Black radio veterans back on air
WILD alums broadcasting out of Warren Street studio
Like many blacks in Boston who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s, Stephen Gousby grew up with black radio as the soundtrack to life, the hit songs of funk and soul groups like Parliament and Slave providing a counterpoint to the crossover artists heard on mainstream stations like Kiss108.
After graduating from Emerson College, Gousby went to work for WILD, taking on roles that included program director and deejay.
But when the station was sold to Radio One in 2000, Gousby says the corporate influence began to drain the soul from Boston’s soul station, with pre-packaged playlists that better reflected record label priorities than black community preferences.
Gousby was done.
“When I left WILD, my attitude was I did not want to work for a corporation ever again,” he said. “I felt like radio and the entire music industry was going in a different direction. I never thought I’d be back into radio.”
Yet five years after WILD flamed out, sold to China Radio International, Gousby is back, a few doors down from WILD’s former Warren Street office, running a new black radio station, WZBR. Earlier this year, the AM station — 1410 on the dial — began broadcasting the urban music format black radio stations favor earlier this year. And fellow WILD alum Frank Holder is seeking to purchase from owner Langer Broadcasting Group.
Holder admits his vision for the station is a gamble.
“You ask any kid who’s 20 years old about WILD and they don’t recall,” he said. “They don’t really have any idea what real radio is.”
But Holder says he’s confident he can reach a critical mass of listeners with a format that stands apart from the corporate-run stations.
Gousby said he was initially skeptical Holder could resurrect the black radio format. Consolidation in the radio business has intensified, with just six corporations controlling 90 percent of the nation’s stations, down from 50 corporations in 1983.
Since leaving WILD, Gousby founded a real estate brokerage. But Holder persuaded him to come back to the radio business.
“The setup here reminded me so much of WILD,” he said. “That’s pretty much what drew me in.”
On a recent weekday morning, on-air personalities Awet Teame and Shonda Browne spun a mix of classic and neo-soul tracks while Gousby worked at a nearby desk. Also in the Warren Street office was sales manager and WILD alum Herb Jackson, who hosts the station’s weekly Sunday Morning Inspiration gospel music program.
While the station has not yet obtained an accurate count of its listenership, Gousby is confident it will tap into unmet demand for black radio among the 160,000 blacks in Boston and soul music-loving people of all races. The station reaches a 20-mile radius around its Dedham tower.
Gousby says the station provides an alternative to the bland offerings from its corporate competitors.
“Radio today does not have a variety of music,” he said. “Deejays do what they’re told. They’re given music by the record labels. There’s all this music out there you don’t hear.”
As a result, Gousby says, many stations play the same 30 or 40 songs in constant rotation. Gousby says WZBR has 10,000 classic and new songs in rotation. Artists playing on WZBR include D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Layla Hathaway and Erykah Badu.
On Sundays, a day of community programming, Gousby hosts a talk show on real estate issues. Listeners can call in with questions and song requests. Hosts keep the community appraised of upcoming events and news. It’s that two-way relationship that Holder says makes the station well-suited to compete in the current Boston radio market. And it’s what keeps him coming to work.
“I enjoy being in touch with the community,” he said. “I enjoy being able to communicate back and forth. We’re bringing that back.”