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Chicago Radio Station Owner at the Crossroads

June 5, 2007

When civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963, more than 50,000 callers flooded WVON (1690 AM), then known as “Voice of the Negro”; so many callers, in fact, that they caused a meltdown of the entire phone system on Chicago’s West side.  Even with its relatively small base of 200,000 listeners, the revered radio station continues to play a prominent role in the community, having featured such notable guests as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Barack Obama. And until recently WVON, now known as “The Talk of Chicago,” has managed to remain under African American ownership; a remarkable achievement in an industry where less than 2 percent of all broadcast media nationwide is black-owned. Originally purchased by deejays Pervis Spann (“The Blues Man”) and Wesley South (“Hotline”) in the 1970’s, WVON wields deeply rooted political and social power in the Windy City. Today, its current president and CEO, Melody Spann-Cooper, the 42-year-old daughter of Pervis, is faced with a formidable challenge.  She must not only survive, but in addition, she must find ways to actually thrive in an industry that has allowed minority and women owners to be mercilessly squeezed out. I recently spent an afternoon with Spann-Cooper at her shiny new 54,000 square foot location (formerly Soft Sheen headquarters) complete with state-of-the-art studios and plans for a community resource center and a museum of radio. During our meeting she spoke of the unprecedented agreement she signed in 2006 with Clear Channel, the behemoth conglomerate owner of some 1,200 radio stations that critics of consolidation love to hate.  It was a risky move.  And one that made even Spann-Cooper nervous. “Will I still have the freedom to do what I want?” she asked herself. “Will my station still be authentic?  Will the message get diluted because it’s white-owned?” Technically known in industry parlance as a Local Marketing Agreement (LMA), the deal means in simple language that Clear Channel now owns the station that Spann-Cooper leases, operates, and controls. Plans for the agreement came about after Earl Jones, then the newly appointed regional vice president of Clear Channel, was sent to Chicago with plans to launch a black talk station that would compete with WVON.  “He was conscious enough,” recalls Spann-Cooper, “to understand that this was a black-owned station, and that Clear Channel did not need to come in here and be the big piranha and run us out of business.”  Jones, who happens to be African American, was open to conversations with Spann-Cooper about “strategic alliances.” In a rapidly consolidating media environment, where small, minority owners are forced to depend upon the kindness of listeners to survive—and even that is not enough—the deal deserves a closer look. That Spann-Cooper has managed to negotiate it is a testament to her survival skills, and WVON’s ability to grow and change with the times. “Before,” she says, “my signal was 1,000 watts and probably went to 130 miles on a good day. Now, my signal is 10,000 watts and will take you all the way to Minnesota.” The boost in power that a Clear Channel partnership has given WVON allows the station to reach African American listeners who have steadily migrated to the South suburbs, a demographic that it was rapidly losing to other stations—most of them Clear Channel owned—due to a low power signal. But perhaps what’s most unusual about the deal is that Spann-Cooper negotiated for the rights to buy her station back in five years. Initially warned by Jones that Clear Channel does not sell successful stations, especially not in top markets, she pushed back hard. “I said, ‘I can’t do this deal without at least the opportunity to buy the station.’” She wasn’t asking for an FM signal or one of Clear Channel’s main properties, she argued. “I was asking for this little AM signal that can’t even compete with them most days.” “He knew he could hurt me,” she says, praising Earl Jones’ foresight in making the deal. “He also knew he could help me. And it could do nothing but make Clear Channel look good.” Still, even with such strategic alliances, Spann-Cooper continues to depend on the loyalty of her listeners for funding everything from the light bill to programming that’s not supported by traditional advertisers.  “I can’t go to Coca Cola and say, ‘Celebrate Juneteenth.’  They’ll say what the hell is Juneteenth? If I go to Pepsi and say, ‘Hey I got pre-Kwanzaa.’ They’ll say, ‘What’s pre-Kwanzaa?  Is Jay-Z going to be there?’”

“But my listeners . . .” she adds, shaking her head. “These listeners are not going to let the station go down.”

“They are just not going to let it go down.”