Announcer Rivablue, left, talks with Dr. Bernice King during a live remote from the King Center.

By Shandra Hill Smith

As “Atlanta’s Jazz Station” Jazz 91.9 WCLK gears up for its Feb. 17 special listener engagement kickoff mixer followed by a March membership campaign, the station also looks back on another event that holds even more meaning these days. For its 41st anniversary benefit show last June, WCLK hosted the late Natalie Cole, the legendary songstress who died within months of the concert on New Year’s Eve 2015.

“We were so thrilled we could actually get her after she’d slowed down from performing,” says Wendy Williams, general manager for WCLK. “Her performance was just so exquisite and she was just regal in her presence. She was able to sing and hit every note like she’d always done.”

For its listener engagement kickoff, WCLK will feature jazz keyboardist Marcus Johnson before kicking off its spring membership campaign from March 9 to 20. During those dates, new and renewing members will have a chance to take part in a pledge drive by donating online at WCLK.com or calling in to the station.

This all falls on the heels of the station launching new weekend programming in January, with its contemporary jazz on Saturdays and a focus more on mainstream jazz on Sundays.

A station credited with introducing and helping grow the careers of local and national artists, WCLK introduced Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and actress India.Arie, vocalists Lizz Wright and Greg Porter and musician Kamasi Washington to the Atlanta market before they saw the releases of their respective CDs.

In April 1974, WCLK began transmitting at 54 watts as a student training laboratory at the then Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University. Today it is one of the longest-running jazz stations in the world, with 24 hours of mainstream jazz on 91.9 FM and streaming via WCLK.com.  The station has gone to become both a National Public Radio affiliate and Public Radio International station.

The nonprofit station that provides training opportunities for students majoring in mass media arts credits much of its longevity to the long-term support of listeners. It’s those listeners that WCLK counts on for support through individual donations, sustaining membership, employee match gift programs, car donations and more, with 60 percent of WCLK’s funding from private sector support – listeners and underwriters of events.

“Those listeners turned their listenership into membership during fundraiser campaigns and continue to support the station in some way to this day,” says Debb Moore, who has been with WCLK for 25 years and is the host of Jazz at Sundown from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights. She also hosts Sunday Jazz Suite from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Still, WCLK reached a point where its listenership had become a big stagnant – leading the station to conduct market testing to poll its listeners. Listenership, says Williams, “wasn’t growing. That also meant that our funding base was not growing. We really had to look at that and say ‘Where do we need to be?’ ”

One thing was certain: The station would stick to a jazz format, what Williams describes as an underserved format. Listening to its audience, WCLK began to serve up contemporary, smooth, and neo soul sounds. The increase in listenership, including among males and more diverse audiences, Williams says, was instant.

The station’s presence grew when, in 2012, it relocated its antenna from Clark Atlanta to American Tower, a commercial tower in Downtown. While the move didn’t increase the station’s wattage, it did allow WCLK “to go up higher on the FM tower.

“By going up higher on the FM tower, that gave us a more omni-directional signal around the city; that’s what makes it appear as if we’ve increased our wattage,” says Williams.

On the CAU campus’ AM tower WCLK was 250 feet up, where it’s now 500 feet on the 1,000-foot commercial tower where it relocated.

“That significantly improved our listenership,” adds Williams, who has been with the station 21 years. “We went from being able to reach 1.2 million people within our signal coverage to now 2.4 million within our signal coverage.”

Listeners have the option of tuning in to programming hosted by seven part-time on-air announcers. Additionally, in partnership with CAU’s Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development, WCLK produces and airs a monthly live radio call-in show, “Your Health Connection,” hosted by JaQuitta Williams and featuring the center’s groundbreaking research in prostate cancer as well as a spotlight on health disparities.

Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves withe late Natalie Cole and a guest at the WCLK 2015 Spring Benefit Concert.

In partnership with Verizon Wireless, the station produces the monthly call-in show “Heart to Heart with Dr. Tartt” that focuses on domestic violence prevention and ways to create healthy relationships.

Weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., listeners can tune in to Morris Baxter for “Morning Jazz,” through which Baxter aims to offer morning motivations. Those motivational words stem from his personal experience of unemployment following at least a decade in radio, and taking temporary work in the mortgage industry while his wife was pregnant with their now 10-year-old daughter, until he was able to return to radio.

“When you stay in the divine flow, I learned that you will reach your divine potential,” says Baxter. “Your passion is your purpose. Once you discover your passion, you know what your purpose is and it makes it easier to concentrate on what it is you’re really supposed to be doing.”

Over the years, WCLK has managed to figure out its direction by keeping its eyes focused on ways to stay relevant, according to Williams. That’s particularly important considering the advent of satellite radio, an increase in syndicated programming, plus the popularity of technological gadgets such as iPods and iPads — all making it more challenging to reach younger audiences.

“You really are vying for your listener now when you recognize that people have more choices,” says Williams.

Showing up “wherever people might listen” and serving listeners what they want, she adds, is vital.

“We show up at festivals. We show up to host events. People come in here to pick up their concert tickets that they win on the air every day, and we’re able to shake their hands. They get to know us. They get to know the hosts. That’s like having a one-on-one relationship. And I think that’s been our blessing, even though we’ve had to evolve and we’ve had to change, too.”

To take part in WCLK’s pledge drive, call (404) 880-8807 or donate safely and securely online at WCLK.com. The Feb. 17 listener engagement campaign kickoff will take place at 6 p.m. at LOFT at Castleberry Hill at 170 Northside Drive SW in Atlanta.

 

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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