Back in the 1990s, B.J. Murphy and Keith Richards were a potent team in Charlotte’s radio market. Their “Breakfast Brothas” morning show on WPEG (Power 98) was consistently ranked among the top drive-time shows for listeners age 18 to 34.
Much has changed since then.
With traditional radio now attracting fewer listeners, FM stations that once employed local talent now rely more heavily on cheaper, syndicated content. And for DJs like Murphy and Richards, that has spelled career change.
These days, Murphy and Richards often can be found inside a rented space at the Carole A. Hoefener Community Services Center in uptown Charlotte honing a new business – an Internet-only radio station that they hope will attract Charlotte listeners.
Their station – QC102.com – went live July 2 in what Murphy calls a “soft launch.” Each weekday from 10 a.m. to noon, the duo can be heard discussing a host of local and national issues, their chatter thrown in between a music mix that includes R&B, soul and contemporary. The shows are taped in advance but are sometimes updated as events unfold.
Their goal is to attract enough daily listeners – roughly 40,000, by their estimation – to make the station financially viable.
It’s another example of how the Internet is opening new doors for new media, said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman with the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington.
“It’s not something that I would say is sweeping the nation, but there have been pockets of these types of program offerings that I have read about,” he said. “It’s something to keep an eye on.”
When Murphy and Richardson discuss their new venture, they talk of nostalgia as much as about money. They recall a time when local radio played a bigger role in keeping listeners informed, especially in the African- American community.
Murphy, 49, said that when former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested on charges of public corruption, he could not find a local station discussing the arrest.
“There is nobody in Charlotte black radio that is a person that people will go to to get a message across to the African-American community,” he said. “Most of it is just entertainment now.”
On a recent broadcast, Murphy and Richards revamped their dialogue to include news that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police had arrested a suspect in the widely publicized killing of local teacher Bianca Tanner. It is that type of responsiveness, they say, that will set their broadcasts apart.
“It’s what black radio was supposed to be,” Murphy said.
Murphy, grew up in Goldsboro, dreaming of a radio career as far back as high school. Later, as a student at Shaw University in Raleigh, he worked part-time jobs at three stations before graduating in 1987. His career would eventually take him to cities including Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, Mo., in addition to Charlotte.
“All my life I’ve generated audience,” he said. “I still have an audience out here who would like to consume my media, and I’ve got to make it available to them and not be doubtful.”
Richards, 47, said he left radio, in part, because he wanted a more stable environment for his family.
“I love radio, but I don’t love the politics,” he said. “You get tired of moving your family around after so many years. The corporate structure and the way radio is today, there is no loyalty. Nobody retires from radio anymore.”
Murphy said the two take inspiration from a burst of “hyperlocal” print websites that have sprung up in cities nationwide. He said they currently are assembling a sales team and hope to soon begin testing the local advertising market.
Murphy and Richards said they hope the station will attract listeners age 35 to 54, people who once formed emotional connections with radio hosts.
In decades past, Murphy said, radio stations in every major city employed local DJs.
“They took all of us off the radio and give you just a generic radio show,” he said. “It’s a great business move for owners because it eliminates salaries.”
For DJs who remain, he said, stations often restrict what they are allowed to talk about and even the number of minutes they are allowed to talk at all.
“They tell you you can’t talk about anything serious,” he said. “Eighty-two people got shot in the city of Chicago and 15 died. You mean to tell me that’s not important and I’ve got to talk about Atlanta Housewives the whole show and not mention that?”
Wharton, the broadcasters association spokesman, said greater freedom is what drives many DJs to the Internet, or even to satellite radio. In some cases, he said, DJs are looking to make their shows more edgy, or even risqué.
“There is a reason that people like Howard Stern moved from over-the-air radio to satellite radio,” he said, “because some of the language and some of the risqué material that he uses don’t get you a $300,000 fine like they would on broadcast radio.”
Murphy and Richards said they still have plenty of issues to work out. For example, only two of the 24 hours they produce are designed around local hosts. The remaining time is filled with long stretches of uninterrupted music, with snippets thrown in from their morning broadcasts.
Murphy said they eventually want to develop other local talent to fill some of that airtime.
With a limited budget, Murphy said the partners will use social media to help them market the station. And with just over a month under their belts, he said, growth has been slower than he had hoped.
About two weeks ago, Murphy and Richards got the station listed on iTunes. Murphy said he hopes the listing will open the door to new listeners.
Richards said he hopes advertisers will view the station as an affordable way to reach a niche audience. But he said he also sees something far more important at stake.
“The Internet is the great liberator and equalizer for all black media,” he said. “The only way that you can communicate with your people is that you have to create your own platform. That must be done in the time we are living in right now.”
As for the long-term viability of QC102.com, Wharton said Murphy and Richards will face some challenges.
“You hear about some folks who seem to make a business out of this,” he said. “I’m not sure there are thousands of them, but every now and then you hear a success story. I think you just have to wait and see.”
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor. He also writes the It’s Your Business column at charlotteobserver.com/shoptalk.
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