Fresh Listen: WBLS and WDIA

When I wrote about radio during the first week of COVID-19 last year, two of the stations I listened to first were two pioneering Adult R&B outlets, WDIA Memphis and WBLS New York. Both were stations that listeners had recently cited when I asked which radio stations were doing things right, even at a time of consolidation and challenge. 

In a market hit early by COVID, serving a Black audience disproportionately impacted, WBLS was one of the few Adult R&B outlets that was actually down in the early months of the pandemic. As an AM music survivor that never added an FM simulcast, WDIA has had ratings ups and downs over the last decade with a hybrid format — community talk in mornings and middays, gold-based R&B afternoons/evenings, blues and gospel on weekends — that didn’t always translate in PPM ratings measurement.

But in the recently released July PPM Nielsen ratings, WBLS was up 6.5-6.9 under new PD Cynthia Smith. Ratings Expert Chris Huff notes it was the station’s highest topline rating since the era of legendary PD/afternoon host Frankie Crocker in 1981, and the first time the station had been No. 1 in the market outright since 1982.

WDIA was fifth in Memphis, behind Adult R&B KJMS (V101.1) and WRBO and Gospel WHAL (Hallelujah 95.7), as well as AC WRVR (the River). But the station was up significantly, rising 6.0-7.1 in July and having grown from a 3.1 share over the course of six months. I took a Fresh Listen to both stations. 

Last Friday, June 13, WBLS p.m. driver Déjà Vu was talking to listeners about the need to stay hydrated during the week’s heatwave. Her celebrity news was about the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect opening that weekend, about singer Monica’s planned country album, and about Erykah Badu apologizing for posting pictures from Barack Obama’s birthday party. Later, there was a break about the cries to return the Mario Cuomo Bridge to its previous Tappan Zee name, following Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, with Deja bemoaning the notion that “our tax dollars might be spent” on the controversy. 

WBLS was also promoting its weekend presence as part of Harlem Week, which it has partnered with for over 45 years. Performers this year included After 7, Tower of Power’s Lenny Williams, J Brown, and Caribbean artists Bunji Garlin & Fay Ann. The station also hosts a fashion show and other events.

Here’s WBLS at 3:55 p.m.: 

  • Al B. Sure!, “Night and Day”
  • Adina Howard, “Freak Like Me”
  • Tank, “Can’t Let It Show”
  • Bobby Brown, “Every Little Step”
  • Wale f/Jeremih, “On Chill”
  • Giveon, “Heartbreak Anniversary”
  • Jennifer Lopez f/Ja Rule, “I’m Real”
  • Ne-Yo, “When You’re Mad”
  • Eugene Wilde, “Gotta Get You Home Tonight”
  • Hi-Five, “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game)”
  • Robin Thicke, “Look Easy”
  • Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”
  • Teena Marie, “I Need Your Lovin’”

One thing about WBLS that was noticeable in this listen, as has been the case for the last several months, was the number of ads encouraging the audience to be vaccinated against COVID-19. During one stopset, there were four different ads from the New York City health department — one with health commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi, one with testimonials from people who had been vaccinated, and another Chokshi ad that ran twice about the responsibility to protect kids.

1070 WDIA MemphisAs you would expect, COVID took up much of the discussion on WDIA PD/morning man Bobby O’Jay’s and longtime middayer Bev Johnson’s shows. Johnson began a break by talking about her alma mater, Mississippi’s Rust College, forgiving $150,000 in 2020-21, but it quickly spread to the children in that state affected by COVID and a plea to stay masked, as well as a discussion with a caller of whether Memphis schools should stay open. 

O’Jay’s COVID discussion included the need for overall wellness: “People are taking the shot but keep putting the same things in their body.” O’Jay’s Monday topics included COVID, President Biden, and Afghanistan, and whether public gatherings were appropriate. They also included Lizzo’s social-media battles, a controversial cover charge on Beale Street, and a discussion with a listener looking to sell her collection of blues records. 

Legendary Stax/Volt Memphis songwriter David Porter came up in a discussion, also prompted by the Obama party, of which celebrities were still cool. (Richard Roundtree was in his company, but not Lionel Richie.) Harold “Scotty” Scott, of ‘70s R&B legends the Temprees, got a shout-out on Johnson’s show; the trio had a street named after them in July. 

As with any truly local station, both O’Jay and Johnson had a lot of regular callers and ongoing topics not immediately recognizable if you hadn’t been listening every day. Promos running throughout the day ask, “Did you hear what Bobby O’Jay said this morning?” You may not have heard that liner in a while, but O’Jay, recently inducted to the Tennessee Broadcasters Hall of Fame, still lives up to it.  

O’Jay plays some music in mornings. WDIA is primarily music in afternoons (hosted by sister KJMS morning co-host Earle Augustus) and evenings. During those shifts, it’s an R&B counterpart to ROR reader fave KDRI (The Drive) Tuscon, Ariz. — heavy on ‘70s and ‘80s titles no longer heard on Adult R&B radio, but with a handful of recent titles from heritage artists. Here’s the station at 3 p.m.:

  • A Taste of Honey, “Boogie Oogie Oogie”
  • Michael Jackson f/Siedah Garrett, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”
  • Isley Brothers f/Snoop Dogg, “Friends and Family”
  • Gladys Knight & Pips, “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”
  • Stevie Wonder, “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”
  • Ben E. King, “Supernatural Thing”
  • Billy Ocean, “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)”
  • Whitney Houston, “I Have Nothing”
  • Four Tops, “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)”
  • Sam Smith, “Stay With Me”
  • Michael McDonald, “I Keep Forgettin’”
  • Aretha Franklin, “I’m in Love”
  • Curtis Mayfield, “So in Love”

And here’s WDIA at 3 p.m. on Saturday during its mix of blues and Southern R&B:

  • Little Milton, “The Blues Is Alright”
  • Sir Charles Jones, “On My Own Again”
  • Jackie Moore, “Precious, Precious”
  • Ronnie Bell, “I’ll Pay the Shipping Cost”
  • Johnnie Taylor, “Everything’s Out in the Open”
  • Stephanie Pickett, “Love on Loan”
  • Wilson Pickett, “Land of 1000 Dances”
  • Albert King, “I’ll Play the Blues for You”
  • Tyrone Davis, “Are You Serious”
  • Terry Wright f/Vick Allen, “It’s Over”

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