EVEN IN THIS television age, radio has always been a phenomenal way of communicating among blacks. Washington-area radio has something for nearly every taste, and the black listener has choices of jazz, gospel, pop and conversation. Still, rock 'em, sock'em soul has dominated the airwaves.
Something new came along 14 months ago when two radio veterans named Dewey and Cathy Liggins Hughes bought the 1000-watt WOL-AM, and started the nation's first black all-talk radio station.
I liked this dynamic young couple's dream of burying the boogie and giving a new twist to communications. It was a terrific idea because no station had ever been a forum for black discussion or used the airwaves to enter people's homes and cars and bars and just rap -- to share ideas and pry open thoughts that could be serious or frivolous. Such a forum could aid in understanding throughout the metropolitan area, for those wanting to know what other blacks were thinking of the day's issues, or seeking a different perspective on a book or movie.
What a disappointment, then, to tune in one day recently to hear Dewey Hughes break down in sobs over the air. On Jan. l, he said, WOL-AM would have to bring back the boogie to avoid going under financially.
The importance of WOL's failure as an all-talk station is more than its being just another venture that fizzled. It dealt in information and that's power. So what went wrong?
Dewey Hughes is bitter and thinks it says something telling about the community. "Black people in this market have not really done their part," he says. "I got to do some boogie to make some money because you say you want something but you don't support it."
But I think the death of WOL-Talk is more complicated than abandonment by the community or advertisers, though both factors play a part. I think people were generally receptive to the idea. But any community is passive until stimulated, so if there wasn't enough support forthcoming, then perhaps management didn't do enough to involve the community.
From the beginning, the station had a problem that is typical of minority and small business ventures -- it was undercapitalized. The new owners hoped to generate enough capital to make up the shortfall, but that did not happen, and a certain aura of insecurity was projected to listeners and advertisers as management went through the inevitable program and personnel changes necessary to shape a new venture.
The station made constant changes in on-air personalities and several early "talk masters" were dropped by the wayside. The sales staff also underwent many changes.
Then there was the problem of ratings. Cathy and Dewey Hughes were in the unenviable position of being unable to afford the $25,000 necessary to subscribe to a rating service, but they knew what the ratings were showing: WOL was doing very badly. Ratings are the measure of success in radio and are used by ad agencies to determine how much a station can charge for commercials.
Hughes said recently that his station was abandoned by the advertising agencies who wanted them to charge even less than the $25 a minute they made small businesses pay. Hughes refused; WOL was already getting less than one-quarter of what big stations such as all-talk WRC received for a one-minute spot.
But one advertising agency said it wasn't race or format. "WOL never sold itself well," an agency official said. "They've been almost invisible in the market."
Last February, WOL scored a coup when it snagged Bernie McCain from WRC. McCain, a smooth professional, came on as talk show host/operations manager. To save money, Cathy and Dewey Hughes took to the airwaves.
But here the brutal world of radio enters. The husband-wife team's morning drive-time show was effective with its caring, feisty earthiness. But it was pitted against Jerry Phillips of WHUR, who has become a well-known community personality with a loyal following in the 10 years the station has been on the air.
But by going on the air, the couple took away some of the creative time they probably needed to fine-tune their product, build up their commercial base and utilize the feedback they were receiving. Catch 22.
It's a community tragedy that this couple's dream of a community forum fizzled. I think the whole town would have been richer had there been time and money to make it work.
A few days ago, Bernie McCain signed off to return to WRC, and it seemed the end of a sweet, brief vision. It's a painful truth that for a black venture operating on a shoestring to survive, shape an identity and thrive, it must be extra resourceful, extra creative.
Cathy Hughes says the talk may return one day, but only if the community and the advertisers rally behind them. It was a long shot in the beginning, and an even longer shot for the future. But if the dream is revived, and I hope it is, it will have to be a two-way street to thrive.