SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS have passed since onetime radio ham Bill
Reuman put WWRL on the air, broadcasting directly from his Woodside house.
Only the antenna rising incongruously out of a roof and the discreet WWRL sign
bolted outside a front bedroom window mark it as the home of one of the most
historic, and certainly one of the oldest, of New York City's radio stations.
Today, some say, ghosts haunt the nondescript, white-painted brick building
at 41-30 58th St. Listen carefully and you might hear Mrs. Reuman pacing in
her second-floor kitchen.Listen again and maybe you'll hear a few riffs of
sweet soul music, recalling the days when "the Big RL, Super 16," was the radio
destination for local rhythm and blues fans.
Yet after three quarters of a century, WWRL, which has survived numerous
ownership and format changes, the rise of FM and dwindling listenership, is
very much alive, pumping out a blend of Caribbean and African-American sounds
from its spot at 1600, near the very top of the AM dial.
But through all those years, and all those changes, the station has never
left its founder's house. It has expanded into a nearby building, so the
facility now occupies a U-shaped space with a tiny parking lot in the middle.
The interior is such a maze that Jerry Boulding, program director during
the late '60s, admits that when he was a newcomer, he got lost wandering the
blind corridors and twisting stairways.
And then there are those ghosts.
"If you spent time in that building at night you would hear footsteps,"
recalled Bobby Jay, who was a DJ at WWRL for 15 years before winding up at
WCBS/101.1 FM. "Even downstairs in the control room you would hear footsteps,
because above the control room is where the bedroom was. Or you thought you
heard pots and pans. It didn't bother us. We knew it was the ghost of Mrs.
Human ghosts aren't the only wraiths inside WWRL. The photos depicting
on-air personnel who have passed through-disc jockeys Frankie Crocker, Hal
Jackson, Imhotep Gary Byrd, news reporter Jane Tillman Irving, sportscaster Art
Rust Jr.-are a reminder of the years when AM radio ruled the airwaves, blacks
and whites grooved to the same tunes, and Bobby Jay even tied WABC's Cousin
Bruce Morrow in the ratings. Nowadays the station doesn't even show up at the
bottom of the Arbitron ratings.
Yet WWRL soldiers on. "We're the little station that could," said promotion
director Marko Nobles.
WWRL (for Woodside Radio Laboratory) was born in William Reuman's parlor on
Aug. 26, 1926. The family continued to live in the house, and friends and
neighbors would drop in to chat or perform. Some of those neighbors went on to
much greater heights; among them was a singer named Ethel Zimmerman (remembered
these days as Ethel Merman). Actor Eddie Bracken sang there, too, and
announcer Art Ford intoned there as well.
But almost from the beginning, according to a history posted in the
station's Web site (www.wwrl1600.com), the station specialized in ethnic
programming: Italian, German, French, Hungarian, Slovak, Czech and Yiddish,
among many others. It also welcomed Spanish-language and black- oriented
programs, so that by the late 1950s, WWRL was primarily Hispanic with a
significant proportion of African- American shows.
The station didn't begin its ascent, however, until Egmont Sonderling, a
German Jew from Chicago, bought it from Reuman in January 1964. Sonderling had
a string of stations around the country, many of them with black programming,
and he made WWRL his flagship.
Sonderling gave his disc jockeys room to be creative, while at the same
time demanding the very best from his staff. "Egmont was one of a kind,"
recalled Kernie Anderson, general manager of WBLS / 107.5 FM, the station that
ultimately did WWRL in. Anderson never worked at WWRL, but knew Sonderling when
he worked at Sonderling's KDIA / 1640 AM in Oakland, Calif.
"He kind of set the tone and pace very high for black radio," Anderson
said. "He was known for perfection,for having great jocks. I think he generally
paid better and acknowledged the existence of unions."
"When the Sonderling Broadcasting Company bought it," Jay said, "from then
on it became the premiere black radio station in America. It was certainly the
place where I had wanted to work."
Those were the days, from the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s, when R&B and
soul crossed over into the white community. "Black music was big then," former
program director Boulding said. "Motown was big. It was a great time. We did
shows at the Apollo [Theatre] and they'd be packed."
Cousin Brucie Morrow, one of WABC / 770 AM's top guns back then, used to go
to those shows "because I wanted to hear some of my heroes. You'd find a lot
of white kids who were going to hear the black music."
And "The Big RL" rode the crest of the wave. The DJs could tell they had an
impact, Jay said, because songs that had appeared on the station's weekly
"Soul 16" hits list would often show up the next week on WABC's list.
There was even a moment in 1965, Jay recalled, that "Soul Heaven," a song
by WWRL morning man Enoch Gregory ( "The Dixie Drifter"), made the playlist of
WMCA/570 AM, the city's other major rock and roll station."He was a competing
DJ!" Jay marveled.
Jay's own proudest moment came in 1972, when he was doing evenings opposite
the Cuz himself. "In the Pulse ratings," he said, "I tied Cousin Brucie with a
16! Imagine two stations with a combined 32 percent share of the listening
audience in the same market!"
But the end was approaching. It was called FM, and it offered much better
sound, less static, and stereo. After the Federal Communications Commission
ruled that FM stations could no longer just repeat their AM sisters' programs,
adventurous owners and listeners began to discover that music was better on the
Just around the time Bobby Jay was battling it out with Cousin Brucie,
former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton bought WLIB / 1190 AM and its
FM sister, WLIB / 107.5 FM. Sutton, who called his company Inner City
Broadcasting, changed the FM station to WBLS and a black-oriented FM station
entered the mix for the first time.
"That was the beginning of the end of RL as a major factor," Anderson said.
"As was the case with most of the black AM stations, once a strong
black-formatted FM came into being, the handwriting was on the wall."
Black stations were not the only AMs to suffer. By 1982, even the mighty
WABC had given up; today, few AM stations play music.
WWRL kept up its format until the early 1980s, but Sonderling sold to
Viacom Broadcasting in 1980, and in 1981 Viacom donated the station to the
United Negro College Fund. The fund soon sold it in turn to the Unity
Broadcasting Network for $1.5 million, and for the first time this
black-oriented station was actually owned by African- Americans.
"The death knell sounded for RL on Aug. 14, 1982," Bobby Jay said. "We went
gospel. Unity Broadcasting felt that RL was over."
The station's music has been modified a few times since then. Bob Law,
another former program director, revived the R&B format when he was rehired in
the late '90s. But there was a major shuffle when he left in September, to be
replaced by Rennie Bishop, and the format now is described as "urban mix,"
blending all sorts of African-American and Caribbean styles.
Longtime morning man Ken "Spider" Webb was moved to middays, while Prince
Kalunda, from St. Thomas, and Simon Templer picked up the morning slot with a
show called "Morning Madness." In addition, the station has just signed an
agreement to carry the games of the New York Liberty of the WNBA. WWRL now also
streams its broadcasts on the Web.
"There is a divide between the African-American and Caribbean communities,"
Bishop said. "We think if we have a combination of music and pertinent
information for both communities, we can build a bridge."
In the words of general manager Adriane Gaines, "the marriage is a natural.
We're having a lot of fun with it."
Now to see what the next ratings book brings.