WZUM catering to an expansive audience on AM dial
When Washington’s classic country-western formatted WKZV powered down this spring, Western Pennsylvania lost a vital element of its AM radio band: niche programming.
But the burgeoning independence of area AM stations was re-established July 4 when, further up the dial, 1550 emerged with another niche format and classic call letters. With the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” leading the way, WZUM premiered its R&B oldies, one that emphasizes crossover hits from 1964 through 1979.
It’s a dose of 45s that once were current on one of the many incarnations of the old WZUM, which jumped from R&B to Top 40 to album rock in the ’60s and ’70s. The old ’60s hits are now nestled among a very entertaining package that emphasizes Motown and is flavored with disco, sizzling soul ballads and a small sampling of poppier songs from the ’60s and ’70s that haven’t been heard anywhere on the dial in decades.
An afternoon block last week included the Four Tops’ “Bernadette,” the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You,” the Supremes “Back in My Arms Again,” the Jackson Five’s “ABC” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” meshed with Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around,” Heatwave’s “Always and Forever,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You” and the Chi Lite’s “Have You Seen Her.” The out-of-nowhere selection? “California Soul” by the Fifth Dimension.
The music, interrupted only by retro WZUM jingles, came courtesy of Clarke Ingram, veteran Pittsburgh disc jockey and programmer (WBZZ,WJJJ, 3WS), who is consulting with the station’s new owners Ed DeHart and Stephen Zelenko.
“Right now it’s a very good soup,” he said. “We’ll be adding ingredients along the way to make it a great soup.”
Longtime radio fans will no doubt smile at the lively jingles and tunes, many of which have disappeared from FM radio. But the most intriguing aspect of the station may well be that it doesn’t bury the ballads. Sweet, sultry, slow music was a core element of early R&B, so it’s fittingly spotlighted on WZUM. That alone sets it apart from many oldies stations that concentrate on tempo over selection.
Ingram said he had no difficulty putting together the music.
“To be honest, I had this idea ready for the former WZUM, when it went dark a few years ago,” he said. “But I eventually realized it would never happen when the station became involved in legal problems, and Crafton couldn’t wait to tear the towers down.”
When he learned that the former WLOA-AM in Braddock had been purchased for $14,500 and was in need of a format, Ingram jumped at the chance.
“I handed them the music on a flash drive, and I had all the original jingles. We just had to alter them from 1590 to 1550 on the dial.” Ingram laughed. “Hey, we can still say it’s at the top of the dial.”
In less than two months, the station went on the air, although Ingram freely admits there is much tinkering to do.
“The owners are planning to add some local talent down the road,” Ingram said, “but the immediate goal was to get it on the air quickly.”
Ingram is not delusional about the station’s chances for success.
“Anything will be better than what preceded it (Business Talk Radio under the call letters WLFP),” he said. “Plus, we’re filling a void. Really, there’s not much for black adult listeners or any listeners who want to envelop themselves in oldies from that particular era. This is a color-blind format, and I hope it appeals to everyone. Also, it doesn’t hurt that we are evoking call letters and jingles from a station that many people really liked back in the day.
“The reality, though, is that it’s a 1-kilowatt station. We’re not going to beat the big stations. And we’re on AM, which today is similar to shopping at one of those big malls that only has four or five open stores.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “Pittsburgh FM radio is dull, in my opinion, especially for people of a certain age. So the demographic shift for those listeners may be back to AM, which is where they actually started listening to radio. I think they’ll find something comfortable at WZUM: familiar music that is played the way they first heard it, jingles and all. It’s fun radio, and that can’t be said for much of what is on the FM dial. And this is one radio station that’s not going dark.”
WZUM is at 1550 on the AM dial. During the day, it can be picked up in Washington County. It also is streaming at 1550WZUM.com.