Here’s a sentence that typically requires a time machine: There’s a new independently owned radio station in Eastern Massachusetts.
What’s more, WZBR 1410 AM, tagline “The Bass of Boston,” is the only independent black-owned licensed commercial station in the region. Operated by Frank Holder, a veteran of the gone but immortalized Roxbury institution 1090 WILD AM, the new station’s format isn’t radical or experimental—a recent lunch hour smorgasbord offered classic slow jams, a local hip-hop track, and the 1988 hit “Don’t Be Cruel” by hometown hero Bobby Brown. But in the era of publicly traded frequencies that “spin” the same generic playlists in various markets, news of this variety is rare.
“We’re here to serve the public,” says Steve Gousby, the program director at WZBR who knows Holder from their days together down the dial in the early aughts. Gousby continues, “This reminds me so much of WILD. Not just because the station [was right next door to WZBR, on Warren Street], but because of the hard work everyone is putting in. While there’s competition here, we don’t care. We’re not caring about what they’re doing over there—we’re just doing what we need to do to try and fill the void.”
In the nondescript WZBR studio just steps outside of Dudley Square, native interests come first. Local pride is palpable; minutes after paying tribute to Bobby, Gousby notes that New Edition producer Maurice Starr used to conduct business from an office on the floor above. Not unintentionally, the whole experience hearkens back to what Boston radio legend Delores Handy, commenting in 2011 about the hole left in the local media after WILD was acquired by the national behemoth Radio One, named “the hot spot” of the 1980s.
“If you wanted to find out what was happening in the city, you’d tune in,” Handy recalled. “If you needed to get information to the African-American inner city community, the red brick building on Warren Street across from Roxbury District Court is where you’d go, whether you were a concert promoter, community activist, or politician.”
Gousby, who cut his teeth on WERS 88.9 FM as an Emerson College student before serving as a program director at WILD, didn’t expect to be back behind the boards a year ago. After leaving the defunct Roxbury station during a slide under corporate ownership that cut the soul out of a community favorite between 2000 and 2005 before it vanished once and for all, he worked briefly in the record business before getting his realtor’s license.
“I’m a broker now,” Gousby says. “I have my own real estate office in Hyde Park, which I do before I go here. I mix it up—in fact, I do a real estate show [It’s Your House] here on Sundays.”
“His show is amazing,” Holder says. “Not just because of the concept, but in how it’s educating people. I picked up my mother-in-law in front of church yesterday, and Steve was on the air talking to somebody about 401(k)s. Two people I was with said, ‘What’s a 401(k)?’ They never would have known, and he addressed how to work toward getting one and saving. That type of show is exactly the type of reason we’re here.”
With ongoing troubles in Boston Public Schools and the grip of gentrification tightening around Roxbury, there’s a pressing need for more hyperlocal news sources—especially as major outlets that are based downtown and in the ’burbs tend to ignore minority corners save for homicide coverage. But with persistent crackdowns on unlicensed radio stations like TOUCH-FM that have historically informed the Hub’s African American and immigrant residents, the task of reaching communities of color is left to a diminishing number of ethnic and alternative publications. It leaves a big space for an authentic voice like WZBR, which bills itself as “an adult contemporary radio station serving the Greater Boston area” playing “the best of contemporary urban music, offering a grown-up alternative to stations that repeat the same hardcore hip-hop or pop songs throughout the day.”
A glance at national trends by comparison shows the extraordinary nature of Holder’s endeavor. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the floodgates for broadcast media consolidation, according to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, the number of African American companies owning radio stations nationwide plummeted from nearly 150 in 1995 to less than half that in 2012. A more recent tally by the Washington Post puts African-American media proprietorship “at less than one percent of all television properties, and less than 2 percent of radio.”
“It’s WILD in the social media age,” says Holder, whose Bass of Boston transmits from a 5,000-watt tower in Dedham and reaches a 20-mile radius. Holder describes his role back in the day at WILD as “the gopher, the coffee-getter”—still the station inspired him enough to buy the defunct call letters from the corporation that buried them. Pending approval from the FCC, WZBR will soon become WILD and proceed to fill an icon’s shoes in name as well as in will.
“I want to make sure we’re talking about families, what’s happening in the community, obviously if there’s crime, and of course anything to do with the schools and things that benefit the kids,” Holder says.
Adds Gousby, who has embraced the challenge of building a new machine from the ground up:
“We don’t have to worry about the politics of the business, and before I left WILD there was a lot of politics. I said that I would never ever work for a big corporation again, and I meant it.” His new gig may be at a startup, but it’s not the program director’s first time at a grassroots rodeo.
“When you’re young and growing up, you imagine all this great equipment, and when I finally got to WILD I remember thinking I had better stuff at home,” Gousby says. “But whether the equipment was modernized or not, it worked, and we were able to operate and get our message across.”