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This is a kind of weird, twisted, perverse love story.
During the long, protracted, first O.J. Simpson trial in 1994—the longest-running televised racial passion play in American history—Radio One CEO Cathy Hughes offered a personal invitation to me to “join the WOL-AM (1450) radio family.”
Well, it wasn’t quite a personal invitation. It was directed at the many white folks who were suddenly tuning in in droves to catch the daylong live feeding frenzy of the O.J. trial. (And anyway, I’d already been listening for years and years.) Hughes said—and I paraphrase—that she welcomed those who were suddenly listening, who were not “part of the family” (read: O.J.-struck white folks). Hughes was apparently hoping that even when the pyrotechnics subsided, us white folks might be as infatuated with black radio as we were with O.J. on the coals.
I had a number of responses. A third of me rejoiced, felt vindicated: Hey, I’m finally a family member—no more feeling like some white chick who shows up at a Black Panther fundraiser just to meet hunky black guys with weapons and bad attitude.
A third felt a proprietary loss. I felt like saying, “Hey, the rest of you white folks, WOL is mine. I’m the resident white girl. The Semite who sits by the phone. Hands off.”
One-third of me felt patronized and vaguely exploited: “Hey, Cathy, if I want to belly up to the ‘OL dinner table, I’ll just do it. On my own steam. The airwaves are public, after all. I don’t need your native-son noblesse-oblige WOL Family invite.”
But mostly, I felt really good. Hey, I’m finally wanted. I’m finally in. WOL wants me!
Radio station WOL-AM, for those who have no idea what I’m talking about, is an institution in D.C. WOL is part of the conversation in many parts of the city. It’s not always a very friendly conversation—even if it is billed as the “We Offer Love” station. If you happen to be Jewish, Korean, or just plain vanilla, you should be prepared to sit through state-of-the-art name-calling, nuanced hate-mongering, and abundant ridicule.
Back in the early 1980s, the station, under Hughes, went to all talk and very little music—a very daring move for black radio. (Due deference to Hughes on one point: She’s always been a very savvy businesswoman, one with guts and spunk.)
The station doesn’t get great Arbitron numbers now and never has—unlike another of Radio One’s outlets, WMMJ-FM, which gets much better numbers—but it has influence in the black community out of proportion to its market share.
Cathy Hughes is a “race woman” in every sense of the word, and WOL is unabashedly a black station. The on-airs use race every way they possibly can, period. Every discussion, every rumor, begins and ends with race. Race is the text and subtext—WOL’s siren song.
The sensibility of the station derives from Hughes, a loud and proud sister who is a consistent source of controversy. A few years back—when she was doing her Cathy Hughes Morning Show—she lambasted Latinos for living six or seven families to an apartment, for dragging their mattresses out into apartment-building halls, and for generally taking over whole parts of D.C. The Latino community went, understandably, loco. The Morning Show was a “White Folks Most Definitely Need Not Apply” vitriol-fest of white-bashing, interspersed with Latino lashings to the helm of Hughes’ hatred. But my God, the woman was also funny. Incredibly funny. I was hooked. Hughes reeled me in right from the gut-churning get-go.
Now, in 1996, the station has moved on to Korean-clobbering. And always, always its mainstay—jarring the Jews. On WOL, ethnicity has always been a blood sport.
This is a kind of guilty-pleasure-why-aren’t-I-listening-to-WTOP-like-a-normal-person love story.
Just as Minister Farrakhan has a love/hate thing going with the Jews, I have my own love/hate thing with WOL. Well, more like love/annoyance/outrage, in my case. I’ve been listening to the station ever since 1986. I begin every morning listening to Bernie McCain. I know more about McCain’s life—from absorbing the poetry of his own words—than anyone white I know in D.C. I know that McCain grew up in Newark, N.J., worked some very rough, even dangerous construction jobs, and that he likes to reminisce about the cold-cut sandwiches—on a long Italian roll—he ate as a boy in Newark. And McCain loves to talk about corns on his and other folks’ feet. (Bernie, can you please stop that one thing. It’s hard to take while eating breakfast.)
After McCain comes the staccato delivery of Lisa Mitchell. I start the 2:00 p.m. hour every day with C. Miles, the new boy on the block: “C. Miles, my brother, don’t be so mean!” says the promo/warning that runs throughout his show. C. Miles is often very, very mean. The station he works at is often very, very mean. WOL screams at Koreans, rails against Jews, and still delivers the occasional whupping upside the head to Latinos. The Jewish stuff is sort of a problem for me, because even though the last time I was inside a temple the rabbi fainted at seeing me, I am Jewish.
But regardless how hard C. Miles and his colleagues jump on Jews, I can’t stop listening. Call me the Semite Who Sits by the Door (by the radio, more precisely). All I do is sit and listen, sit and feed my jones, day after day. I’ve tried to kick my WOL habit—but I can’t. I’m hopelessly ensnared, bewitched, and very often bothered. I’m hooked on the stream of consciousness of the on-airs—the black dada riffs of C. Miles, the why-are-black-folks-always-disappointing-me? heart pangs of McCain.
Like Farrakhan, I can’t stop obsessing. Yes, I do work, but luckily, I’m self-employed. No, I don’t listen every minute to WOL. (I’ve never once listened to the More Better Man—I’m probably missing something there.) But like no other white person I know, and certainly no one Jewish, I spend many Saturday nights (sizable segments) with the Moon Man, the 8-to-midnight show (before the More Better Man comes on). And I recognize the voices—and the shtick—of every frequent caller to the station: “Miss Alberta,” who used to regularly chastise black youth for their rap-music-listening, nasty-gyrating-videos-watching, lack-of-politesse evil ways. And I perk up when I hear “Bro’ Bay”—who used to be on the road with Earth, Wind, and Fire, cooking natural foods for the group. Bro Bay is wise and mellow and ends many of his calls with, “Peace and hair grease.”
And I have grown fond of “Walter,” a very smart guy who calls in so often I wonder where he works. He’s a born riffer, a renegade poet, who loves the words “cracker” and “handkerchief-head” (his favorite term for Clarence Thomas, a prized target—Thomas isn’t exactly the patron saint of WOL). Walter is a gas. I’d love to meet him—he can call me cracker anytime.
Why am I tuning in? Would I listen as eagerly to all-Third Reich radio? (No I would not. Besides, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.) Listening to WOL is like being a tourist in a very weird country, where I think I know the customs but I’m afraid to walk around at night. While listening, I am captive of two simultaneous feelings: comfort and titillation. I can’t resist the sense of being validated and vilified at the same time.
As much as I listen, WOL still shocks me. Liddy, Rush, and Ollie all traffic in hate and race-baiting subtext, but they are paragons of correctness compared to most of the people on WOL. I’m stunned by the casual use of anti-Semitism to draw in callers, to stir the pot, to get (I would guess) Jewish listeners to phone in—or just as a kind of masturbatory Muzak.
C. Miles recently called the NAACP a “Jewish money-infested organization.” And he responded to the NAACP’s fund-raising effort by saying, “Let ’em get it from Mr. Steinberg and them.”
C. Miles, my brother, has suggested that the Jews were only in the civil rights movement to use black folks: “My Jewish brothers…claim they fought so valiantly along with us in the civil rights movement—but in my opinion they used us.” And C. Miles suggested that since the Jews were “the largest portion of the slave-owning community,” black folks should “bring a wrongful-death suit against the Jews for slavery.” Far from straightening him out, the callers take it one step further, chanting about how “the Jews control the media, the whole country” and “Jews have been making money off of us for years and years.” What other station would get away with this?
Just because I am a frequent listener doesn’t mean I am a frequent caller. I only took the bait once. When Mark Thompson, the recently defeated Umoja party candidate for an at-large D.C. Council seat, had his nightly show—he was very good, very smooth—he made a comment that it was no coincidence that the Holocaust Museum was built right near the U.S. Mint. Oy. Livid, enraged, incredulous, I phoned him off-air to take him to task. He wasn’t exactly apologetic but kind of sidled around what he’d said.
C. Miles has an all-purpose moniker for the white man, “Mr. Bobo,” which is funny and pretty dead-on. But when he goes on to say that “the black Holocaust was much, much worse than the Jewish Holocaust,” well, that’s where we have a little family disagreement. I know why he says that, but the casual use of anti-Semitism to drum up ratings, to enrage callers, is my biggest grievance against WOL. Why should Jews be used as rating-books bait?
I’m not the only Jew who’s been driven to distraction by the anti-Semitism. Laura Kam, media relations coordinator at the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in D.C., has gotten lots of complaints about the station. “We’ve had dozens and dozens and dozens of complaints just over the past number of months,” she says. “People are listening in their cars, surfing their radios, and they are shocked by this anti-Semitism they hear while they’re driving around D.C. and the suburbs of Maryland.
“It is very shocking and very hurtful to them, and to us,” she adds.
“There’s a First Amendment right for radio talk show hosts to say almost anything they want over the air,” Kam concedes. “But the shows often seem intended to provide a platform for the listeners to vent against the Jewish community.”
Kam and other Jews have complained to Hughes and the producer of the C. Miles show—with little response or feedback.
C. Miles had proposed a show titled “What’s the Matter With the Jews?”—slated to air on July 30, 1996—but it failed to materialize. Who knows if the calls were the reason for the no-show. Perhaps the show is soon to come.
WOL has a loyal, loyal audience; the station can set up the most preposterous notion and callers will happily riff on it. On March 27 this year, the discussion was about the O.J. trial. (What else?) Topic title: “Was the O.J. Trial Staged for Entertainment?” The show included the author of a book that suggested the possibility that the O.J. trial was orchestrated. At the top of the show someone called in and said, “The James Brady shooting was a staged, critically acclaimed, entertaining situation.” What followed was a conspiracy lover’s delight. A whole spate of “I don’t believe it was really O.J.” calls (not as in O.J. didn’t do it—but as in O.J. does not exist anymore. He’s been substituted with another body, another person). One caller phoned in and said emphatically, “O.J. was not in the Bronco. O.J. is dead. He’s out of the country.” Another person offered, “I don’t believe that’s Nelson Mandela, either. There was this article on cloning. I think it’s already in effect. I have watched Nelson Mandela and I basically noticed that this man, although he has the right age and the body language, everything about him appears to be robotic—like it’s controlled or something. Basically, going on my instinct I don’t believe that this is the actual Nelson Mandela.”
In the middle of the show, Mitchell, normally a very rational and together woman, said, “Many feel the trial was staged and orchestrated. Many think it could have been and perhaps even was.”
It’s not all black conspiracy-mongering on WOL. When it’s time to break into the news, the station offers up the same generic-white-man news-from-nowhere voice that every other station uses. And why does WOL—with its pro-black, buy-black, live-black emphasis—have a white on-air psychic, Sallee Rigler? Is that the ultimate irony or what? Why should a station that is always going on and on about how black folks always think that the “white man’s ice is colder” have a white psychic in its ranks? Can’t WOL find anyone black to take her place? Isn’t this an example of what C. Miles calls “black self-hatred”?
I suppose if I were really a nice Jewish girl, I would call up and complain every time I hear anti-Semitism on the air. But I have my WOL jones to consider. Part of me balks at bitching and wants only to continue to be part of the “WOL family.”
I doubt the station cares much whether it has white listeners or not. So hey, Cathy, did you really mean what you said during the O.J. trial? Am I really invited to sit at the table? Then how come the station is so damn nasty so much of the time?
The truth is, I don’t really have to be invited. I’m addicted. Am I a black wannabe? Sure—at least in part. Is black wannabeism entrenched in the Jewish community? Sure, in part. We may have a cultural soul, but we don’t have soul. Black people have their own Jewish wannabeism, envying Jews, jealous of their community cohesiveness, their political power, their money, their “influence.” Am I the only Jew who did a mental double take when Farrakhan announced the “Day of Atonement”—his catchy subhead for the Million Man March? Am I the only Jew who said, hey, that’s a direct steal from Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, down through the centuries?!
I stay tuned because I am hooked on the humor and the poetry of the on-air talent. And, most of all, the raw, uncensored passion. You don’t get passion like that on WRC—and least of all on ultrapasteurized, Diane Rehm Czarina of the Culturally Correct, wussified WAMU-FM. I like C. Miles’ anger. I like McCain’s often mournful ruminations about black folks, about black folks’ sense of responsibility (or lack thereof), about white folks’ less than winning ways.
You can go up and down the dial and you will not find this kind of language, abandon, or verbal glee. The rants, the self-righteousness, the unfettered energy of people saying exactly what is on their minds. I like it when C. Miles says, “Before I go anuthuh futhuh.” I like it when C. Miles says “Mr. Bobo” and “sucka perpetratuh” and “get realllllllll.” I laugh when I hear words like “cracker” and “handkerchief-head.” They’re funny, they’re poetic, they’re pungent. There’s a reason Terry McMillan is a millionaire now. White people like to read about black people, they like the passion in black writing, they are naturally curious about black folks. Not that many of them would admit it. I do.
God save my affronted, always entertained Jewish soul, but since I first tuned in to WOL I have never looked back. When I tell other Jews and other whites that I listen to the station, I get mostly incredulous—and occasionally schizophrenic—responses. One person who works for a major Jewish organization in the city admitted that he listens often (not as often as he’d like—he does have a real, nonwriter’s job, after all), but that he does listen, especially to McCain. He loves McCain’s verbal flow, his bringing his own race to task, his intellectual rigor.
All of which leaves me still feeling conflicted. What kind of Jewish turncoat am I? WOL is not exactly an outpost of the Happy and Ecumenical League. But still I rise, every a.m.—and listen and listen and listen and listen. I supposed there are worse fixes, worse itches.
I’ve actually learned quite a lot from WOL. Black people—just like Jews—are in a whole lot of pain. Different types of pain now, of course, though. But lots and lots of pain, still.
Blacks and Jews both have an incredible force field of emotion and energy, always accessible, always ready to go full-out to the wall. Blacks and Jews are constituted from lots of the same deep emotional “stuff.” We’re both constantly on the lookout for opportunities for being dissed or betrayed, or exiled. This isn’t bullshit, or leftover civil rights-era shared Jewish- and black-speak. This is real. And it’s why all the best comedians are either black or Jewish. Because blacks and Jews know the real daily dissing/betrayal deal of the world. And they bang their heads up against it every day.
Will I ever kick my WOL jones? Should I? Will I keep tuning in every day even when it makes my blood boil and my heart drop to somewhere just north of my gut? Probably. Would I like a whole lot less anti-Jewish, racist rhetoric on WOL? Oh yes, absolutely, yes. Who wants to sit down at the family table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—with so much menace hanging in the air?
But the bottom line is this: I like the station. I like the community feeling, the warmth of it, the heart of it, the folkloric fulminations of it. I know I’ll never be a part of the “WOL family.” I’ll never be black, no matter how much I might occasionally want to be. But so what. It’s Saturday night and the Moon Man is on. With Nova and Betty Montgomery Williams—”the woman with two names,” as Moon likes to say. Walter’s on the line. Just for tonight, I’m down. I’m cool.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.