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Cover Story: It's Just Talk

The Buzz on black talk radio

By Kathy Y. Wilson · August 25th, 2004 · Cover Story
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Black talk radio is the new black church. Can I get an "Amen?" It looms where once the church defined and dictated black political activism, morality and community standing.

It crowns racial heroes, demonizing and lambasting failures of the mid-Bush black community. It's equally responsible for the growth and the demise of black intellect.

Pissed off about a gay rights ordinance or threatened by same-sex marriages? Wearer of a white T-shirt and you're not a drug dealer? Believe the cops are killing black men? Just wanna talk shit about the mayor?

Callers to WDBZ (1230 AM) stack up to bring their burdens to the altar of "The Buzz," and sometimes the exorcism of cultural demons brings worshipers to shout.

From 10 a.m. (when Lincoln Ware opens the mic on his three-hour down-home rant) until 9 p.m. (when Nathan I-to-the-V-to-the-straight-bar-E puts his aural quilt of Hip Hop intelligentsia, politics and music to bed) and in programs beyond, Buzz callers have speculated over and argued about the greatest rapper (LL Cool J?), mayoral candidates, Bush and Iraq, racial profiling and Kerry for president.

The Buzz's on-air hosts, guided by a savvy yet overworkered program director, are its deacons and usher board -- overseeing the black talk radio station as stewards in service to the almighty caller.

Love the one you're with
Jonathan Love -- Jay Love to his faithful, furious Buzz callers -- is a self-described MF. "Master of Filibuster."

Days before Barack Obama cast his mojo on America at the Democratic National Convention, Love lauds Obama during his 1-4 p.m. Jay Love Show. Love's voice creases to sarcasm by the time he segues to the police closing of 13th Street to stem drug traffic. He has perfect diction and a borderline barking tone he measures to always have the last word.

"We'll always find some way to bash the police, and in this case I'll be pro-police," he says, baiting callers. There are no takers before the break.

"Rabblerouser" calls to challenge Love on Obama. Love comes to life. His lean into the mic is audible.

Love is brash. He badgers. He outbarks Rabblerouser, squealing in disbelief when the caller can't see how wrong he is.

Love laughs at Rabblerouser, pounding him with repetitive questions until the caller stammers himself into changing the subject back to the Over-the-Rhine street closing, an easier argument.

"OK, run back to that," Love says, disappointed but satisfied he's pounded the caller into a heap.

When Rabblerouser ratchets up his argument, Love again pelts him with a barrage of questions intended to dissolve the point.

"Answer the damned question!"

"I'm not gonna answer that question."

"Then bye!"

Click.

Theater of arrogance, overblown melodrama or a day at the mic? Equal parts each.

But callers dictate and get pummeled by hosts' opinions on pop culture. Conversely, hosts risk unemployment if they don't summon the devil's advocate within.

According to Buzz Program Director Jeri Tolliver, regular daytime callers like Rabblerouser morph into eccentric conspiracy theorists as the talk radio day wears on.

"It's like riding the bus," Tolliver says. "The later it gets, the stranger the passengers become."

Sister, speak
The surface of Tolliver's desk isn't visible. Barely is her office floor, where a swath is cut to her desk.

There's a Eureka vacuum, a Sanyo 24-inch flat-screen TV, a pair of men's (size 6 1/2) Converse All-Stars, a PlayStation 2, DVDs, a mobile DVD player, rolled up WDBZ promotional banners and a U.S. Postal Service tub overflowing with books.

Home Shopping Network vomited all over Tolliver's small office.

The program director -- ostensibly the idea woman, sounding board and cheerleader -- has been allotted a stingy space inside Cincinnati's striving, more prevalent black talk station. The Buzz shares its downtown digs with WIZF (100.9 FM), a Radio One station.

Tolliver answers two phones, multi-tasking like an octopus. Six weeks before the Black Family Reunion, she's trying to finalize details of a Town Hall Meeting and breakfast appearances by Judge Greg Mathis and Mother Love.

Then there's the upcoming bookstore appearance of gay pulp novelist E. Lynn Harris.

Tolliver gets to the office at 6 or 7 every morning, exuding a sleepy-eyed calm that deflects melodrama and anxiety. She's been picketed, visited by the FBI and accosted at a remote broadcast.

Just as her temperament is in a holding pattern, so are the visible signs of her age. Her relaxed, flippy wigs or mid-length extension twists don't belie or betray it. She has a 24-year-old son who's so dependent on her that he dropped off a dress shirt to be laundered and ironed for a job interview.

When she's away from WDBZ, Tolliver is chatty, prattling on about the sexism and racism she's hurdled across the once all-white-boy geography of Cincinnati radio. She reminisces tangentially about her departed parents, longs for uninterrupted time with trash TV (reality and fitness shows, Cold Case Files, HGTV) and claims her mother invented Hamburger Helper.

She'll probably never get around to all the minutiae swarming her like sweat bees. Still, Tolliver works her mouthpiece.

During a meeting with a man from the Urban League, Tolliver's cell phone rings frequently to the tune of "Roses" by Outkast. On the phone she scribbles notes in the margins of random papers strewn across her desk, topped like a disheveled sundae by the latest issue of industry bible Talkers Magazine.

She returns calls at the drop of a lull.

"It's so many lose ends to tie up, coming at you from so many directions," says radio veteran and weekday host Lincoln Ware. "She's not unorganized. She needs a personal assistant. Before Radio One took over we had a program assistant, but they took that out of the budget. Sometimes I'll book my own guests just to help out."

It's spinning the plates of programming, hosting Sister Speak and holding to the station's community standards that wear on Tolliver.

She also meets with sales and promotion staffers, talks to potential advertisers, brokers and produces live remotes and constantly brainstorms ideas to elevate the station's identity throughout black neighborhoods.

Often the programming is uninspired, repetitive and lacks focus. Sister Speak is intended to be spontaneous and soulful but usually sounds like an overheard lunch conversation.

This mid-week afternoon she assumes she's nailed down the specifics of Harris' bookstore appearance. Tolliver wanted the reading to be a live remote, broadcasting the in-store discussion to Buzz listeners and fielding live calls.

But things fall apart.

Queen for a day
As the Buzz's young engineers check sound levels at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, the show broadcasting prior to the remote accidentally blasts through speakers.

There's a stopgap, and a strange suspension of time occurs as black middle class Cincinnati barrels through the bookstore's manufactured tranquility. Customers consider one another in a "Do you see what I see" manner.

It's not the only collision.

Though Harris is gay and writes novels specific to the secrets between the legs of the black gay man's experience, few black men show up to see Harris. The ones who do flank the periphery.

Black women rush the seats closest to Harris' podium.

As the seating fills, Harris hovers near the Information Desk. His clothes and his personality are pressed. He looks surreal, manufactured.

When Tolliver introduces herself to him minutes before the broadcast, Harris says he hadn't planned being on air for two hours.

"Two hours?" Harris says, more a judgment than a question. His chest is puffed, his tone is sour. "What am I supposed to talk about for two hours?"

Tolliver's voice is soft, but she doesn't fluster, waiver or stammer.

"I've never done anything like this," Harris says, baring the fullness of his extreme overbite. "When I come, this is my time to do my own thing. I have a way I like to do these things."

He's not salty. Only adamant.

Radio demands flexibility.

There's a strained compromise.

"He doesn't want to do it," Tolliver says, standing in the seclusion of the fiction stacks. "He doesn't want to be on the air, so he's just going to talk and do his thing and if people (in the store) ask questions I'll tell them to get on the mic."

She returns to the small table doubling for a console. Harris stays by the Information Desk. All the crowd cares about is him.

While he regales his fans with cheerleading stories, Tolliver roots through her bag, chats on her cellie and walks away from the proceedings. When she comes back, trailed by WDBZ co-owner Cheryl Love, Tolliver is as she was. Calm.

Later Tolliver says filling airtime supercedes ego.

"All I know is we had two hours of programming and I wanted to be my mother, but I was me," she says, resigned. "E. Lynn Harris was concerned I would ask him questions he didn't want to answer. He changed. He said, 'I can't talk for two hours.' I saw him do it last year. He started to relax a little bit, but he honestly dissed me the entire time."

The Big Buzz One
"Jeri Tolliver is genuinely an honest person," says WLW (700 AM) host Mike McConnell in his Marlboro baritone. "I'm surprised she puts up with Jay's dishonesty. That's the only weak link in her thinking."

With nearly 30 years in radio -- 20 this fall with WLW -- McConnell typifies the snarkiness rampant in radio's small circles.

"As a host and with his degree of dishonesty, Ken Lawson is a joke," McConnell says of the noted attorney who has a weekend show. "He would rather play the race card than be honest, and knowing the guy knows better just burns me up. Jay used to be my producer and used to be a reasonable guy, and he went over there and somebody whispered in his ear and told him he had to be more militant. He's pretending to be something he's not."

By his own description, Love has gone from a pre-riot conservative to progressive resting now at moderate.

"It's knowing what your audience wants, and that's what good broadcasters do," Love says.

Love, 33, is the son of station owners Ross and Cheryl Love. Claims of nepotism don't rankle Love or keep him from criticizing his father's Cincinnati CAN Commission or Councilman David Pepper, whose father worked with Ross Love at Procter & Gamble.

The Loves once owned 20 stations as heads of Blue Chip Broadcasting. They sold them all, keeping only WDBZ.

The Buzz operates through a local management agreement with Maryland-based Radio One, which, according to its Web site, is the nation's seventh-largest radio company with 69 stations in 22 markets reaching 22 million listeners weekly. Ross Love is on its board of directors.

With its predominantly white and male Cincinnati sales staff, Radio One sells advertising for The Buzz and pays its employees. The Loves control the programming.

Jay Love sharpened his debating daggers around the dinner table.

"My father told me if you're going to take the unpopular opinion you'd better know what that other side will say," he says. "If you can argue against your own argument, then you've got skills. I've got to look at who I'm up against. WKRC and Rush Limbaugh, 1160 (WBOB) is conservative and 700 is the local voice of insanity."

Love worked 3 1/2 years in the WLW sanitarium, where he wrote sports scripts and worked with McConnell and Jim Scott.

"I know the beast," Love says. "What's unique about this urban talk format is that it's the opportunity to give the other side of the story and make your competition better. I bet McConnell will never admit it, but I bet he's better. We've made them have to step up their game."

Though slightly overblown, the claim holds merit. For WLW, WDBZ's birth exactly four years ago was like going to a West Side wedding and realizing you have black relatives.

WLW steamrolls along on the fuel of a national audience. WDBZ sometimes struggles to fill 24 hours of local programming, and its 1,000 watts are no match for the 50,000-watt bombast of WLW.

The stations -- as America, like Cincinnati -- diverge most along the subtleties of race nestled in the responsibilities inherent in blackness and the arrogance born of whiteness. And vice versa.

Meantime, each station's listeners and hosts do cursory cultural drive-bys on one another up and down the dial.

"I think white people check with The Buzz to see what's happening with nutty black people -- not all black people -- and mostly the nutty hosts," McConnell says. "Not all black people listen to The Buzz or it'd show up in the ratings."

When it started, The Buzz had a .9 percent share in Arbitron ratings. Among all adults 25-54, the station now gets a 1.8 percent share; among adults 35-64, it has a 2.2 share.

McConnell's observations of The Buzz are unflinching and painted with WLW's favorite shade of whitewash, a response to WDBZ's standby black face.

Buzz staffers say urban (black) talk stations are beholden to their listeners in ways white talk stations (called "general talk") aren't. The Buzz is known as much for chartering bus trips, sponsoring health screenings and live remotes from banks, hospitals and strip malls as it is for squelching rumors that cops killed a black man who'd actually killed himself or doling out legal advice to black male callers so they won't fatally engage the police.

Like other racial discourses, money is the tipping point.

"WLW doesn't have to do it," Love says. "They're so driven by ad revenue they can take advantage of majority culture supporting them."

Ware, whose daily 10 a.m.-1 p.m. show is one of The Buzz's most popular, is also the operations manager. He says his station's on-air personalities extend themselves beyond the booth.

"In black talk radio, mainly people tend to think they're closer, that you're more a part of the community," Ware says in his reedy voice. "I don't think the white community thinks McConnell or (Bill) Cunningham are part of the community. It's no big deal to go down to June Bug's on a Saturday afternoon and see me. Where would you find McConnell?"

This is more than competitive sniping. It's black and white.

Industry people exchange "urban" for black and switch out "general" for white. But it's black and white.

"Radio is based on target audiences," says Michael Harrison, a 40-year radio vet and publisher of Talkers Magazine. "It's a new phenomenon in talk that's been going on in music for years. Radio is a demographic medium. It still comes down to the fact that most of the people that listen to The Buzz are black and most of the people that listen to WLW are white."

Still, black talk stations can be powerful.

"At large we can influence some of the things that happen at city council," Ware says. "Things we talk about on The Buzz you can see that influence at council. They say, 'I hate to hear things on The Buzz that I should've heard from a colleague.' "

Tolliver says The Buzz is best at providing information for its listeners.

"Regardless of the rhetoric you hear, it's not the end of the world on everything," she says. "It's our job to make sure people have access."

Live from the riots with Linc, Inc.

The Buzz was eight months old when some inner-city blacks faced off against cops in April 2001 after Officer Stephen Roach killed Timothy Thomas.

Either technologically challenged or hurried, the station set up a series of live remotes as best they could from the front lines of looting, burning and rubber bullets. Ware reported from his cell phone scenes of people stepping through broken store windows emerging with matching outfits.

Ware, 54, says he relished the chance to jump ship from WCIN (1480 AM) when he heard rumors a new black talk station was in the works.

"Ross Love was going to buy some AM stations and have a regional network," he says. "It never had a chance to develop because Radio One came in and bought the whole deal. He knew I wanted to come here. I felt talk was the way to go on an AM station. (WCIN owner) John Thomas didn't see it that way."

Originally hired as program director and host, Ware couldn't do both. Tolliver was his first hire. They knew each other from days of trading tips and stories when he was at WCIN and she was a producer at WKRC (550 AM).

"It was hard for me to get them to hire Jeri as a producer," Ware says. Tolliver has since become program director. "You have to be fortunate to have a person like Jeri as program director because of her experience at Clear Channel. She's seen things and knows how things are supposed to run, and that's why I didn't even entertain hiring anyone else."

High praise from a man who's forged a career from the strains of an often-mimicked voice, giving people what they want and following trends.

Ware has such name-brand clout he's got endorsement deals. That's why Buzz Prime Time Sports Show hosts Wayne "Box" Miller and Eric "ET" Thomas tagged him "Linc, Inc." Ware hawks Jeff Wyler's cars and Mike-Sells Potato Chips -- whips and chips.

But it's not enough to get the host recently listed in the "Hot 100" issue of Talkers Magazine re-signed to The Buzz. His contract expired last year, but he continues to work without paperwork.

"It's not the fault of the Loves," he says. "This is Radio One."

Would he answer a call from WLW?

"In the sunrise of retirement, you'd have to look at money. If the price was right, who knows?"

Don't touch that dial
Independent black talk stations are like the backyards of urban radio markets. In them, blacks -- listeners, hosts, producers and programmers -- seek solace like blacks have sought refuge in the church.

It's a place to figure out black identity and its (ir)relevance in America.

But to get there, blacks like Tolliver withstood the jagged terrain of racial politics. At the outset of one of her first industry jobs, she says a white colleague told her the only reason she was hired was because she's black.

"I know there are a lot of Negro tour guides, but I was the Negro Tour Guide back then," Tolliver says of the early days of her 26 years in Cincinnati radio.

And then came gender.

"It was more sexist than racist," she says, "because when you're black you're invisible. But talk about sexual harassment?"

Except for a brief stint at Channel 12, Tolliver, who grew up in Cumminsville, has worked only in radio. She started in 1978 in the traffic department at WKRC while also attending the University of Cincinnati. In 1985 she moved to sales at WUBE and WDJO.

"I hated sales immediately," says Tolliver, who was so shy at Channel 12 she left her desk only to pee. After just a year in sales, she returned to KRC and its traffic department scheduling commercials and tracking sales figures and inventory.

In 1990, in what she calls "the age of efficiency experts," Tolliver found a memo detailing the pending mass firing of all staff except sales. Given the edict to change 20 things in 15 days, Tolliver resigned but stayed through the Bengals season to complete a job only she knew how to do. At the start of the following year, she went to WIZF to manage the traffic department.

Tolliver says The Wiz was so unprofessional that payroll checks bounced. She quit and lived off of savings until she landed as traffic manager back at WUBE.

By 1992, Tolliver was back at KRC. Her mentor, Randy Michaels, catapulted her into programming, and from 1993 until 2000 she helmed the morning show with Jerry Thomas and Janeen Coyle.

In radio programming, producers are only as good as their last guests. While working at Clear Channel, Tolliver booked Newt Gingrich, George Stephanopoulos, Johnnie Cochran and Earl Woods, Tiger's father, who was recuperating from triple bypass surgery.

"When he called to cancel, I lied and said I didn't get the message because I'd been away at a funeral," she says.

Tolliver encountered culture shock when she came to The Buzz in 2000.

"It was a big adjustment to come from Clear Channel to The Buzz," she says. "I'm interested in national news, period, and not just issues that pertain to African Americans."

She misses the irreverence at KRC. "Everything doesn't have to be so serious."

The men at The Buzz take seriously the task of offering black counterpoint to WLW, and they see Tolliver as team captain.

"Jeri Tolliver has been the glue for 1230 WDBZ since day one," Love says of the woman who guided him through his first three hours hosting talk radio. "The fact that she's worked with McConnell and some of the harder heads, she knows talk radio. No disrespect to Lincoln. She's the most valuable employee we have here."

Tolliver's job seems more like a mission, and it sometimes wears her down.

"Like every other job, you have a love/hate relationship," she says. "Sometimes I'm so tired I don't think I have another minute in me, and then something major will happen -- all these people reaching out.

"What better job could I have after all these years of clawing, having all these ideas and trying to get attention? I couldn't go back to mainstream radio." ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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