Radio Days: Colorblind music programming revitalizes new WZUM-AM



In the '60s, a small station in Carnegie was shaking up the airwaves.

The original WZUM-AM signed on in 1962 with an R&B format. Then at 1590 on the dial, the station was owned by the late James "Jimmy Pol" Psihoulis, who made local history with his recording of "Pittsburgh Steelers Polka." WZUM has gone through several formats over the years, including an R&B and rock hybrid, an odd mix of album rock and polkas, followed by religious and finally silence. In 2012, after a struggle with debt and a year off the air, WZUM lost its license.

Third of four parts

Oct. 13: The rise and decline of AM radio.

Last Sunday: Talk radio in Pittsburgh.

Today: A tale of two radio stations -- WGBN and WZUM.

Next Sunday: Local museums honor the rich history of Pittsburgh radio.

Fast-forward to the present: WZUM is back on a new frequency -- 1550 -- and with new owners: AM Guys LLC, a partnership formed by Ed DeHart and Stephen Zelenko, who bought 1550's license, transmitter and tower in June for $14,515.

That's less than the price of a new car, but Mr. DeHart said it doesn't reflect their total investment. They had been associated with the station for a while, renting studio space and equipment to several of its former owners and maintaining the studio and technical end of the broadcasts.

Like 1590, 1550 had its struggles. In 1991, the Homewood-Brushton Revitalization and Development Corp. bought a religious/gospel station and launched WCXJ-AM, a talk station geared to the African-American community. New York-based Inner City Broadcasting bought the station in 2000 and changed the call letters to WURP.

In 2004, Mr. DeHart leased the station from Inner City and redubbed it The Edge, which aired nationally syndicated talk shows. In 2007, it was purchased by Greenwich, Conn.-based Business Talk Radio and switched to a syndicated lifestyle and business talk format and the call letters WLFP.

In 2010, Business Talk Radio CEO Michael Metter was among defendants charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with fraudulently inflating the share price of Spongetech Delivery Systems, of which he was CEO. The SEC's 2012 judgment included the sale of his assets, among them WLFP.

Mr. DeHart and Mr. Zelenko made their offer, and in June 2013, the FCC approved the sale. On July 4, WZUM relaunched with a classic R&B format.

They chose a set of call letters with a great local heritage. Throughout the '60s, hosts included Mad Mike Metrovich, Bob Mack, Bobby Bennett and Loran Mann. The original WZUM was not a force in the ratings -- KQV's Top 40 format and KDKA's music and talk mix ruled the airwaves in the '60s. But many people still have fond memories of WZUM's R&B and album rock era.

"WZUM was certainly iconic," Mr. DeHart said. "The idea of oldies R&B was very appealing to us. It's a format that serves a community that wasn't being served. We receive a lot of comments from people who remember the original WZUM."

In one memorable stunt, Psihoulis took all the DJs off the air for 10 days, replacing them with a robot host.

The new WZUM management hired Clarke Ingram as a programming consultant. He's done programming and on-air stints at the former contemporary hits WBZZ-FM, WWSW-FM and the former WJJJ-FM and has programmed stations in New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Tucson. He works as a programming consultant with classic hits/talk station WKHB-AM (620) and oldies WKFB-AM (770).

After the former WZUM went dark in 2010, Mr. Ingram was part of a group that tried to keep it on the air. He started working on an R&B format. A friend gave him a tape of original WZUM jingles, which he restored.

But in December 2010, the Crafton Borough Council voted to tear down the towers because the borough was owed back rent.

It looked like the end for WZUM.

"I thought it was a lost project," Mr. Ingram said.

The music and jingles sat on his computer for three years. When he heard that Mr. DeHart and Mr. Zelenko had bought the former WLFP, he gave them a call.

"Ed had a station and needed a format. And I had one."

The playlist is designed to appeal to white listeners as well as African-Americans. It's a mix of top hits from the early '60s to early '80s, with an emphasis on the '70s hits -- artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the Delfonics, Donna Summer, the Stylistics and the Whispers.

That colorblind programming philosophy echoes that of the original WZUM. In 1967, it added rock hits to the R&B mix in a bid to expand its audience. Psihoulis told Billboard magazine that black youth liked listening to rock as well as R&B and that the station already had a black and white air staff: "We're now integrating the music as well," he said.

The current programming is automated, but they hope to have hosts and live programming down the road. The studios were built and equipped for talk and need to be retrofitted for music.

The station is broadcasting Woodland Hills High School football games at 7:10 p.m. on Fridays.

The owners have inherited the challenges faced by many smaller AM stations. WZUM has a 1,000-watt daytime signal. At sundown, it goes down to four watts. They plan to improve the daytime signal and are steering listeners to WZUM's digital platforms: It streams online in stereo, http://1550wzum.com, and people can listen on mobile devices using TuneIn, a radio streaming app for iOS and Android. WZUM is included in the iTunes R&B radio channel menu.

Ad revenue is a challenge, but a few spots are starting to come in. The new owners decided against letting people buy time and host their own programs, which is the way many smaller AMs generate cash.

"We really don't want people coming in to play what they want to play. We want to stick to this format," Mr. DeHart said.

"We're underfunded, but that's no different from any other AM station," he added. "The cost of the station was low. So we don't have a lot of debt. We can afford to play for a few months. That's a little different than a lot of other stations."

Several AMs in the region have gone dark in the past two years, including WKZV-AM (1110) in Washington, WBGI-AM (1340) in Connellsville and WASP-AM (1130) in Brownsville, along with the former WZUM in Carnegie.

"People told us we were crazy when we put music back on the AM," Mr. DeHart said. "If you put something on that's worth listening to, people will listen to it."

"This is the first time the station has had a pulse in at least 40 years," Mr. Ingram said. "AM radio stations generally don't come back from the dead, especially one that's been dead as long as this one was.

"But it seems to be working," Mr. Ingram said. "I don't know if we have a fire yet, but we've got the match lit. We've got a spark."

 


Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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