WILD 1090 AM: Boston’s Little Station That Could (And Did!)
[GOAL: EXPAND THIS INTO AN EXTENSIVE ORAL HISTORY / BOOK / ARCHIVAL PROJECT]
Text by Brian Coleman, 2016
“WILD didn’t have a lot of wattage, but it broke a lot of ground, for a long time.”
– Skippy White
Despite how well Boston’s sports teams have fared in the past decade-plus, don’t be fooled: our city is, in many ways, a perfect home for anti-establishment underdogs and fighters.
Stretching back to the Revolutionary War and further, the area’s populace has always had to make its own way in the so-called new world, and create its own luck. It has been a harbor and cradle for many important social and political movements, going back to the Abolitionist movement in the late 1700s into the 19th Century. It was also a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad.
But the city has also had more than its fair share of conflict, including racial segregation, tension and many other divisive missteps in its complicated history.
In the 20th Century, through the late 1950s Boston had no significant broadcasting outlet for the city’s Black and minority populations. Publications fared slightly better than radio and television, but it’s an understatement to say that the city’s Black citizenry was severely underserved on the airways.
To be fair, at times African-American jazz and R & B could be heard on various stations in the area, but many of these were owned, controlled and programmed by whites. For instance, pioneering African-American radio host Gretchen Flippin Jackson made waves in the ‘50s on WVOM and through the mid-‘60s on WBMS. But up through the mid-‘60s, any consolations given to the minority communities of the city lacked any real power or influence.
Starting in 1960, fans of Rhythm & Blues music began to gather around their radios more frequently, tuning to a tiny, 1,000 watt AM “daytimer” found at 1090 on the AM dial. As per FCC regulations, the station was only allowed to broadcast from dawn to dusk, literally – meaning that in the winter it was off the air by 5 pm on most days.
Starting that year, a scrappy and headstrong young vinyl collector and employee of the popular record store Smilin’ Jack’s College Music, Fred “Skippy White” LeBlanc, began a quest to have the Rhythm & Blues music he loved be heard on the radio dial. Originally pitching an R & B-centric programming idea to the higher-wattage WCOP 1150 AM, he was turned down. After some pavement pounding, he ended up at a struggling outlet with a Top 40 format.
It wasn’t much of an “ask,” in the grand scheme of things. The young, budding DJ – who had no radio experience, despite claiming that he did – simply wanted an hour or two to play some of the new music that black and white customers at Smilin’ Jack’s were buying. It was clear that an audience existed, they simply needed a voice on the air, and someone to tell them what they should buy next.
Nelson Noble was the owner of WILD 1090 AM in 1960. The station’s studios were located off the lobby of the famed Sherry Biltmore Hotel, at 150 Massachusetts Avenue, near the intersection of Boylston Street. Previous to the arrival of the new decade, Noble had – according to Skippy White – overpaid for on-air talent, including Norm Prescott and future Warner Bros. Records executive Joe Smith.
Besides becoming embroiled in the infamous Payola scandal that landed in front of Congress in 1959 and 1960, these DJs didn’t deliver the listeners Noble had hoped. The latest Sinatra and Dean Martin records didn’t seem to be the best fit for the station, in part because its low wattage and daytimer status severely limited it against more powerful competitors. “It was Elevator Music,” White says today.
And so, when Skippy pitched his Rhythm & Blues show idea, Noble had very little to lose. With the stipulation that Skippy bring in four sponsors for the show’s two hours, a green light was given and White’s “The R & B Caravan” show hit the air on Saturday afternoons.
The show wasn’t an instant success, but Noble stuck with Skippy, and by 1961 White was asked to not only program his own two hour weekend show, but to advise other, much more established, weekday station staffers (who weren’t thrilled with the idea) on what Rhythm & Blues songs to add to their own shows.
During these early ‘60s years, to help pay the bills, the station also sold “brokered time,” in 30 and 60 minute blocks, usually early in the morning. Content ranged from Italian, Greek and other so-called “ethnic” programming and also included early speeches and talk programs by a man named Eugene Wolcott, who would later be known as Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Some of the station’s jocks, including jazz DJ Speed Anderson, supposedly didn’t take as kindly to the new direction, and departed. Still others were let go, soon to be replaced by talent including "Wildman" Steve (Gallon) and Jimmy “Early” Byrd, two of the station’s most important and influential employees. Hank McFarlane, who was the station’s librarian in 1960 and went on to become on-air talent as well as a musical artist, was another important figure in the station’s early years. By 1965, additional African-American on-air talent included Chuck Core and Big Buddy Lowe.
Skippy White describes the Wildman Steve era, which began in 1961: “He was wild, he had such a charisma on the air, it would touch people. Nobody in Boston had that, no one had ever heard anything like Steve before. As soon as he hit the airwaves in Boston, everyone loved him and people really started tuning into WILD.”
White adds, “We influenced not only the listeners, and we had both Black and White listeners. WILD was a ‘leader’ station, not a follower. We picked out records that weren’t hits anywhere yet. They hadn’t even been played on the radio, not even in New York. They were first played on WILD, and people [in the industry] paid attention. When we broke a record, after that New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and other markets would play it. By 1963, we were a leader station.”
By the mid-1960s, the station – while still remaining low wattage and without the ability to broadcast overnight, a status it was up against for its entire tenure – built considerable influence in Boston, with the city’s Black community and with many young White listeners as well. Continuing to bolster its on-air roster and staff with African-American talent (Noble and White were, according to Skippy, the station’s only two white staffers in 1966), Noble cashed in on what he had built by 1966, and sold the station. (The pioneering Noble passed away in the early 1970s, tragically committing suicide after losing money in the stock market).
After a short ownership tenure by a radio station group from out of state, by 1967 or 1968, WILD was purchased by a locally-based, African-American ownership group, finally making it a true “Black station,” from top to bottom. (In the process, Skippy White – who at the time was doing shows on Saturday and Sunday, in addition to engineering for other “brokered time” shows – was let go in 1968).
The late ‘60s was the next important era of WILD-AM, and as it continued to give its listeners the latest R & B, Soul and Gospel music, it also increased its community outreach by including more talk and news programs. Station programming staff and on-air talent from these important years included: the aforementioned Jimmy “Early” Byrd, Tony Lewis, James A Lewis III, Roy Sampson, gospel DJ David “Mr. My My My” Adams and Paul Yates.
The 1970s were another important time for WILD, continuing to build listenership and influence for the first part of the decade, which saw considerable racial strife in Boston, exemplified by the shameful busing conflicts starting in 1974. Throughout ongoing crises among the city’s power structure, racist residents and its minority population, WILD 1090 AM was there to keep residents informed and offer a counterpoint to establishment broadcasting outlets, with additional staff talent including Elliott Francis, Gretchen Wortham, Steve Crumbley and many more.
By the end of the decade the station was on a downturn, according to Skippy. Boston radio legend Sunny Joe White had, by the late ‘70s, transitioned the station’s musical format to Disco, which in the process alienated the core audience that had been building for the better part of two decades. Then Sunny Joe left for big bucks at FM powerhouse Kiss 108, taking many of his disco listeners with him.
Fortunately, in 1980, another era at WILD began – African-American businessman Kendall Nash purchased the station and began the station’s longest-running ownership tenure. (After he passed away in 1992, his wife Bernadine Nash continued running the station’s affairs).
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the station remained an always-forward-looking mouthpiece for Boston’s Black Community, soldiering on through ups and downs under the tagline “Boston’s Urban Vibe.” On-air staff and administrative talent during these years included: Elroy Smith, Jimmy Myers, Butterball Jr., “Coach” Willie Maye, Cherry Bomb Martinez and many others.
According to Skippy White – who owned multiple record stores in the area from the ‘60s to today and was part of an upstart competitor to WILD in the early ‘80s, WCAS 740 AM – the mid-‘80s through the early ‘90s was perhaps the station’s most profitable era, under Elroy Smith’s programming guidance and on-air presence.
Sadly, the station faltered from the mid-2000s until its demise in 2011, when it became a Chinese language news and talk station. In the early 2000s, Radio One entered the Boston market, purchasing an FM frequency to draw 1090 AM’s listeners away. Eventually renaming 97.7 FM “WILD-FM,” the media conglomerate also bought the 1090 AM frequency from Bernadine Nash. And it limped to a sad end, which occurred in June of 2011.
But the station’s faltering final years should never cast any shade upon WILD 1090 AM’s influence on – and service to – Boston’s always-underserved Black community. It was a truly and uniquely pioneering frequency for more than four decades, which alone should bestow upon it respect and legendary status.
“We are the only major metropolitan city in the country right now that doesn’t have a radio station that represents the Black community. The only one. And that’s a real shame.”
– Skippy White, January 2016