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A Freudian slip from a phone call spells out the whole truth about the latest local-radio shakeup:
"This is Dave Ervin over at Q95.5. Sorry, I meant FOXY 95.5. Old habits die hard."
Old habits, yes, but radio formats die as fast as old-timers in a Chicago heat wave. Last Monday, with no fanfare, 95.5 FM stopped broadcasting "Drop It Like It's Hot" and switched over to Lionel Richie. It's up to each of us, individually, to decide how we feel about this format switch from new hip-hop to old R&B.
Personally, I'm bummed. While The Beat (100.3 FM) and Q95.5 were almost identical in sound, they each had their own personality. Q95.5 had my favorites: the godfather, Charlie Chan; the cherubic J-Nicks; the lovely Isis Jones.
"We were artists who happened to all work at a radio station," says Tony J. (of "TRAFFIC!" fame). "We were a reality show."
Perhaps no one on the face of this planet has as much personality as Tony. Talking to him is medicinal, an anti-depressant, as he pours out a stream of consciousness about everything from Bill Cosby to technology, to whatever else pops in his mind. My favorite comment he made during our talk, apropos of almost nothing: "People swapping wives on TV. Swap wives! We don't swap wives now, do we?"
But beneath his good humor, Tony isn't happy to be left floating in the wind.
"I try to make motherfuckers laugh," he says. "That's my job. But I don't have my job anymore, and I'm going to say why -- and people won't be laughing."
Why did Q95.5 switch over? Depends on who you ask. According to general manger Dave Ervin, it was the result of a bargain between Radio One, 95.5's parent company, and one of the biggest-name DJs in the nation.
"A few weeks ago," explains Ervin, "Radio One formed a partnership with Tom Joyner's company, Reach Media. When Joyner's contract was up with Clear Channel in St. Louis, he made the decision to join FOXY 95.5. Though Q95.5 was a popular radio station, Joyner's audience tends to be more compatible with an R&B format."
Joyner's morning show is, according to Ervin, more listened to than Howard Stern's. Plus, R&B brings in more cash.
"In current ratings, R&B commands a larger audience than hip-hop," says Ervin. "There are also more places on the dial to get hip-hop, thus the arena is well served and a little crowded."
The Riverfront Times' own Randall Roberts examined the crowded hip-hop scene last November in his cover story "Dawg Eat Dawg." Among the DJs he talked to, the competition was always friendly. But at the upper levels, between Radio One and the Beat's parent company, Clear Channel, the competition was probably taken a little more seriously. And Tony J. doubts his former bosses' ability to go to war against that corporate monolith.
"You got a car that's fucked up, and you just go out and paint it," says Tony, "you got a car with a brand new color that's still fucked up. They chose to run that station into the ground. They never understood what they had. They have a staff of people who were born and raised here, who knew the scene and were local celebrities. J-Nicks, he belongs on BET. Didn't we learn anything from Ludacris?"
Ludacris made his bones as a DJ in Atlanta before becoming the national hip-hop powerhouse that he is. And Q95.5 could have birthed someone like him. And Ervin, who says that local DJs will soon be on the air at FOXY, is sorry to see the Q95.5 talent go.
"Q95.5 was one of the greatest radio stations I've had the fortune to be affiliated with. It was filled with great talent -- announcers, mixers, producers, so on. It's an unfortunate reality in radio, however, that a format change is always possible."
Tony J. has made his peace with corporate truths like those. And he's seen the light.
"You got to do it yourself," he says. "Quit giving your money to other people. Take two paychecks and buy seven blocks of East St. Louis. Get your money. Do it now."
Tony wants to start his own online radio station and is even musing about starting a school for performing arts -- and business.
"Like a mixture of Julliardand Fame," he says. "Be an artist and a businessman. That's why schools ain't making it today. People don't want to learn about something to do in the future. They want to do their thing today. Teach 'em how."
For Tony J., the frustration the local hip-hop scene may feel over losing one of its champions will be worth it -- if the loss teaches local artists to think, act and promote for themselves instead of wasting their money courting radio play.
"There's enough national celebrities in this town who need to invest back into their market. There's a lot of stuff opening up for little guys, too. We can own this market if we want it."