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DANCE FEVER

Gene McFadden and John Whitehead—the Philadelphia songwriting team behind The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody”—had a monster hit as artists with their 1979 dancefloor anthem “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” which traveled well beyond the discos of the day. Having risen to #1 on the R&B charts and crossed over into the pop Top 15, it turned out to be the perfect message song for crowds at Phillies and Eagles games during the teams’ 1980 championship seasons. It was big at weddings and graduations, church services and school rallies. Some even suggested it should be the Black national anthem.

At the root of the song’s abundant success was Frankie Crocker, a DJ and program director for New York’s WBLS; he took the March release and made it the song of the summer. 107.5 was the most-listened-to station in the country, its playlists influencing radio tastemakers from coast to coast.

According to Judy Weinstein, who managed The Loft nightclub and the DJ collective The Record Pool, Crocker heard “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” after she hipped Larry Levan, a DJ at the discotheque Paradise Garage, to the record. “Frankie Crocker walked into the club that night, took that record off the turntable and it became his theme song,” Weinstein told Vanity Fair in 2010.

It was just one of the many disco jams Crocker and WBLS turned into massive national hits. From the mid-1970s to the end of the decade, there was no radio station more important to Black America than WBLS—and no DJ with more sway than Crocker.

McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” followed a string of records Crocker and WBLS had broken in the station’s nearly seven years on the air. It began with Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” in 1973 and included A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging,” MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” and anything by The Fatback Band.

Describing disco as “a new culture” in a February 1978 Billboard piece, Crocker noted, “It’s a musical revolution that transcends color and age groups. First there was Frank Sinatra, then Elvis Presley, The Beatles and now it’s disco. It’s so superior to the music that was happening before. Very creative recordings are being made.”

Beyond disco, Crocker exposed Black audiences to music by Blondie, Madonna, Grace Jones, The Clash and Bob Marley. In the early ’80s, he was one of the first DJs to play rap records, and WBLS would later be the first to play the R&B coming out of England—Soul II Soul, Level 42, Heaven 17 and Mica Paris, among others.

When interest in disco faded, he opened listeners’ ears to everything from Eric Clapton to Billie Holiday and James Brown to Dinah Shore. “I’m very eclectic,” he told the New York Daily News in 1996. “The only music I can’t take is abusive music or the stuff that’s chock-full of bad language. That to me isn’t music; that’s just trying to shock people.”

Crocker got his start in radio in his native Buffalo before moving to New York City, where he worked at soul station WWRL, then moved to Top 40 WMCA in 1969. He joined WBLS, owned by the newly formed Inner City Broadcasting, as Program Director and held down the afternoon drive-time shift. He brought in untested talent like Vy Higginsen (New York’s first female pop DJ), Fred “Bugsy” Buggs and Ken “Spider” Webb, whom he molded in his own suave, urbane radio image. (Black Music Month co-creator Dyana Williams was another of Crocker’s early hires.)

Webb, a DJ in the Hamptons before joining WBLS, told Newsday in 2019, “When BLS was looking for its first morning man, he called me up and said, ‘Come in; I’ve got work for you.’ I had just bought a house and I had children. Frankie thought, ‘Well, nobody listens to FM radio in the morning anyway. So let him be there. He can read. And at least I know he’ll be there every morning because he’s got a family and a house.’ I challenged him on that; I said, ‘I’m going to make people listen to me.’”

He and his colleagues made people listen in the days before “morning zoo” by breaking the rules established by AM jocks; the DJs were calmer and smoother, had fun with things like “color of the day” and would fade a record in the middle of a song to give the time of day, crucial to anyone catching a bus to work or school. They revolutionized radio just as FM was emerging as the frequency of choice for music fans.

“In New York, we have a sophisticated radio market, which means you have to give your listeners a sophisticated music program,” WBLS co-owner Percy Sutton told Black Enterprise in July 1978, when only 57 of the country’s 7,571 commercial radio stations were Black-owned. “We don’t scream and we don’t shout. We don’t have to hard-sell the music we play because it sells itself. We’re not an ethnic station; we’re a people station. We want to be in the mainstream of radio.”

Sutton, a former Manhattan borough president, and New York Amsterdam News publisher Clarence Jones had founded Inner City Broadcasting and entered radio with the $1.35 million purchase of WLIB-FM in 1972. The station became WBLS two years later. “I got into radio because I feel if you are a people who have been injured, one of the most important things is to get ahold of the media and use it to define yourself before it defines you,” Sutton told Inc. in 2008.

WBLS was initially heavy on jazz—its adds in June 1974, for example, were The CrusadersScratch, Quincy JonesBody Heat, Leon ThomasFull Circle and Carmen McRae’s Mr. Jazz—playing to the strengths of the station’s first PD, Hal Jackson.

Also a shareholder, Jackson was already a radio legend. He got his start in the 1930s, establishing himself as the first Black DJ on network radio, the first Black person to broadcast live from a theater and the first person to host a rock ’n’ roll show at Carnegie Hall. In the mid-1950s, he was doing three daily shows on three different New York stations—one R&B, one jazz and one pop—with a combined audience of 4 million listeners. “That was a creative thing that I loved, and everybody seemed to like being a part of it because we opened up the musical doors,” Jackson told NPR in 2008.

When it came time to adapt to changing tastes—the popularity of The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” and Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” saw R&B dance music moving from clubs to airwaves—Crocker came in as PD and defined “Urban Contemporary radio” with the slogan “The Total Black Experience in Sound,” which meant shelving the jazz and funk records and sticking, for the most part, with the burgeoning disco sound.

“WBLS is a Black-owned and -operated station, and since most disco music is made by Blacks, it was only natural that we played it,” Music Director Wanda Ramos said at 1978’s Disco Forum in New York.

The form itself worked its way into the mainstream through the mid-’70s with little regard to race. Both KC and the Sunshine Band and Barry White scored multiple hits. Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” and Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady” all became era-defining Top 40 cuts on both the AM and FM dials.

By the fall of 1976, WBLS was the most-listened-to FM station in the country. A year later, it was the third-most-listened-to station overall. In March 1977 an average quarter hour boasted nearly 123k listeners and in early 1978, WBLS was #2 only to WABC, with a 7.9% share compared to the AM Top 40 powerhouse’s 8.1% (at the time, WABC had been #1 in New York for more than a decade).

Significantly, BLS was delivering young listeners: It was #1 in the U.S. in the 18-34 demo, which brought in advertising directed to general audiences rather than just Black listeners. And the “Total Black Experience” was indeed crossing over—nearly 50% of the audience was white. Inner City Broadcasting was empowered to spread the gospel of disco, answering the knock of opportunity by acquiring low-rated stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit and in 1978 switching their formats to that of WBLS.

That year the station got real head-to-head competition for the first time when WKTU went from a soft-rock format, with a 0.9% marketshare, to all disco all the time, making it the first station in the U.S. to do so.

Within six months, WKTU had become the first FM station to hit #1 in New York, helping pave the way for FM’s rise in the city. By the end of 1978, in a sign of the format’s dominance, BLS and KTU had cornered 20% of the city’s listening audience.

WBLS would reclaim the throne in the summer of ’79 with a 10.7 rating. But the station slipped when Crocker introduced a format that added music from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, spanning everything from The Ink Spots to Barbra Streisand—he was famous for saying he wanted listeners to “think a little more.” Despite the decline, only news outlet WOR-AM had more listeners than WBLS and WKTU in the fall of 1979.

WBLS subsequently abandoned the format, however, taking a more modern, free-form approach and emphasizing new music. By the spring of 1980, it was again the most-listened-to station in the country, with an 8.1 rating that summer. At that point disco was becoming a “dirty word” (frequently preceded by an expletive), so WBLS segued to “dance oriented.” WKTU was “progressive urban.”

In 1981 a third competitor entered the ring: WRKS, better known as KISS. The RKO station, programmed by Barry Mayo, took New York by storm and within four years, Mayo had become RKO’s first Black GM.

The three-way battle continued until WKTU was sold, emerging as WXRK. WBLS—the first New York station with a rap program, beginning in 1982 with Rap Attack, hosted by John “Mr. Magic” Rivas—would ride a ratings roller coaster over the next two decades as Crocker left and returned twice.

Crocker died in October 2000 of cancer. He “encompassed all of the urban sophistication… He appreciated the culture, the whole urban experience, and he wove it together,” said Black radio personality Bob Law in the New York Daily News.

Hal Jackson began hosting Sunday Morning Classics on WBLS in 1982. Initially a two-hour show, at its most expansive it ate up eight hours of programming. Jackson was the first Black man inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, in 1990, and among the first five inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, in 1995. He died in 2012.

Higginsen would go on to co-write, direct and produce the gospel musical Mama, I Want to Sing, establish the Mama Foundation for the Arts and publish her own magazine, Unique NY. She recalled of her time at WBLS, as captured by Indiana University’s online exhibit Archives of African American Music and Culture’s Golden Age of Black Radio: “We’d say, ‘This is a total Black experience in sound. A different shade of Black—gospel. A different shade of Black—Latin. A different shade of Black—R&B…’ I wanted to, perhaps, do or say something that might make a difference in somebody’s life if they chose to turn the radio on that day. That was a personal goal.”

Webb has played classic soul on SiriusXM since 2006 and had a syndicated program, Jazz From the City, from 1982 until 2001. Buggs, who’s spent most of his career in radio, has a Saturday show on WBLS and serves as a DJ on Sirius XM.

Percy Sutton retired from Inner City Broadcasting in 1990, succeeded by his son, Pierre Sutton, who’d been president of the company. “He was at the forefront of everything you can think of in Black America,” Al Sharpton told CNN when Sutton died in 2009. “He was the quintessential Black American. He pioneered Black business, Black media and Black politics. He opened those doors and he kept them open.”

In 1981, Inner City had purchased the famed Apollo Theater at a bankruptcy sale for $225k and renovated it to the tune of $20 million. After the theater reopened in 1985, the company built a TV studio and produced It’s Showtime at the Apollo.

By 2006, the broadcaster had divested itself of the majority of its properties outside its core radio stations. Its last remaining interest was sold in 2005 to Time Warner Cable. In 2011, creditors forced the company’s wholly owned subsidiary, Inner City Media Corporation, to declare Chapter 11 on the grounds that executives had failed to accept a buyout offer. It was acquired by Magic Johnson and Ron Burkle’s YMF Media that year.

Emmis Communications bought WBLS in 2014 and sold it to Mediaco Holding in November 2019. Having been transformed once more, this time into an Urban AC format, WBLS in the summer of 2021 was the second-most-listened-to station in New York.

Radio personality Ray Rossi spelled out the broad popularity of WBLS in the 1970s: “I grew up in Gravesend, Brooklyn, an area not known for racial tolerance,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “But you heard WBLS in every shop you went into. Everyone loved WBLS, and Frankie Crocker was the king.”

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