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THE SOUL OF AN OLD RADIO STATION / At 75, WWRL, once New York�s R&B powerhouse, soldiers on

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.

Reuman."

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

FM.

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.

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