EDITORIAL - Radio icon: WAMO prepares to pass into history

Written by Susan Mannella on .

For decades, WAMO radio was a window on the African-American experience in Pittsburgh.

When it was founded in Homestead in 1948, it was known as WHOD. Eight years later the station changed its call letters to WAMO to reflect its pride at being as ubiquitous as the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

In the 1950s and '60s, it was the home of Craig "Porky" Chedwick, one of America's most influential DJs. WAMO was the station white kids tuned in to understand not only the latest trend in music, but also how America looked on the other side of the racial divide.

For black Pittsburghers, WAMO-AM was a source of pride for playing forgotten R&B next to music with revolutionary potential. It was the station that brought news to the black community that was ignored by the mainstream media. Thanks to WAMO, you always knew which visiting gospel choir was in town and when James Brown would be coming back.

In its prime, WAMO was the radio equivalent of The Pittsburgh Courier. Instead of Teenie Harris photographs, it had Porky, Sir Walter and Brother Matt. Once upon a time, Anderson Little, Bill Powell and Sonny Brown were kings of the airwaves in Pittsburgh, too. It was where you heard George Benson's latest hit.

In 1973 Ron Davenport Sr.'s Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation bought WAMO. It was the beginning of a new era at the station. It was black-owned and -operated for the first time. A few years later, Sheridan acquired the Mutual Black Network and changed its name to the American Urban Radio Network. Today, the AURN produces 200 weekly programs that are broadcast over 300 affiliates with an estimated audience of 20 million listeners per week.

Ironically, the one city you won't be able to hear AURN packages will be Pittsburgh. Last week, Sheridan announced that it had agreed to sell WAMO-AM, WAMO-FM and gospel station WPGR-AM to St. Joseph Missions, Catholic religious broadcasters, for $8.9 million. Once the deal goes through, Pittsburgh will be without an urban-music station for the first time in over 60 years.

You don't have to be a fan of hip-hop to feel the loss. Also gone in the course of this business decision will be the progressive talk-radio voice of Lynn Cullen and the nationally syndicated "Bev Smith Show."

Urban radio, like all media, has entered an era of extraordinary challenge. The sad reality is that it is difficult to find minority owners -- or anyone else -- to buy radio stations in an era of tight credit, so urban radio may be disproportionately affected in the long run.

WAMO may soon be gone, but it will be remembered fondly by millions who used to tune in Porky, Brother Matt and the whole WAMO family in countless homes up and down the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.


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