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'Blue-eyed soul brother': Radio One's new GM out to prove race doesn't matter

May 2, 2005

"I think it had been so long since one of the doors had been opened, no one knew how to open it," Williams said with a laugh from his office on the north side of downtown.

Since that initial learning curve was conquered, the doors haven't closed.

"When Chuck opened those double doors, I was taken aback," said Amos Brown, director of strategic research and one of the most well-known personalities at Radio One. "I thought, 'Wow, something here is different.' It sent a very powerful message that has reverberated throughout the building."

His office doors will be the first of many Williams will be counted on to open-inside and outside the building of his new employer.

Williams, 49, a longtime radio executive, has become adept at opening not only doors, but also lines of communication, said those familiar with him. Those skills, industry sources said, will be critical in drawing a wider array of advertisers-white, black and Latino-to Radio One's radio stations and expanding the viewership of its cable television station beyond its current 100,000 weekly.

While Radio One has two of Indianapolis' top-10-rated stations, Williams will focus on internal improvements to further drive up revenue.

"We're strong, but we still have to have mandates [to improve]," Williams said.

Some question if a white man can or should be leading the city's leading radio stations among the black population and whether he can retain the minority advertisers who often patronize the stations.

"Chuck Williams has to be accessible and very involved with African-American concerns," said Shannon Williams, editor of the Indianapolis Recorder, the city's leading newspaper targeted to blacks. "We don't want talking without actions. I think this community is way beyond that."

Charles Montgomery, Indianapolis Black Chamber of Commerce executive director, thinks a person's qualifications to do the job are all that matters.

"We have to get past this race issue," Montgomery said. "If a person is qualified to get the job, they should get the job. It's not about the color of your skin."

In-house barriers

First, Williams needed to open doors and break down barriers in-house between himself and the predominantly black staff at Radio One.

When Williams became Radio One's local boss, one of his new employees noted he was the first white GM of one of the group's local flagships, WTLC-FM 106.7, in almost 30 years. Radio One, which entered the market as a consolidator in 2000, also operates WHHH-FM 96.3, WJYZ-FM 100.9, WTLC-AM 1310, and WDNI-TV, the Indy Music Channel.

Radio One, a publicly traded company headquartered in Maryland, is the largest radio broadcasting company targeting blacks. WTLC-FM is a powerhouse locally with black adults ages 25-54. WHHH is tops in several categories with younger black listeners. WJYZ, a Jazz station, and WTLC-AM, which plays a blend of gospel music, both bring in a black demographic that skews slightly older.

That isn't to say Radio One's stations don't also bring in a significant number of white and Latino listeners, media buyers said.

"From the perspective of the African-American audience, they have just about every segment locked up," said Bruce Bryant, a leader in the local black community and president of Promotus Advertising.

While concerns linger about Williams' ability to connect with Radio One's core audience, that's not the only concern.

"The concern is that this was the last holdout where someone of color could preside over a major media property in the market," Bryant said. "It puts balance into the community to have an African-American leader of a company that has such an impact on the African-American community. This is a powerful media outlet."

Walk-ins welcome

Despite challenges, Williams appears to be taking a crucial first step in making his first foray into black broadcasting successful.

"His doors are always open, literally and figuratively, and that's something people here have noticed," Brown said. "He strikes me as a very accessible person and a person who believes in team building and who really listens."

Some of the local Radio One employees affectionately call Williams the "blueeyed soul brother."

Williams plays down his role as the white GM of a station whose audience is predominantly black.

"I've managed female-oriented stations and stations targeted at listeners 40 years my senior, and it's never been an issue," Williams said. "I don't anticipate my not being an African-American will have any effect on our coming together to do great teamwork."

The Recorder's Shannon Williams said Chuck Williams' ability to understand Radio One's role as a communication platform for the local African-American community remains a concern.

"I think advertisers are primarily concerned with who they reach. It's all about the numbers," she said. "But Radio One stations are a major voice for the local African-American community, and it will be important for [Chuck Williams] to stay connected to that audience. If he stays consistent to what's been established, I think he'll do fine."

Williams replaced Deon Levingston, who was well-connected and highly regarded in the local black community. Levingston, who had been with the company more than a decade and GM since 2002, left to take a job with WBLS-FM 107.5 in New York.

Winning over advertisers

Williams has been busy meeting local advertisers and media buyers since his arrival from Bonneville International Corp., a Salt Lake City-based radio broadcasting conglomerate, with a strong industry reputation. Williams oversaw the company's Chicago-area properties.

He's made a favorable impression, said media buying veteran Bill Perkins, president of locally based Perkins Nichols Media. It helps that Williams is a native of Terre Haute, with experience working for several local stations, including WKLR-FM, the forerunner of WNOUFM 93.1.

"You have a fellow who has experience in the market and a good reputation in the industry," Perkins said. "With his credentials, he could open doors."

Promotus' Bryant thinks Williams could unlock Radio One's potential.

"I don't think many people have connected the dots to realize the potential of this radio cluster," Bryant said. "Few other clusters have the potential to reach this broad a demographic and penetrate it so deeply."

Williams said Radio One's potential is what lured him back home.

The growing popularity of the types of music Radio One plays plus the growing realization of the buying power of Radio One's listeners provides dynamic growth potential, Williams said.

While Williams seeks more listeners for Radio One, he thinks its stations are set up to deliver advertisers a clear-cut demographic.

"This is the place to be," Williams said. "I think this is where the growth is."

Unlocking potential

Industry sources said a white general manager, in some ways, could be more effective in taking this message to a larger corporate audience.

"I think Chuck might open doors for more people to take a look at this cluster," Bryant said. "You get a lot of media buyers who don't understand the value of buying different audiences. Blacks and Latinos spend more on consumer goods and they're more brand loyal. Chuck Williams is in a unique position to shine a light on these issues."

With Williams, industry sources said, it won't be about advocacy; it will be strictly business.

While he understands the importance of his race to his stations' customers, he thinks connecting with Radio One's audience will be as easy as swinging open his office doors.

"I'll stay in touch with the African-American listeners the same way I do with the ones that aren't," Williams said.

Radio One's business has been strong nationally and locally the past few years. Nationally, Radio One, which operates 67 stations in 22 markets, had profits of $61.6 million on revenue of $320 million in 2004. Industry analysts said the company's Indiana stations contributed about 3.4 percent-about $11 million-of company revenue.

Locally, WTLC-FM is the market's fourth-most-popular radio station. WHHH is ninth, WJYZ is 11th, and WTLC-AM is 17th. Williams projects 2005 revenue will be up significantly.

Williams said one of his major initiatives is making the TV station profitable, but he will also work internally to improve marketing and execution on remote broadcasts and other promotions. Williams said he will rely on Radio One's department heads to become more active leaders in the office and community to promote the station's merits.

Revamping Radio One's local marketing staff is a top priority for Williams.

"Our marketing to our [listening] audience is strong," he said. "Now we have to become more focused on taking the product to the [advertising] market. It comes down to execution. It's not who we are that counts, but what we do."

Meeting growth goals starts from within, Williams said, but not necessarily within his office.

"I live that way," Williams said, motioning toward his open office doors. "The ivory tower mentality is very old school and counterproductive. The best ideas to help this company grow will not come from inside this room, guaranteed."
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