Rev. Morgan Babb isn’t your typical deejay. His delivery isn’t confrontational or hurried, and he’s no would-be comedian. Instead, his monologues are punctuated with good-humored greetings to listeners, commentary about songs he admires, and occasional reminiscences about his own career as a musician. Babb’s approach is totally conversational, reflecting the old (and seemingly forgotten) axiom that disc jockeys should act as if they’re talking to one person in a room rather than broadcasting to a huge audience over the airwaves.
If Babb isn’t your typical deejay, then his homegrown station, WMDB-880 AM, is hardly conventional eitherit’s as distinct from current radio outlets as a scooter is from a Formula One race car. Everything on WMDB, from its on-air commercials to its regular programs and specialty shows, is a welcome return to the days when radioin particular African American radioserved as a unifying communal force. A far cry from today’s “churban” (contemporary hits plus urban) stations and consultant-driven formats, WMDB echoes the tradition of such pioneering frequencies as WDIA-AM in Memphis, the original WIBB-AM in Macon, Ga., and Nashville’s WLAC-AM prior to its days as a talk-radio haven.
Babb doesn’t consider himself a visionary or pioneer, despite the fact that he was the first African American in Nashville broadcasting history to establish his own radio station. He’s a fascinating figurea veteran of the golden age of gospel, a musical performer in his own right, a onetime A&R man, and a pastor as well. He founded WMDB in 1983, at a time when African American media ownership was essentially more a notion than a reality. He’s kept the station up and running ever since, surviving changes in musical taste, the FM band’s continuing dominance over the AM band, and the rise of urban contemporary programming.
Although the late disc jockey Frankie Crocker, one of the original forces behind urban contemporary radio (a format that encompasses such stations as Nashville’s WQQK-92.1 FM), insisted that he didn’t intend to take the personality element out of African American broadcasting, that’s precisely what has happened in the last couple decades. Public-affairs shows, news bulletins, and colorful disc jockey quips and jinglesthe very things that gave a radio station its distinct personalityhave been jettisoned in the name of sophistication and on-air flow. Babb, meanwhile, has chosen to keep such features intact, even if it means running a shoestring operation with little hope for racking up sizable profits. Call WMDB in the morning hours, and you’ll likely get a voice saying, “WMDBplease hold on for a minute.” That’s Babb, doing double duty as on-air host and receptionist.
WMDB’s nickname is “The Big Mouth”an appropriate moniker for a small-time operation that has nevertheless managed to develop a fiercely loyal listenership. Despite broadcasting only during daytime hours at 2,500 watts, it offers a distinct mixture of African American genres of all kinds, from spiritual to funk to rap. During a typical broadcast day, you’ll hear vintage gospel from such groups as Nashville’s Fairfield Four, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and Five Blind Boys of Alabama, along with contemporary gospel from The Mighty Clouds of Joy and The Williams Brothers. During the afternoon, funk, R&B, and even some rap come streaming over the air. A set might open with Marvin Gaye, segue into Brandy, then shift to the SOS Band or Atlantic Starr. At any given moment, it’s impossible to predict what’s coming next, because Babb and his programmers aren’t locked into 20- or 30-song rotations requiring that certain tunes be played at precise times. In the course of a few hours, you might get Grover Washington Jr. and Lou Donaldson, B.B. King and Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, even the clean version of an L.L. Cool J. or Jay-Z tune.
“I call what we do gumbo music in black,” Babb says. “It’s a little bit of everything in music that’s black. We play every type of music that black people make except for gutter rap; that’s the only exception.”
Of course, there was a time when stations like WMDB were the norm in African American radio. Such legendary disc jockeys as Eddie O’Jay in Cleveland, Hal Jackson in New York City, and Nat. D. Williams in Memphis were major celebrities in the black community. While the downside of these stations has been diligently chronicled (extensive payola, bloated disc jockey egos, etc.), there hasn’t been nearly as much attention paid to the integral role they played in keeping African American audiences informed and entertained. Significantly, these stations also helped tear down the wall of segregation in Southern cities: Many white musicians and fans across the South dialed in African American radio outlets, as well as stations like WLAC, which boasted white deejays such as John “R” Richbourg and Bill “Hoss” Allen, who were steeped in the black vernacular.
For children of the 1950s and ’60s, WMDB represents a welcome trip back in time, while for the members of Generation X and beyond, it’s an introduction to an era that has largely passed. But WMDB isn’t simply a living relic. Rather, it’s proof that radio stations don’t have to pander to the widest audience possibleproof that radio can still connect with people on the most basic, grass-roots level. Amid the current debates raging in Washington over the viability of low-power FM frequencies, WMDB serves as proof that community-oriented broadcasting can and should have a meaningful place on the airwaves.
WMDB’s principal audience is largely ignored by major media outletseven by those stations that ostensibly claim to represent them. Older African Americans, especially those between ages 35 and 49, tend to feel disenfranchised by urban contemporary outlets, which disavow airing any music that doesn’t rigidly adhere to flavor-of-the-month production techniques and sounds. Seasoned blues and R&B vocalists such as Bobby “Blue” Bland and Denise LaSalle, along with younger artists like Shemekia Copeland, have no chance of ever being aired by most urban stations. (92Q’s excellent Saturday-morning specialty show “Down-Home Blues” is a rare example of a contemporary outlet giving exposure to blues, R&B, and soul.) By contrast, WMDB can and will play these and many similar performers during afternoon drivetime slots. The station’s promotional spotsthe most notable of which feature Babb’s congenial voice drenched in reverbare just as distinct as its musical programming.
But WMDB does pay a price for its individualism and eclecticism; the station has never ranked in the Top 10 or even 20 in radio’s carefully watched Arbitron ratings. Yet this doesn’t trouble Babb, who has managed to keep his business steady for nearly two decades now. His station airs plenty of spots for local African American businesses, along with public-service announcements for everything from drug referral centers to blood banks. Many churches also are represented on the station with their own programming blocks. It may be a stretch to claim that WMDB is counter-programming every other urban station, but it is clear that its approach has virtually no ties to anything else in this market.
Ironically, Morgan Babb never planned to be a station owner. He was working as program director at radio station WVOL in 1981, when a dispute with the owner, Sam Howard, led to Babb’s historic decision to strike out on his own. At that time, WVOL’s format wasn’t much different from WMDB’s: It played gospel in the morning hours, followed by secular R&B programming in the afternoons and evenings. Babb disagreed with Howard over the direction of the gospel material.
“I had a problem with the contemporary gospel that was coming out at that time,” Babb explains. “I hadn’t quite made an adjustment to it and hadn’t accepted it. We were still playing as many traditional gospel records as we could at the station. [Howard] came to me and told me I had to make a choice: He wanted the station to go with the contemporary music, and I told him that’s not what I felt I could honestly do. It was his station, and he had the right to make whatever changes he wanted to, so I left.
“Well, I felt that you could still have a successful station playing traditional music, so I decided to look around. Of course, when I told [Howard] about my idea for a station, he said it couldn’t be done, and so did his wife. Well, once they said that, it spurred me on to go to work and show them it could be done. We started from the ground up. All this area out here [in the North Nashville neighborhood of Bordeaux] was nothing but woods. I bought the land, rolled up my sleeves, talked to the right people, and went to work.”
Babb’s quest was aided by changes in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations regarding clear-channel stations. Originally, 50,000-watt AM monsters such as WLS in Chicago and Nashville’s own WLAC were free to air their powerful signals with no restrictions. Because of their incredible wattage, they could be heard in numerous states and even different countries at night, but they also drowned out the signals of competing stations broadcasting at or around the same frequency. After years of discussion between the FCC and radio station owners, the laws were changed to open up more signal space for new stations. Clear-channel stations were prohibited from blasting their signal without limitation, the new restrictions allowing them a 700-mile broadcasting radius.
When this ruling became law, Babb saw an opportunity: He could open up a relatively low-power station without interference from other, higher-wattage stations. “My chief engineer got on the phone to the FCC the day they announced that ruling and told me to get on the other line. When he got the commissioner on the phone, [the commissioner] told me to go ahead and send my application [for a transmitter license] right in that afternoon. He informed me that we’d probably have some competition, but he thought we had a good chance to get approval.”
WMDB resides at 3051 Stokers Lane, just off Buena Vista Pike. A couple of trailers house the equipment and station library, and the transmitter sits alongside the station. If the trailers look modest and unassuming from the outside, the walls inside are covered with photos that affirm Babb’s status within not only the gospel community, but the entertainment world at large. One picture shows him with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte; others feature him with the likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, and Etta James. But one vintage photo in particular stands out: It depicts a youthful Babb holding a guitar, posing with his brothers in a gospel group called The Radio Four.
Babb, who was born in Logan County, Ky., just north of the Tennessee border, showed an early interest in music. “I was somewhat of a child prodigy,” he explains. “My parents sold a pig that was a pet of mine and bought a piano. They didn’t get it for me; they got it for my brother. When he was taking lessons, I would listen in the back room. When the teacher finished with George, then I’d come out and get on the piano and play what they’d just finished. Eventually, my mother started giving me lessons too; at the age of 9, I was an assistant to the pianist at our church.”
By this time, his older brothers had formed The Radio Four and were already famous in the area. “My brothers used to chase me out of the room when they wanted to rehearse,” Babb recalls. “Three of them were old enough to be my father. I remember going to their concerts, and they were charging something like 10 cents admission. Well, I later started playing the guitar, and they finally let me in the group. But I started as the guitarist, then became lead singer and also songwriter. We’d done everything a cappella until that time.”
The Radio Four did their debut recording session for the Tennessee (later Republic) label in 1947, recording the song “On My Journey Now” at WLB in Bowling Green, Ky., although the date wasn’t issued until 1949. They quickly became an acclaimed, highly popular ensemble on the gospel trail, touring with such major groups as The Caravans, The Pilgrim Travelers, and The Soul Stirrers. At the time, gospel was slowly but clearly entering the entertainment arena, and some performers became troubled over what they perceived as too much emphasis on crowd-pleasing antics. And among the groups of the day, The Radio Four were most famous for rousing their audiences. “I remember a concert we did once in Atlanta in the mid-’50s,” Babb says. “It was with The Golden Gate Singers and The Caravans. One of the Gates got really mad because people were shouting when we did our song. I told him I didn’t understand what he was getting angry about; he’d been out on the circuit long enough to understand what was happening.”
While singing was Babb’s first love, he saw changes coming on the horizon that would result in his departure from the Radio Four in the mid-’50s, at almost exactly the same time Sam Cooke was leaving the Soul Stirrers to embark on a career as a soul singer. The advent of R&B in the late ’40s had already signaled the advent of a secular pop-music industry with new opportunities for African American performers, among them Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, and Lucky Millinder. But the new style also marked the earliest defections from gospel by such artists as Nappy Brown and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The trend eventually became a deluge as gospel’s premier vocalists saw a chance to begin earning far more money than they had been on the gospel circuit. This, plus the increasing presence of gospel and R&B on the radio, spelled a major change for the music.
“I remember Sam [Cooke] telling us he was going to move to secular music,” Babb says. “He loved gospel singing; he just didn’t want to starve. [But] once black radio started becoming popular, and the disc jockeys started playing our records every day, man, you just couldn’t get the people to come out [to gospel concerts] anymore. We used to fill up auditoriums, ball parks, arenas, you name it. But once people could get what we were doing for free, the attendance dried up.”
Babb’s last performance with the Radio Four took place in Memphis during the mid-1950s, probably ’56. “It was a split bill,” he recalls. “The Soul Stirrers and Radio Four were half the program, and the other half was B.B. King and Muddy Waters. It was at the old Martin Stadium; we had a packed house. It was really controversial back then to mix styles like that. This was one of those Goodwill Revues that was held by WDIA radio. We had to have an intermission, and they made an announcement. Anyone who wanted to leave, there was no problem. Well, a lot of people left, and a lot more came in and took their seats.
“[Record company executives] were offering gospel people incredible amounts of money back then to switch to secular music. You have to understand that at that time all the great voices were doing gospel. People like Clyde McPhatter, The Clovers, Hank Ballard, they used to come to see The Radio Four and gospel acts all the time. They were only doing one-nighters in tiny places then. Sam wasn’t really the first gospel singer to make that change. But once he became so successful, it kind of sent a signal to a lot of gospel singers. Mahalia [Jackson] and some others like our group made a pact that we wouldn’t go secular, but we were in the minority.”
As many of his cohorts headed into the world of secular music, Babb decided to abandon performing altogether. Fortunately, he’d already been forging a second career. He started working in broadcasting nearly five years earlier, doing some spots on a station in Washington, D.C., thanks to Frances White. She was among the earliest women disc jockeys on air anywhere, especially African American women.
“Frances White, now she was a pioneer. She was...on a station that was using the call letters WUST. That wasn’t really what their call letters were; it was a white station that was trying to do some black programming on the side. They didn’t want anyone to know what they were doing, so they made this kind of second station, doing remote broadcasts from another location around the corner from the main station that was in downtown D.C. She was the person who taught me about engineering and gave me the experience of actually doing live broadcasts.”
After working for a time at WUST, Babb approached the station owner at WHOP in Hopkinsville, Ky., closer to home. “When I asked him for a job, he said, ‘What kind of music are you going to play? I don’t think you can do hillbilly.’ They didn’t call it black music then; it was race music. I told him, ‘Let me go back into your library and see what you’ve got back there.’ I came out with a bunch of 78ssome Mahalia, some Dixie Hummingbirds, some of our own records, plus some B.B. King, some Muddy Waters. I said, put me on at night and see what happens. Well, he started me at 10 p.m. for 15 minutes. That show just took off from there.”
Broadcasting under the name Happy Jack, Babb quickly became a sensation. He had a three-year run at the station, maintaining his broadcasting identity while still touring and working with The Radio Four. “I was getting huge bags of mail, and you had white kids lined up outside the station and even inside. The parking lot was full of what they called hot rods then.” Sadly, the ugly specter of racism eventually reared its head, as Babb’s popularity, combined with his ethnicity, angered the otherwise all-white staff.
“Finally, the staff went to the owner and told him they’d quit unless he got rid of me. He came to me and said, ‘I don’t have a choice; these people won’t work here unless I get rid of you.’ ” Although Babb won’t say this, it’s quite possible that the thought of an African American male attracting the interest of white females in the mid-’50s played as much, if not more, of a role in his firing.
By this time, however, Babb had already heard of a Nashville station called WSOK (which later became WVOL). He interviewed for a job there and was soon hired as chief announcer/program director in 1954; he remained there until 1981. While helping craft the station’s identity and format, Babb quietly added several other jobs to his résumé.
“I missed performing, so at first I started doing some solo concerts, just playing the guitar and singing. But it didn’t seem the same without a group behind me, so I organized a little group and named them The Philco Singers [after the then-popular manufacturer of televisions and stereos]. Ernie Young, who owned Nashboro Records and later had the radio show from Ernie’s Record Mart, got nervous and said he might get sued for recording The Philco Singers. So we changed the name to The Voices of Nashville.”
Babb quickly parlayed his role with the group into a job as an A&R man for Nashboro. The company’s sacred releases rivaled those of such famous labels as Specialty, Vee-Jay, and Savoy during the 10-year period (1954-1964) that Babb worked there. Many world-class gospel performers cut sessions for Nashboro, among them Edna Gallmon Cooke, The Sewanee Quintet, and The Consolers. In today’s more tightly regulated environment, the thought of a performer and deejay working in A&R would, at the minimum, raise eyebrows. But Babb often toured with some of the acts that he eventually recorded, and chances are, he was playing their releases on the radio. This wasn’t unprecedented or illegal at the timeboth WLAC’s Hoss Allen and John R. did A&R work and production for record labels as well.
In addition to being a musician, A&R man, and radio station programmer, Babb also founded the King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in 1965. He remains there to this day, supervising Wednesday-night prayer meetings and preaching on Sundays, and the church still resides in its original location, at 1417 10th Ave. N. The congregation has swelled to 2,200 members, and some of the people he once baptized have become prominent ministers and deacons in their own right. He says that he has deliberately kept the membership around 2,000 to ensure that he can keep in touch with parishioners’ activities.
Babb prefers to keep a healthy separation between his role at King Solomon and his work for WMDB, but he makes certain that neither church nor radio station lacks for attention. Herein lies another potential conflict of interest, but Babb has a ready response to those who would charge him with some sort of possible ethical breach. “If you have purpose in your life, and you know what it takes to uphold your faith and to run your business,” he says, “there’s no such thing as a conflict.” If anything, he may be even more fair-minded when it comes to making WMDB an outlet for local churches, which are often looking for ways to reach shut-ins who can’t make it to services. He gives other pastors ready access to his radio station because he knows that most stations wouldn’t, and he knows through his own church’s affairs how often older listeners are ignored by radio.
For all his various experiences, it’s broadcasting that primarily keeps Babb busy these days. He says his approach to radio isn’t very different from what he did while working at WVOL. “We try to be a factor in our listeners’ lives,” he says. “When [the FCC] told me we could only be a daytime station, I told them that was fine, because that was plenty of time to do what we need to do.”
During the typical broadcast day, listeners often come on air and update the audience about everything from upcoming church functions to the health and well-being of fellow listeners. Babb remains behind the microphone many weekdays, playing classic gospel and commenting on various community affairs and events. He remains an outspoken, passionate advocate not only for WMDB’s varied musical programming, but also for community involvement and personal religious conviction. There’s little tension between the religious and secular aspects of the station, in part because of Babb’s open-minded and open-armed approach. Such an easy intermingling also suggests just how thoroughly listeners have integrated religious and secular concerns in their own lives.
Even if WMDB has found a loyal, dedicated audience, it would be the height of naïveté to assume that the station doesn’t have daily struggles. It lacks the shimmering, brand-new microphones and multitrack consoles you routinely see at many modern stations, although Babb never complains about the old equipment or cramped facilities. It’s simply a fact of life that stations like WMDB and Memphis’ WDIA are dinosaurs in today’s rigidly defined, highly specialized broadcasting environment. WMDB survives thanks to Babb’s on-air charisma, the faith and efforts of his staff, and the dedication of those listeners who grew up in the pre-urban contemporary era. As time wears on and the ranks of these listeners diminish, it’s unclear whether new listeners will come along to support a sound that’s undeniably rooted in past traditions, no matter how great and honorable those traditions may be.
Whatever the future holds, Rev. Morgan Babb has found his place at WMDB. “This station didn’t come about because of something that I wished to happen,” he says. “It took hard work and faith. You have to believe in God, first of all, and then you’ve got to believe in yourself. If you don’t have faith in yourself, you sure won’t have faith in God. When people ask me how can a small AM station survive out here, I just tell them, by the grace of God and hard work every day.”
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