ALEX: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg, This is Without Fail. the show where I talk to athletes, artist s, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds -- about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.
Just a quick note at the top, there is some light cursing in this episode.
Launching something new takes faith. Faith that the new thing you’re launching is something the world needs. The world is calling for, hungry for. And faith that you in particular are the one to deliver it.
On today’s show I’m talking to some people who helped launch something, based on that kind of faith.
Pierre: My name is Pierre Sutton.
Keisha: I am Keisha Sutton James.
Alex: And how are you guys related.
Keisha: I am his first born child by 25 years.
Pierre: But it is true, she was my first and favorite for a very long time.
Keisha: Life was lovely.
ALEX: The venture Pierre helped launch, and Keisha later helped him build, required making a bet. Two bets actually. The first bet: that there was an audience for the thing they were launching. And the second bet, that a brand new and completely untested technology, would help them reach that audience.
And the story of that new venture, and how it played a hand in the creation of so much we see and hear in culture today, it starts back with Pierre’s father, Percy Sutton, who was a prominent figure in civil rights movement in 1960’s New York.
<<PERCY SUTTON: I’m reminded as every other negro must be, in New York, that we are not free. I’m also reminded that as long as a door is closed to a men’s waiting room that is marked colored in Jackson MI, I’m not free to go into Grand Central Station in New York City.>>
ALEX: Percy was a former Tuskegee airman, a businessman, a lawyer -- He represented Malcolm X and politician. He was the Manhattan borough president for 12 years...which at the time made him the highest ranking black politician in the entire state of New York. And according to Pierre, Percy was always looking for ways to elevate black voices in the community. He already owned a small newspaper, but one day Percy learned of an opportunity to buy a local radio station. An AM station with the call letters WLIB.
Pierre: It was a soul station. I like to say that black radio, was the radio station at the end of the dial. At the end of the dial that means it's a weak signal. And people who couldn't figure out what to do with their radio stations decided that they would play soul music or race music because they couldn't figure out what else to do with the radio station, so do they did that.
Alex: Right. That was the term at the time? literally called race music?
Pierre: That's right. Race music.
ALEX: And Pierre says owners of these stations didn’t believe that the black audience had spending power, and so the owners didn’t invest that many resources trying to reach a black audience. WLIB was so small, that it didn’t even broadcast full time. It went off the air in the evening. And so if you tuned in late at night looking for soul music, you’d hear instead the bleed from this huge superstation out in the midwest, WOWO, whose signal was so powerful, it would colonize other available frequencies on the AM dial, including WLIB at night.
Pierre: When it went off the air you could hear farm equipment being sold out in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
But to Percy Sutton this tiny part-time radio station represented something. It represented the idea of putting a black radio station in the hands of black ownership.
To buy this station would cost Percy 1.9 million dollars. So he started to raise money. He tapped prominent community members from his circle. A group of black doctors, lawyers, preachers, teachers..and they ended up investing over 300,000 dollars. But that still wouldn’t cover the asking price. So they had to get a bank loan for the rest, which for a group of black business and community leaders in 1971, wasn’t simple...
Pierre: We went to 63 banks to raise the money and they refused. Finally we got an interview with Chemical Bank, which is long gone. One of our shareholders had saved the life of the son of the president of the bank. And so it was through that we were able to get an audience with the bank and they actually gave, lent us some money.
Alex: One of your shareholders had saved the life of the son of the bank
Keisha: Son of a president of the bank
Pierre: Saved him from drowning. He was a camp counselor and saved the kid from drowning at camp.
Alex: Oh wow. That's a lot more than like putting up some collateral. That's like that's a pretty that's a pretty strict loan requirement. You have to save the life of a son of our president.
Alex: We'll give you the loan. Yeah.
Pierre: Yeah, a high bar.
Alex: Yeah exactly.
Keisha: But like that's Chris Rock has a joke about that. About him being an Alpine New Jersey and how you know he's a humongous comedian and he's like all my neighbors are white and they're dentists, doctors right. His point is for me I had to be like headlining HBO star, dah, dah, dah, but these white guys are..
Alex: they just went to dental school
Keisha: They went to dental school. They just you know that's the that's the hurdle to clear
ALEX: Percy and his team did clear that hurdle. They got the loan and bought the AM station, WLIB. For years this station had catered to a small black audience, but was run by white owners. Percy wanted to do things differently, including how they treated their listeners.
Pierre: We were very very highly selective in how we put things on the air. And we were selective in the kind of commercials. We turned away a lot of money to be pure. No cigarettes no liquor.
Alex: So you would turn you so people would come to you wanting to advertise cigarettes and liquor and you'd said no.
Keisha: The reason was because you refuse to talk down to your community. You know the purpose was to lift and reflect the community in a positive way.
Pierre: Yes. Yes.
ALEX: Percy also made some pretty radical decisions about the kind of programming that went on the air. He wanted the station to be a place for the community to talk to each other. So he created call in shows, interview shows, round-table discussions, Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz hosted a show. And the discussions were all on issues facing the black community: civil rights, black power, South African apartheid. What Pierre calls -- the revolution.
Pierre: And being a revolutionary in those days was very positive. You've felt good about being part of change. I wasn't here for 1968 when Malcolm when he died when he was murdered. I wasn't here for for King’s assassination. I was in I was in Vietnam at the time. So I was more than happy to to play a small role in the revolution here in New York.
Alex: And it really does. It sounds like that was something that also was a little bit new in terms of like a radio station being a center of the community in that that way. Was that a role that radio had played at least in New York as you were aware ?
Pierre: No. There weren't any black radio stations before. We’re the first... black ownership black ownership means a lot because you decide who to hire who to fire what to say really ultimately becomes your decision and white owners, it was not in their best interest to be revolutionary in that sense..
ALEX: Things on WLIB went well. People were tuning in. Percy eventually handed day to day operations of WLIB to his son Pierre. And things could have gone on like this, with WLIB broadcasting to a small but loyal listenership—but Pierre, he saw a much bigger opportunity.
And this is where we get to one of the bets that Pierre made. The bet on technology.
You see, there was the option to buy a second station from the same owners. A sister station, you could say, but it wasn’t in the AM band, it was in the FM band. And if Pierre was to purchase this FM station, he was essentially placing a bet on this relatively new technology, called FM radio.
Alex: What was FM radio like at this at this moment.
Pierre: There was no FM. FM signals would bounce off the leaves of the trees and the sides of buildings. FM is a linear medium that it is line of sight if if it doesn't hit from tower to receiver you can't get the signal. So you can imagine it virtually impossible space for radio to function in New York or any city for that matter.
Alex: But there were still FM stations broadcasting if you were to tune in if you happened to be right next to the transmitter… what would you hear.
Pierre: There would be very little programming. Because there was no money put into it.
ALEX: But there were advantages to FM. For one, it was a totally different way of broadcasting sound over the air-waves. And it allowed for much higher fidelity. AM was scratchy and tinny, and only in mono. FM was rich and full, and in stereo. None of which mattered of course, if no one could hear the station.
The FM station that LIB’s owners were selling was called WBLS. And it mostly played jazz music. To a very small audience. To acquire the WBLS station, would cost Pierre 1.1 million dollars.
Alex: So why did you guys want to spend one point one million dollars on this station that nobody had equipment to listen to. It was hard to listen to and there wasn't any programming on?
Pierre: I met a guy named Mitch Hastings. I hope he's still alive, but he had a metal plate in his head. And He was a radio engineer and he had something called a circular polarized antenna which he put on his radio station in Boston WBCN, the Boston Concert Network so it could be it could broadcast classical concerts. He was sheer genius.
Alex: And what this technology solved was it solved the direct line of sight problem? It like enabled you to pick it up even if you weren't directly next to.
Pierre: That is correct. and he told me about the circular polarized antenna and I said, no really? You can do what? Yeah. So that was no really you can do what. So I went to Boston and he showed me how it worked.
Alex: So you see this, your mind is blown. What happens next?
Pierre: Well uh
Keisha: You say, give me one of those.
Pierre: Yeah I want. Give me. You know/ he was, he just let me use it at first I paid him later on, We just we just put that into the broadcast chain and it's worked out.
Alex: After you tested it you saw it was real. What is your feeling?
Pierre: Elation but coupled with angst because I put one on WBLS and people were able to get the signal. // And so // the real test is this what kind of audience can you gather.
ALEX: And this brings us to the second bet that Pierre made: the audience. They had been able to build a loyal black audience for the AM station. But here they were banking on something much, much bigger. Pierre wanted to make something new. A music station that programmed for black people, not as an afterthought, or for something to put at the end of the dial, but as its main goal. Pierre was betting that if he invested in real money in programming for a black audience, a black audience would show up and listen.
And so he set the new format for the station, jazz and soul music, invested in a bunch of on air talent, and started broadcasting.
<<TAPE: (WBLS AD) WBLS FM, the most exciting sound in the most exciting city>>
WBLS was live, but the question was, how would it perform? Just like in TV, radio gets ratings. And the company that provides those ratings was called Arbitron. So Pierre and Inner City..they were hoping that Arbitron would show them big numbers.
Pierre: We were anxiously awaiting the results of the Arbitron survey which measured radio listenership and the effect was electric. Turns out we had a great audience. The first book and then three months later we were number one.
Alex: The FM station
Alex: How did that feel.
Pierre: I felt like really excited. What I did then was if this thing works here there’s no reason why it won't work elsewhere. So I started buying. I got an opportunity to buy a radio station in Detroit. And then went to San Francisco where I bought an AM and an FM station. The FM in Detroit was one point eight million dollars. I paid one point eight million dollars for an AM and FM in San Francisco. By the time I got to L.A. the word was out and I had to pay five million dollars for an AM/FM combination. But on the strength of the success of WBLS I was able to convince the bank to lend us more money so we go on this buying spree and then by then everyone was looking for an FM station. Everybody started looking, prices started shooting through the roofs on FM radio.
ALEX: Inner City Broadcasting was up and running. Pierre was in charge of a network of stations across the country, all programing for a black audience. And that New York FM station, WBLS, it became the flagship.
Alex: So. It becomes it becomes pretty quickly the number one FM station the number one station in New York City.
Keisha: And because New York is the largest market in the country if you're the number one in the largest market the country, you’re the number one in the country.
Pierre: That was true then, I don't know if it's true now.
Alex: So just a couple years after purchasing this FM station you were the largest radio station in the country?
Pierre: Looking back on it I must have been star.
<<FRANKIE CROCKER OPENING>>
Keisha: You know this station was innovative in a number of ways. Frankie Crocker became a legendary radio disc jockey legendary huge huge huge and Frankie was really a poet on the air.
<<FRANKIE CROCKER TAPE>>
Keisha: He also just had an incredible ear for music and term in terms of song selection. So the format that he put together it was an innovation actually it became not just soul or or race which it had been 50s and 60s was what we call race music. And he coined the term urban to to articulate the fact that our audience was people from who lived an urban lifestyle. Not black not Puerto Rican not white not one or the other but kind of all encompassing and that that urban moniker became obviously a format name in radio and then in like everything else. So that that was to me an amazing innovation.
Pierre: You know we used the yet quiet storm being played on a night, at nighttime and a lot of black radio stations.
Alex: And the quiet storm is like sort of slow and sort of slow jams.
Pierre: Yeah. Heavy voice introducing...
Alex: Yeah yeah “You’re listening to The Quiet Storm...” Yeah.
<<QUIET STORM TAPE: WBLS. 107.5. This is the Quiet Storm, Vaughn Harper’s my name...>>
Alex: And that was something that you guys innovated?
Keisha: Didn't it come out of D.C. But we we popularized it, right?
Pierre: I stole it from ah WHUR radio… the college, the college
Alex: Is that Howard University? So you heard that and...
Pierre: Quiet Storm. That's a good idea. You take that. Put it on the radio in New York.
Alex: So every time you hear the quiet storm you're like ah, I found that I discovered that
Pierre: that’s pretty cool.
Pierre: We had a thing on WBLS well where the announcer would say W B L S. And each letter would pong Speaker of the stereo effect
Pierre: We heard that replicated all around the country. So people station owners say they were broadcasting stereo their music. It was a very big deal
Keisha: That ping. You know this radio station was recorded on little cassette tapes and sent all around the world, all around the world. I mean I lived in Kenya. I travel around the world and when people find out that our family built this radio station they would all say WBL — like yeah (LAUGHS)
ALEX: After the break, Inner City Broadcasting goes nationwide:
ALEX: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Pierre Sutton and Keisha Sutton James of Inner City Broadcasting. One of the most famous theaters in Harlem is called the Apollo Theater. During the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance it rose to prominence, hosting stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
It was the place where anyone who was anyone in music, dance or comedy wanted to perform. Huge stars like James Brown, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, they all came through the Apollo. But by the late 70s it had fallen on hard times.
Keisha: So the Apollo actually had been dark for several years. Harlem had been going through a tough time. Someone had actually gotten shot in the theater, which led eventually to it being shut down. The Shiffmans owned it and the family that owned it. They had been selling off their other theaters in Harlem to religious groups. And they turned these theaters into churches and they were on the verge of doing the same with the Apollo. So the Apollo was one of my grandfather’s dreams. And he had this dream of open of owning the Apollo Theater and having it be like the mecca of black culture and certainly the mecca of Harlem. So he bought the Apollo. Or, we, the company,
Pierre: Inner City Broadcasting paid for the Apollo. And it was what kept those doors open were the dollars coming out of Inner City Broadcasting.
ALEX: Percy had this idea to restore the Apollo theater to its prominence. A national TV show broadcast from the Apollo theater. And in 1987, it launched.
Showtime at the Apollo began broadcasting. The show featured both up-and-coming artists and professionals in music and comedy. And it was the place where one of today’s most prominent TV personalities got his start on national TV.
<<STEVE HARVEY: If you are ready for the whole Apollo experience, ready to show the world what we do, everybody say Yeah.
HARVEY: Everybody say yeah
Pierre: Steve Harvey was the guy who was this street comedian and then we put him on the stage at the Apollo Theater. And he was the host that we used in Showtime at the Apollo.
ALEX: By the 90’s, Inner City broadcasting had firmly established its place at the center of black cultural life in New York City. But now that Pierre’s bet had so clearly paid off -- there was a black audience, bigger and more commercially viable than most people had imagined -- he had to contend with competitors:
Pierre: I remember one day coming back from somewhere I was out of the country I came back and I was listening to this radio station play on the radio with the cab. The guy was black that was driving a cab. And then when it came up to the call letters it was not WBLS I was hearing it was something else. And oh my God..
Alex: Who is this black man not listening to WBLS
Pierre: This is my listener right here, this guy’s not listening to my radio station, this is horrible, what is going on here? So you do say what is going on here. So I I suffered a panic attack. We.. turned out that was KTU. They played disco 24 hours a day. They knocked us out of the number one spot and that really upset me.
And so we went back to the drawing board and what we simply did was play music that wasn't dance music you know 180 beats a minute 24 hours a day. It's a little rough on the ears. Not to mention your heartbeat… just not good for the human body. So we would did disco and more. We had to counter them with disco and more
<<TAPE: WBLS Ad: It’s here, it’s now. Disco and more, more, more…>>>
Pierre: And we became number one again.
Alex: And what what what finally knocked you out of number one permanently?
Pierre: Permanent competition.
Pierre: 70 or so 70 radio stations in New York. When you're in competition with two other radio stations one vying for your older audience and another vying for your young audience. I mean it just becomes untenable you just let the black community isn’t that big. It’s big but not that big. And so by virtue of having competition it just takes away your audience.
Keisha: But also music changed, meaning formats. So whereas Beyonce would have been exclusively had would have exclusively been our artist back in the day, she became a pop artist. And so the pop station started started to play black artists more and more than than they had. And same by the same token the record labels started shutting down their urban labels and just kind of absorbing the urban or the black artists into their pop labels and black became less of a thing.
ALEX: By the mid 2000s, Keisha, who’d been working for 7 years as a banker on wall street, decided to come and work in the family business. She joined Inner City Broadcasting, which despite all the changes in the industry was still doing quite well.
Keisha: We had syndicated Wendy Williams. We were syndicating Steve Harvey which was his show was number... I don't remember what the rating was but it was a very high rating. You know that was a great financial success. 2007 I think was our biggest year ever.
Alex: as a company.
Alex: Can you characterize like, so you bought the, you bought the stations for a total of like you know a couple million dollars in the beginning. By the by the height, what were you guys bringing in revenue.
Pierre: Several times that which we paid for. Tens of millions of dollars we were making in a year...
Alex: And that's revenue? Or that's profit.
Pierre: That's that's revenue.
Alex: Right now.
Pierre: Radio is famous for being able to throw more than half of its revenue into the bottom line.
Alex: Yeah there's not that many operating costs. Yes. So if you can get an audience and you can get a lot of people listening then you're...
Alex: So 2007 it's your biggest year you're bringing in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. You're in a famously high-margin low-cost business. Things are things are things are looking great. And then just a couple of years later you end up filing for bankruptcy right. Right. So what happened.
Pierre: Shit happened.
Keisha: A lot of shit.
ALEX: After the break: shit happens.
Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Pierre Sutton and Keisha Sutton James… In 2007, Inner City Broadcasting had its best year ever, and then, as we just heard. Shit happened. Specifically, this shit.
<<CNN: Breaking news here - stocks all around the world are tanking because of the crisis on Wall Street.
CBS: The Dow tumbled more than 500 points after two pillars of the Street tumbled over the weekend, Lehman Brothers, a 158 year old firm, filed for bankruptcy.
NBC: Signs were everywhere but now it’s official we are in a recession.
Pierre: We managed to find ourselves into a recession the nation suffered a recession.
Alex: Yeah, I remember
Keisha: it was pretty bad.
Pierre: Pretty bad recession
Alex: 2008. Next great depression almost happened.
Pierre: And it was. When the country suffers a recession the black community suffers a depression quite literally. We had a perfect storm. We had the recession which is bad all around and it hit many of our advertisers: black banks, insurance companies, black auto dealers. A good part of our advertising is what disappeared. And so that happened.
ALEX: And then it got worse for Inner City Broadcasting. Arbitron, the ratings company that measures radio audience. They changed the way they counted listeners. And that change, Arbitron later acknowledged, led to a significant undercount of black audiences.
Keisha: Which had devastating effects on us and black broadcasters around the country.
Alex: Basically this change showed up
Keisha: in our ratings.
Alex: your ratings. So all the sudden
Pierre: Oh, it cut advertising on our radio station by half. Half. On our radio station. Half overnight. So that put us in a very difficult position with respect to the banks.
Keisha: Right and the other factor in this perfect storm was that now because the revenue could not sustain the amount of debt that we had, now we're in a position where we have to restructure our credit in 2009 and our stations are not worth what they need to be worth in order for us to come up with a good deal. And we were working with Goldman and GE and then they sold the credit to private equity funds and a hedge fund and they immediately moved to foreclose on the assets and then flipped them.
Alex: When it did this. When did this go down.
Keisha: It started in 2009 and we went into bankruptcy in May June 2010 and we closed in October of 2012.
Pierre: Everything is gone. They took everything. These people came in in the middle of the night and took the art that was off the wall. We had a number of African American Masters arts on the walls at the radio facility and they came in one night and stole the art off the walls. You talk about the culture. It is it's just utter disrespect for for us and our culture. They stole the art off the walls. We had to fight them in court to get back. That's the kind of people that we were dealing with here.
Pierre: I could not believe that these two huge banks… our credit meant nothing in the scheme of their portfolio. Why would they just let it go like that. Why would they just put this out of business like that it just it still baffles me as I fail to come up with a reason for them having to fail fail us. Why did they do that. I just don't know. We could have weathered that storm as other radio stations had weathered the storm, but instead, simply sold us down the river.
Keisha: It was an incredibly dark time
Keisha: It does become baffling when you hit the worst part in your company’s history, you know, how your partner in that. Right? You’d like to think, at least, they talk about a partnership and growing partnership and lalalala how you how it's possible to walk away from their quote partner in that moment. // And it still is pretty hard to live with. And I speak as someone who is a third generation in this. This was his life's work 40 years came home from Vietnam and built this company for 40 years. And I felt completely gutted by it. I honestly can't imagine how you, Dad, the heartache you must experience to this day.
Pierre: I can't describe it. Let's move on. I just can't describe it.
Keisha: Yeah. Now I can't
Alex: It's painful.
Keisha: It was ugly. You know the reason again that they went into the business was to be able to impact our communities in a positive way, authentically. Through our lens, through our viewpoint. Like this business is not just a business to make money. This business was for impacting our community.
Alex: Something that comes up a lot on this podcast and that I think about a lot is just sort of like most successful businesses are never just business. They're always something else right. There's always some element of art. There's always some element of community. There's always some element of a mission to it.
Alex: heart. Right. I think to launch a successful business especially important like you have to have something. Or it seems like you have to have something else. And then when things are in crisis you are there everything else gets stripped away and it's just the business part that's left. And I think that it sounds like what you're saying is that that process was just like after having run this thing for so many decades as like business plus then to just have it just purely financial and and just everything stripped away and not valued at all. I can understand how that would be heartbreaking.
Keisha: Yeah, that was really hard for me to wrap my mind around it still feels. // like // betrayal
Pierre: We know now what it looks like what it is supposed to look like what radio broadcasting to the black community is supposed to look like. I don't know how mu ch you're going to see of that in the future because black radio for most part is not owned by black people. So I don't know how much of that heart that Keisha speaks of, will ever be seen. I don't know if it will ever be seen again.
Alex: Well so you were talking about the competition, the rise in competition. And you were talking about like how that was, wasn't just from other black radio stations but now was from Top 40 stations and pop music stations and that like now the fact that black artists like you have like Beyonce and Jay Z and like they are the most popular performers in the world. Do you think you guys had something to do with that.
Keisha: I mean the fact is that these artists, Beyonce when she came from Destiny's Child she came through black radio like I I I'm not saying it would not have happened were it not for BLS.
Keisha: Obviously we all know that Beyonce has a work ethic that is beyond pretty much everybody on the planet.
Keisha: So regardless of what
Alex: Taking for granted that she is like beyond human.
Keisha: She would not just be singing.
Pierre: A force of nature.
Keisha: Yes, she really is a force of nature. But the fact is that you know a combination of a whole lot of factors including the exposure through black radio. You know as has led to you know that which she has become. I don't know. I will claim the little bit of a factor that black radio was for her and and for so many other artists.
Alex: I think well demonstrating that the commercial prowess demonstrating the widespread appeal demonstrating that the number one station in New York. Right. Is a black station -- did that have something to do with this like sort of like this the. Place where we are today like black culture becoming. I don't know that I'm reaching too far maybe I'm reaching too far but I wonder if that's something that you say.
Pierre: A lodestar?
Pierre: I think so. I think.
ALEX: And that wraps up my conversation with Pierre Sutton and Keisha Sutton James. Thanks to both of them for coming on the show.
Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick and Sarah Platt. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.
Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Theme and ad music by Bobby Lord. Additional music by Peter Leonard.
Special thanks to Ellis Feaster (FEE-ster) for his recordings of WBLS and DJ Frankie Crocker. And you know what, I love our theme song, but I’m feeling something different right now.
<<theme music winds down...sultry 70s jazz/soul music comes up>>
Ah, that’s better.
If you haven’t subscribed to Without Fail, do it now. And review and rate us, it really helps. Thanks so much for listening.
And remember: If Alex Blumberg isn’t on your podcast, then your podcast isn’t really on. Take care and ciao.