Saturday, May 16, 2009

WAMO Gets Religion...


Hey, WHOD/WAMO has been around even longer than Old Mon (tho not by much.) It's been the undisputed home and often the sole source of R&B in Pittsburgh since the days of Porky.

Today, WAMO 106.7 FM is an urban contemporary station, playing hip-hop hits during the week with Sunday jazz in the morning and oldies in the evening. AM 860 plays R&B and classic soul for the old school crowd.

Steve Harvey starts WAMO's day, and hey, Lynn Cullen even shoehorned a slot for her talk show on the AM side. But "The Home of Hip-Hop" is about to go silent.

WAMO spokesman Russell Bynum said yesterday that the FM station and its two sisters, WAMO-AM 860 and WPGR-AM 1510, are being sold by Sheridan Broadcasting to St. Joseph Missions, a Catholic religious programming outfit.

The sales price was $8.9 million. The deal has to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission, and their OK is expected within 90 days. That's how quickly WAMO could be gone from the airwaves. Enjoy the summer's last hurrah.

WAMO-AM traces its roots to Homestead in 1948, when its call letters were WHOD. It was best known then as the "Station of Nations" because of its ethnic programming, though that changed when a certain Mr. Craig Chedwick began spinning wax for them.

A bronze plaque commemorating Porky and WAMO was even placed on the nondescript yellow-brick building that housed the studio on 107 E. Eighth St., near the Homestead Grays Bridge spanning the Mon over the Waterfront Mall, just across the City line.

It's also had studios on the Boulevard of the Allies by Mercy Hospital, where its red WAMO letters beamed over the City from high atop the Bluff. They then moved to the Chamber of Commerce building in town, and now are located on Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg.

In 1956, the call letters were changed to WAMO, representing the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, and the station's desire to step out from being a local player to a regional powerhouse.

WAMO-FM went on the air in 1960 at 105.9 and had the most powerful signal coverage in western Pennsylvania. It also shimmied among formats during its early years, including AOR, disco, and R&B Contemporary Hits. But Urban Contemporary is what worked best, and that's been its calling card since.

In 1973, WAMO was bought by the Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation, owned by Ronald Davenport, who was then Duquesne Law School's dean (his son Ron Jr. is still WAMO's GM). Local lore claims the network was named for his home address on Sheridan Street in East Liberty.

It also purchased WAMO-AM/FM, WILD in Boston, and WUFO in Buffalo from Dynamic Broadcasting. It still owns the Buffalo station, with affiliates 1570-AM ("The Light") in Atlanta and WATV-AM ("900 Gold") in Birmingham.

WAMO-FM and WAMO-AM began separate programming in 1974. Gospel aired on WAMO-AM, Monday through Friday, and Saturdays and Sundays were simulcast with WAMO-FM. WAMO-FM was formatted as an R&B station, with gospel programming on Sunday.

In 1979, Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation finished buying out (they acquired a half interest in 1976) the Mutual Black Network and changed the name to the Sheridan Broadcasting Network.

The network moved its headquarters from Florida to Pittsburgh in 1985, where native Philadelphian Davenport had put down his roots.

In addition to syndicated music programming, Sheridan is the principal owner of the American Urban Radio Networks, bought in 1991, which provides AURN News. AURN became the first completely black-owned news network in the nation after the takeover.

It features White House correspondent April Ryan (the only African-American broadcaster with a desk in the White House), Black College Sports and the SBN Black College All-America team, "The Bev Smith Show," and the "The Light" Gospel music program, airing programs to 325 Black stations across the country.

WAMO was one of the top-rated stations in the Pittsburgh area during the eighties and early nineties. But it was about to make a strategic mistake in the mid-nineties that helped sow the seeds for its sale.

Sheridan swapped signals with Beaver Fall's WXDX-FM and moved to the 106.7 frequency in 1996. Clear Channel gave them about $10 million to make the deal. WAMO sold a strong local signal of 72,000 watts and moved more or less out of City earshot.

For years, they could barely reach into Pittsburgh's inner city until they moved their broadcasting tower from the Beaver Valley (with a trip to Greensburg in between) to Wexford in 2004. Until that shift, their highest ratings came from Youngstown, which could pull in the signals, instead of its home base of Pittsburgh, which couldn't.

The station then changed its longtime on-air identity from "106 Jamz, WAMO" to "106.7 WAMO, Pittsburgh's #1 for Hip Hop and R&B". But it was too late; it was a lost decade for WAMO.

In 2006, the station switched to an all-talk format; that flip-flop lasted about six months before the market corrected that little blip and it returned to urban contemporary music, its long-time gold standard.

So the home of Porky, Sir Walter, Bill Powell, Mary Dee, Frank the Freak, Brother Love, Zeke Jackson, Brother Matt, Hal "HB" Brown, KiKi, Ron Chavis, Sly Jock, Ray Love, and DJ Boogie will soon be a God station. Who woulda thunk?

Of course, it was all about the bucks; if you're not Clear Channel or Infinity, you're probably a struggling radio network. Switching formats too often and losing their ability to air in the City during the late nineties and early part of this decade hurt, too.

WAMO was also hard-hit by a change in the way ratings were collected by an Arbitron system known as the Portable People Meter, which critics say has a disproportionate impact on minority-targeted radio formats. A perfect storm had formed.

"This is a business decision," Bynum told the Post-Gazette. "That's the reality of the marketplace. The marketplace determines how businesses go, and industries have to change with the times."

Sheridan owners suppoedly tried to find minority buyers for the stations, but none could come up with the loot, and St. Joseph's could flash the cash. That's show biz for ya.

Besides the loss of the City's only urban music-maker, with no obvious replacement station to fill the void, a very real possibility exists of having a dependable cultural thread torn from Pittsburgh's Afro-American tapestry.

WAMO was the driving force behind promoting local hip-hop artists, with their DJs shepherding them through the club circuit like the jocks of old. And Sheridan was heavily involved in community charities and service projects, but with its flagstaff station gone, will it remain? The company says yes, but...

The move also marks the end of liberal talk radio in the 'Burgh. With the demise of the Bev Smith and Lynn Cullen shows on local airwaves, the market has finally surrendered unconditionally to the conservative talk hosts. No more different strokes in the Steel City.

And hey - what will all the four-wheeled boom-boxes cruising the City do now? Since Porky's day, car speakers have been blasting WAMO. Pittsburgh will become a lot quieter town now, in more ways than one.

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