Hughes' two sons, Albert, 20, and Michael, 14 -- are Peggy Cooper, a Washington lawyer who helped found the city's Ellington High School of the Arts and is chairman of the city's Commission on the Arts and Humanities; Samuel Jackson, a Washington lawyer and former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Ofield Dukes, president of a public relations firm, and Duke Greene, owner of a computer firm.
Max Robinson, an ABC-TV news anchorman, had been asked to join the group but said he declined because of a possible conflict of interest.
Although Hughes and Liggins are guarded about their plans for WOL, they anticipate major changes.
"The rapping jock still has an audience . . ." Hughes said. "But the rap has to be serious concern about things like the need for families to stick together and the need for youngsters to stay in school."
As Hughes and Liggins see it, the city has changed dramatically since the 1960s.
"The black listening audience in the nation's capital is (now) the most sophisticated in the country and has the highest income and educational level," said Liggins. "With that comes a responsibility not to deliver junk," she said.
"We're going to be the best, most progressive, most sensitive station in town," Hughes said. "We're going to be in touch with the changing moods of the city. The people have mellowed, they are more comfortable with the media, and demand more sophistication in their entertainment."
WOL is currently rated 10 out of 40 radio stations in the Washington area. The station had slipped, but not out of the ratings game. At a time when FM radio dominates the markets, WOL and WMAL are the only two AM stations in the top 10.
"You can't take that too lightly," Hughes said. "Somebody's out there listening. But I remember when WOL was ranked third in the general market and first among blacks."
That was 1965, when WOL was bought by Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation of Miami and radically changed from an easy listening, "good music" format to rhythm and blues and soul.
The nation's top disc jockeys at the time were brought to Washington by Sonderling. They were James (Sunny Jim) Kelsey from New York, Hal Adkins from Memphis, Bob (Nighthawk) Terry from Miami, Rudy (Tall Tan Texan) Runnels from Dallas and Fred (Agent 00 Soul) Correy from Boston.
The disc jockeys read advertising jingles that they made up themselves and news reports just ripped off wire service machines. If they were suspicious about a products claim, they said so. If the news was funny, they laughed and added impromptu editorial comment. If the news was from some faraway country with leaders who had hard-to-pronounce names, they mumbled through it -- never apologizing but rather suggesting that the potentates should change their names.
"In three months we were at the top of the ratings," Kelsey recalls with a smile. "The beauty of it was we never notified anybody that WOL was about to be changed from an easy listening format to soul. We just came on at noon, hollering and screaming. The reaction was instantanteous."
The station also provided a forum for black activists unlike any other medium in the city during the 1960s. "You always got results if you were heard on WOL," Kelsey recalled. "That wasn't only true for advertisers but for the politicians, too."
"We were a stepping stone for all of those guys because we gave them their own public affairs programs -- all of 'em from Marion Barry to Petey Greene."
Indeed Barry did get his first broad exposure on a WOL program he called "Pride." Former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker, the Rev. David Eaton and publisher Calvin Rolark all had their own programs on WOL.
Dewey Hughes was community affairs director then. He was involved in organizing a citywide tenants union and an advisory "government in exile" for the voteless District residents. He called himself an advocate of "constructive black power" at the time. He said then that he wanted the station to be the central voice of the underrepresented.
But change was coming. WOL was feeling the competition from FM stereo stations, particularly from Cathy Liggins and her innovations at station WHUR and later from the "salt and pepper" format at station WKYS.
By 1971, WOL disc jockeys were being fired for not abiding by a new radio staton policy forbidding deejays from talking more than 10 seconds before a record was played and 10 seconds after the record stopped.
Their drop in the ratings, however, continued.
Having participated in WOL's rise and subsequent slump, Kelsey concedes that "WOL (now) needs something different . . . we started sounding computerish, trying to keep up with the FM format," he said. "For so long FM was nothing more than preprogrammed recordings anyway."
Kelsey says he has watched attentively as small-time low-watt AM stations across the country have been sold under "distress sale" provisions. In most cases, the original owners are white. Sonderling, the current owner of WOL, has employed through the years general managers who, like Kelsey, are black. But increasingly the new owners of AM stations are black, and -- perhaps just as important -- middle class.
"They [new black owners] get into that Pan African thing right off, but the man at Seventh and T [streets NW -- the inner city] is interested in rent rebates, food stamps and what's happening at so and so's church on Sunday night. They can go to church: they can't go to Africa.
"Basically, I think you got a lot of real people still out there, but some of the new broadcasters are trying to make them be something they are not," Kelsey said.
"There is no difference in the man on the corner at Seventh and T and the man at 16th and Tulip [streets NW -- the Gold Coast]" he said. "Both have to eat, both have desires and dreams. Both have attempted to get ahead -- it's just that one of them got trapped in the system.
"The man at Seventh and T just doesn't want anybody talking down to him. See, it's not what you say, it's how you say it. I know I can get both groups." CAPTION: Picture 1, Disc jockey Bob Scott spins soul music, mixing it with a bit of patter from the WOL control room. By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, DEWEY HUGHES . . . "day of the rapping jock is over,"; Picture 3, JAMES KELSEY . . . "people love to be entertained."