You can almost hear the silence at KKDA-AM (730) these days. "Soul 73," long hailed as the voice of Dallas' African-American community, is not talking anymore.
The talk shows that for years measured "the pulse of the African-American community," in the words of Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb, were canceled October 12, taking personalities such as County Commissioner John Wiley Price and radio host Cousin Linnie off the air without a warning.
The blanket of silence covers more than just the talk shows. KKDA's general manager, Chuck Smith, and station owner Hyman Childs refuse to talk about the cancellations, increasing the mystery surrounding the sudden silence.
Chuck Smith's only comment about the canceled programs was, "I cannot talk about them, and I don't know of anyone that could."
Childs did say that the removal of the shows was a business decision owing to poor ratings, and that they would probably be replaced with music. Later in the conversation, however, he claimed that he did not know he was talking to a reporter (in spite of two messages left at the station clearly stating the calls were from the Dallas Observer) and retracted his comments. Childs, the owner of KKDA and two other radio stations, claimed he was tired of being brutalized by the media--as if radio stations aren't the media--and did not wish to be quoted.
Even the usually loquacious Commissioner Price, who talked up many a storm during the past eight years as the host of KKDA-AM's Talk Back: Liberation Radio, has grown demure. His secretary, Joyce Ann Brown, says Price is "tired of being slandered by the media," and "won't answer calls from the Dallas Observer."
No one seems to know exactly who is gone, who is on, or the reasons behind the dismissal of the evening shows that gave KKDA-AM its reputation as the "communication network of the black community of Dallas," as city council member Larry Duncan put it.
"We are doing the same thing as you," says Roland Martin, former news director at KKDA-AM and current managing editor of The Weekly, a publication targeted at African-Americans. "We are trying to figure out who is still on the air, and who isn't."
"The audience sure didn't get any notice," says black political consultant Sandra Crenshaw.
Not even the hosts knew when--or on whom--the ax was going to fall.
"If it was talked about, it was not talked about with me, or with anybody who talks to me. I had no idea," says Cheryl Smith, host of Sunday morning's Reporter's Roundtable. Her Thursday-evening show, "Hotline," was canceled. She found out that other shows were also gone when she tuned in on Monday night and the shows simply were not aired.
Dallas police detective Chris Gilliam, whose show on crime prevention aired on Tuesdays from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., was told only on that day that his "services were no longer required."
Psychologist Brenda Wall, host of Call Dr. Wall, was unavailable for comment, but last week, she told The Dallas Morning News that the cancellations surprised her too: "When I left the air, I was told that was my last show. I said, 'You mean I don't get to say goodbye to my listeners?'"
So what is going on? The African-American community loses "one of its principal forums for discussion," the shows to which "African-Americans could tune in any evening and not get beat down for their perspective," according to Cheryl Smith, and nobody has anything to say about it?
In the absence of official explanations, speculation runs wild. The most frequently cited answer to the question KKDA officials refused to answer--Why?-- is the predictable "business."
"The community radio concept falls by the wayside when you are up against stations that own 45 percent of the ad dollars on the air, and they are taking hosts off and giving the audience more music," says Martin. "That is unfortunate, but that is the reality."
One good measure of that reality is ratings. While the station may have striven to be the voice of black Dallas, few people were actually listening to that voice. The ratings company Arbitron has consistently rated KKDA-AM as one of the metroplex's least-listened-to stations. In the spring, the station placed 28th overall with a 0.8 share of the market; this summer, KKDA-AM did only slightly better, ranking 27th. Those numbers translate into an average of only 2,200 listeners from 7 p.m. to midnight on weeknights, the time slot occupied by most of the canceled programs. (KKDA-FM, featuring a non-talk format, is No. 2.)
"I say the Arbitron ratings are holding the station owner and manager hostage," says Lipscomb, "and we are the ones suffering. They cannot let the Arbitron ratings dictate how they treat the community."
But even Lipscomb acknowledges that some shows were ripe for canceling, Arbitron or no.
"There were shows that were quite informative, and needed. But there were shows that could have gone straight to the Trinity," he says, his booming voice echoing through the telephone. "Some of those shows could have gone straight to the sewer, you know that."
As the voice of the community, apparently KKDA-AM's offerings left much to be desired.
"It is important to have adequate structure and to be constantly bringing in guests that are appealing to the listening audience," says Martin. "You have to have quality sound, and a good technical side. And to tell you the truth, some of those shows were not quality shows to listen to. If you are the audience, and you are hearing constant mistakes, feedback, and people talking in the background, they are going to turn you off."
So maybe business wasn't great, and the station could have used a little technical assistance. Anything else?
Of course. In the public arena, personalities clash every day, and KKDA-AM attracted African-American public figures by the dozen. Conflicts were bound to happen.
"Some people probably danced a jig when they heard that these shows were canceled," says Cheryl Smith. "Some of them were probably asking, 'Why didn't they go ahead and get Cheryl off the air too?'"
In some cases, KKDA's programming was less a community service than a pulpit for Dallas politicos--and not everyone was thrilled to be sitting in the congregation.
"I am going to be honest with you: I think this is the best thing that happened to the African-American community," says M.T. A'Vant, a longtime community activist and frequent caller to KKDA talk shows. "When they started the talk shows, they were very instrumental in bringing information to the black community. But now we have politicians on the radio, and you know what happens when you put a microphone in a politician's hand. The station became a John Wiley Price tool to control the black community.
"You turn around, and who do you have on the air? Cheryl Smith, who worked in John Wiley Price's office. You have Joyce Ann Brown, who works with him now," A'Vant says, expanding on his theory. "Are you reading me here? You have Ora Watson, who is a close friend of his. So who controlled the shows?" he asks. "John Wiley Price.
"He was a powerful man with a powerful group of followers," adds A'Vant, who believes that as a group they had turned the shows to "propaganda" no one wanted to hear. "To get rid of the commissioner, you had to get rid of everybody."
Cheryl Smith says that is "an interesting angle to look at, and I can't say I haven't heard that thrown around," but she says the commissioner's opinions are a little like "castor oil: you may not like the taste, but you like the results. His was an important perspective."
Continuing the John Wiley Price metaphors, Crenshaw likens him to "the man who milked a good cow, but always ended up kicking over the pail.
"When he was good, he was good," she says, "but when he was bad, he was really bad." And he was bad quite often, she thinks, "only giving his own opinion, and not the community's," and "name calling. We teach our kids not to do that, and here is someone the kids really look up to calling people names."
When the subject is John Wiley Price, disagreements abound.
"So the commissioner had a point of view," says council member Duncan, an Anglo who represents a predominantly black district. "God bless! That is what made the show lively. People are supposed to have a point of view."
The one subject all community leaders and activists agreed on, however, was the strong need for a forum for the expression of the African-American perspective.
"Eighty percent of the people I talk to are glad the shows are gone," say A'Vant, "but 100 percent feel we need more talk shows. We just need shows with credibility."
Adds Cheryl Smith: "KKDA-AM has been through the O.J. Simpson trial, the Million Man March, and all the other marches. It has been through a number of issues that have been clearly divisive, and African-Americans would not have had the opportunity to voice their opinions if it had not been for those shows. Now, where can you go in this metroplex and really get an idea of what black people are thinking and talking about?"
"Without access to information, we are lost," Lipscomb says. The station's replacement for the talk shows is a "deluge of blues and R&B; blues and R&B all day long is one of the most insulting things that can happen to a community, and I hope that the citizens would see fit to respond in umbrage."
If the cancellations by KKDA were sudden, they didn't precisely come without warning. Just ask Cousin Linnie.
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"I can't believe they claim to be a community radio station," says Cousin Linnie, a.k.a. Linwood Henderson, a radio personality on the air in the area for almost 50 years, and for 13 years the host of the Cousin Linnie Show on KKDA.
"You hear Cousin Linnie's deep bass voice?" asks Lipscomb. "He really has a soprano-type voice, but he's been crying ever since they put him on medical leave, I hear."
"It has taken a toll, but the injustices of the world fall on every man, woman, boy, and girl. But God is good, so I'll be all right," says Cousin Linnie. He was placed on medical leave October 2, and doesn't really know why, since his problem is with his knee, and that "has nothing to do with my vocal cords or my ability to be the announcer and radio personality I have been for almost 50 years," he says. "The doctor thought it would be more therapeutic for me to be on my job, but the station manager overruled the doctor."
Now, Cousin Linnie is afraid he'll be left "out in the pasture," because unlike his colleagues, he does not have another job. He says he knows the sudden cancellation of so many shows is "highly irregular, but with Chuck Smith's standards of operation, they do what they want to, because we are all little people, and they have an entourage of lawyers."