The Number You Have Reached…
I have always been a radio girl.
I may not have always studied each and every song as hard as others: knowing the producers and writers and performers of every single song; knowing when they were released and if they were reprises; knowing the origin of every breakbeat and every sample. But my radio was my escape. Even though I cursed the DJs that would talk into the intro of the songs or over the outros when my brother and I were methodically holding our tape recorder up to the speaker to catch a “clean” recording of our then-favorite songs – the DJs made radio what it was. Conversationally connecting us to everything going on in the 30-mile radius that was the tri-state area. What’s going on in the 5 Boros? What’s happening in Connecticut and New Jersey or Philly? Talking to us like a unified community. It always made me feel like we were a part of something important enough to be addressed. And while most of my adolescent years were being talked to as the general population, something special in my coming of age started talking to US. To US. Black folks in that same 30-mile radius. Pulling us around common narratives, goals, and conversation. Conversation that was unique to us. Addressed US. Made US feel seen. WBLS. WRKS. WQHT. I was never one to choose sides. I knew there were all sorts of beefs and co-signing and siding up. As long as they kept the music flowing and the vibes feeling good – I didn’t really much care. Play my music. Keep me posted.
Growing up I’d always been told I had a distinctive voice. “You should do radio…” So when I got to college, I signed up for a slot at the college radio station – WPUB. Friday nights at 7:00PM. Tough slot when you’re a college kid. Fridays at 7:00 any red blooded, brown skinned youth of a certain age was getting ready to hit the clubs, pre gaming with the homies or turning it up in the varied dorm lounges or rooms that had a plan. Playing slow jams (which I was mandated to do ) was NOT the thing. But I worked it for a semester and moved on. Still LOVED the format and as new technologies emerged yearly, there was always SOMETHING about radio.
In April 2001, I got the chance to work at the stations I’d listened to as a child. HOT 97, 98.7 KISS FM and CD 101.9 were looking for an Interactive Coordinator to round out a fledgling team of people who would take their websites from being a single form field to request folks’ email address to join the newsletter distribution to being roaring, churning content engines rife with exclusive interviews and content given only to them. I got the job and started to mill amongst GIANTS… Isaac Hayes, Shaila, Jeff Foxx, Lenny Green, Marley Marl, Talent, Chuck Chillout, Bent Roc, Dahved Levy, Ann Tripp, Wendy Williams, Star and Buc Wild, Funkmaster Flex, DJ Enuff, Fat Man Scoop, Ebro Darden, Peter Rosenberg, Miss Info, Lisa Evers, Angie Martinez, Miss Jones, Ed Lover, Dr. Dre, DJ Mister Cee, Pat Prescott, Batt Johnson, Deborah Rath, Paul Calvaconte, and COUNTLESS OTHERS. I would share spaces with them daily… walk past them in the halls, say good morning, good afternoon, good evening… be in company and strategy meetings… collaborate with them on sponsor activations. They’d stop by my desk and say “Hey Victoria – I need such and such” or “we have so and so coming in to do an interview, did y’all know so you can put it on the website?” Over the years I sat and taught somehow to use social media when it started to be a thing and how they could amplify their own brand using the station brands as a springboard.
Sixteen years of my career were served in radio… basking in its community. Riding the waves of change as one station changed the format to another then sold to a new parent company. How long time rivals could merge and manage to keep the beat going with all the emerging technologies that arose saying they were “better” than radio – but somehow keeping “RADIO” in their name or their description to familiarize themselves with the audience. Shows that would come and would go. Shows that would stay. One particular show with staying power ALWAYS kept me riveted.
The Open Line.
Blame it on being raised around loud, angry, brash, “prove-me-wrong”, “politics-arguing”, “point-gettin-across” West Indian Men – namely Haitians. And that deserves to be said – you aren’t Haitian if you can’t argue down politics of any kind with the next person. Be WRONG AND STRONG – but get your voice to be heard. Being AWARE of what’s going on about you provided fodder for your cannon. Lifting the veils that they try to conceal the truth. Decrying the nay-sayers and the factionists trying to keep you all apart. It was at the heart of what my father indirectly taught me. NEVER be afraid of conflict. INVITE it. So that you can have a conversation. A discourse. And come to an understanding as a people.
The Open Line did this for me. Every Sunday Big Bob Slade, Judge Bob Pickett, and the Third Answer – James Mtume with Brother Fatiyn Muhammad as their executive producer would sit down behind their respective microphones and bring the latest issues of the day to our awareness. Originally a two-hour show, they would lend time to callers getting on the line and expressing their points of view. They’d be visited by upcoming politicians on their circuit, or community organizers trying to make a wave and bring awareness to a cause. They hosted them all with grace, gave them space to express themselves, and a platform for the tri-state audience to hear them and be heard. I offered to “podcast” their hours on our website. Pull the audio from the feeds and make them available to the general audience on WBLS.com where they could listen after the actual airing. The audience was committed. Don’t let me have been late to posting The Open Line by Monday at noon. The emails and phone calls would start to roll in. LOL. The audience really OWNED the brand. It was THEIR station and you were going to serve them the way they needed.
Through the years with all the shifts in ownership and changing of hands for the radio stations, their 2 hours got cut down to 1. I never thought that made sense. In a single hour – how can you REALLY get the conversation going about politics??? It’s impossible. It’s anticlimactic and just didn’t vibe. As soon as I had a little say / pull / power — and it was a little — I suggested to anyone who would listen that The Open Line deserved their hour back. Everyone would begin to argue that they couldn’t afford to extend to 2 hours on air as all the slots were filled and had their respective assignments. “Okay,” I’d listen patiently to their objections, “How about a 2nd hour… online?” We could livestream it from the tv station we’d just built in the digital area (mostly to capture content for HOT 97…) but on a Sunday morning – it wasn’t in use. Do an additional hour that could be archived on these new social platforms picking up speed – Facebook Livestream and stream live directly from WBLS.com. Would I have to come in on Sundays in addition to the regular work week? Yes. Would I need to galvanize a team to help me set up the studio and run the tricaster for an hour and some every Sunday? Yes. Was there a potential that this would flop? Sure. But if they would let me, and “The Bobs” (as we affectionately called them) were up to the task – then so was I. In 2013 (if my memory serves me) we broadcasted the first Open Line: The 2nd Hour on Sunday at 9AM (after the initial hour on the terrestrial signal). It garnered a solid following and quite a few accolades. Even an award as a Web Series on Activism. They continued to log shows well after my departure in 2016. Up until recently, if I’m not mistaken.
What I also gained? Legendary Friends. When I started the 2nd Hour, Mtume had long since departed for other things but would pop in now and again to co-host with The Bobs. Bob Slade… a pioneer in radio. A true historian. An endless ocean of stories, facts, and tales – his own and others. A genuine heart of gold. And Brother Bob Pickett. An activist on a grand scale and quietly in the lives of those he knew personally. He helped guide me on his personal time on how to fight wild injustices that were happening to Earl during his time working at the Office of Comptroller of the Currency and checked in on me regularly like a favorite uncle. Big Bob Slade slipped from our grasp in 2019. The Third Answer passed on from us just a week ago. And today I received word that yesterday Judge Bob Pickett has gone on to be with the ancestors.
I said so much here, but I’m really speechless. I didn’t expect them to live forever… but I never prepared my mind for what life would be like without them. I know they groomed many a broadcaster to pick up the mantle when they’d gone on. But no one did it like them. I’m indebted to their contribution to my life and the life of the community around them. I’m HONORED to have worked alongside them. I’m sad to see them go on. The Open Line…
I won’t say it’s closed.
But it will never ring the same.