The large African American population in these areas of the country demand this type of diversity; but what about the musical needs of the small percentage of blacks (4%) and other more pale R&B lovers who live here in the Pacific Northwest? Until recently we've been confined to a virtual musical prison -- a prison run by and for the honkies.
Happily, the sweet breath of soul is finally blowing our way. On January 13 of this past year, a small 5,000 watt station with the call letters KSRB opened up shop at 1150 on the AM dial. Listeners from Olympia to just north of Everett are finally being graced with a daily dose of classic R&B. And not just your mainstream cross-overs either -- even those well-versed in the soulful arts will find themselves stumped and surprised by some of KSRB's artists and their B-sides, which are rarely (if ever) heard on commercial radio. While it's not surprising that someone finally realized the huge black music niche waiting to be filled in this market, what's more surprising is where it's coming from, and who started it: Bellevue, Washington, and two very white guys.
A quick listen to KSRB, and you might think you're stuck in a radio time-warp. Not only is the soul dated (between 1960-80), but even the DJs, bumpers, and commercials sound like they're from 1972. The effect is as if the music is originating from a small, worn, one-room studio way down on Rainier Avenue -- but it isn't. It comes from inside a glossy, copper-colored building in the high-tech Mecca of Bellevue, from the plush offices of the Sandusky Radio corporation (home of the local AM radio powerhouse KIXI, AM 880). Though KSRB's "soul street cred" should crumble right there on the spot, a look past this opulence at KSRB's actual working area and staff puts those fears to rest.
Erik Krema and Greg Lyle-Newton (the station's only full time staff members) sit in a 10 foot long, six foot wide cubicle -- the home to KSRB. Erik is operations manager (as well as doing everything else), and Greg is the program director (as well as doing everything else). So how did two white guys working for a corporation famous for their "easy listening" fare wind up running a classic soul station? "Before it was KSRB, it was KEZX -- a business/talk station," Greg says. "And actually, it was doing pretty well, revenue-wise, because they were selling blocks of time to infomercials. However, it wasn't generating the ratings. So the owners discontinued it, because they wanted to develop something with a higher profile... and [they] sort of started asking around for suggestions."
At the time, Erik was operations manager for the business station, and Greg was working in sales and design for KWJZ, the "Smooth Jazz" arm of Sandusky's five-station mini-empire. It was Greg who originally came up with the idea for "a black KIXI."
A southern boy, Greg grew up loving soul music, and over the years he has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. However, he didn't know jack about running a station. Conversely, Erik didn't know jack about soul, but had years of business and marketing experience in radio. Erik had the idea of changing the format from financial to '70s funk. Ultimately, they married the two concepts, and formulated a business plan to present to the owners.
"It probably sounded crazy to these guys," Greg says. "I mean there's really no precedent for this kind of thing. There's a format being pushed on the East Coast called "Jammin' Oldies," but it's exclusively cross-over hits, very Motown -- so the library of music isn't as varied as we wanted. As you can imagine, our bosses [needed] a little convincing because of the small African American market we would be playing to."
But eventually they were convinced enough to give the station a shot -- albeit a very small one. Though KSRB has enough wattage to broadcast over a fairly long distance, Greg and Erik were not given the budget to hire anyone except a part time production assistant, and they were given even less money to market their new station. In lieu of being able to hire local DJs, the two chose ABC Radio to supply much of their programming. This turned out to be a mixed blessing, because while ABC's classic R&B format may be closer to Greg and Erik's vision than "Jammin' Oldies," it still doesn't provide the sound the two eventually want.
"I think the programmers there have a narrow view of R&B and soul music," Greg says. "It's not as inclusive as I would like it to be. For example, I've made suggestions to them about being more ethnically diverse, and they were kind of resistant to it. I'd like to include more of the '70s disco realm, or expand it in terms of more eclectic artists like David Bowie, or Grace Jones, who I feel contributed to the soul genre... or maybe even Dusty Springfield. She may not be your stereotypical soul artist because she's white, but I don't think she should be necessarily excluded. She was embraced by black audiences, and -- point in fact -- since we started playing her, we've gotten a lot of calls from listeners who are excited to hear white artists included in the mix."
Though Greg would love it if ABC opened their eyes to the joy of blue-eyed soul, he recognizes that they still have a very good package which promotes audience interaction. One of their more popular shows is "The Solid Gold Soul Request Show," where Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin are mixed with artists you rarely hear on cross-over stations such as Earth Wind & Fire, Cameo, the Stylistics, or Chaka Khan. Another features a "Battle of the Soul Bands," in which blocks of songs by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles might go head to head with Gladys Knight & the Pips. A personal favorite is "The Soul Food Cafe" (Mon-Fri, 7p.m.-2a.m.) in which listeners can call in, and "order off a menu" of their favorite R&B songs. This respect for the opinions of their audience is hard to find among DJs of certain local stations who (without naming names) substitute listener interaction with incessant screaming about "EXTREME BIG-ASS CARWASHES!!!" and "KICK-ASS SUMMER JAMS!!!"
"There's been a lot of complaints regarding KUBE," says Greg (who doesn't mind naming names at all). "I think KUBE has alienated a lot of listeners who have chosen to come to us. Mainly because [KUBE] senses, and is more comfortable with, their transition from being a station accessible to black audiences to a station that plays black artists but targets teenage boys."
This idea of white folk having the necessary credibility to present black music to black people is a tricky one, but Erik doesn't worry about the morality of their intentions.
"90 percent of the artists you hear on this station are African American," Erik notes. "It's their genre, they invented it. But musically speaking, our local black community has no other place to go. And we have a responsibility to that community. You know, the power of radio goes beyond just hawking cars and getting people to come out for a contest and things like that. That's why we go directly to the African American community, and talk to the community leaders, as well as getting involved with what they're doing like the Black Dollar Days Task Force, or the United Negro College Fund. We feel we owe it to the community as a whole to address the challenges and the problems they're having, and do it in a positive way."
And according to the two, their station's efforts to work alongside and be accepted by the African American community has been successful -- largely due to their respect for the music.
"KSRB is very much an African American station," Greg says, "in the sense that the community feels a strong sense of ownership over it. They really support the station, and I enjoy serving the community -- but ultimately I want it to be a black station for everyone. I want it to expand its appeal without alienating or diminishing the black contribution that founded the genre."
It's been seven months since they've opened up shop, and this "black station for everyone" has already won ABC Radio's award for "Affiliate of the Year," and by all appearances is staying healthy and on course. "Of course, our bosses would love it if we were making more money, but our CUME [number of people who sample a station in a week] is already stronger than our predecessor, which is a great sign. Once we prove to the ownership that we can bring in big ratings -- that we can increase the revenue -- they'll open their purse strings and we can start localizing the station even more, by hiring local DJs and putting together more programs in-house."
Greg adds, "Going local is key. We want to be able to control the tempo and mood of the music according to what our local listeners want -- but without losing the style we've established. I like the fact that we sound unique -- different; sometimes a bit awkward or poor. You're not going to hear anything else like it in this market, and it's true to the tradition of radio, and it's great, great music."