Reviving James Brown's Radio Station Call Letters, Rep. Joe Armstrong Aims to Fill a Void in Knoxville's Airwaves

It's late afternoon on a Sunday, and for the first time in years, jazz sounds smooth and sweet are emanating from the commercial end of the FM radio dial. On WJBE 99.7, and also on its companion AM 1040, radio veteran and keyboardist Brian Clay began hosting his Jazzspirations radio show on Sept. 8, one of the latest additions to the new/old station's impressive lineup of locally produced programming.

Clay—whom some may recognize as a producer and occasional on-air presence for the WNOX Sportstalk program—cut his teeth in Atlanta radio, where he created Jazzspirations, a show devoted to inspirational jazz. "I found that if you dig into it, you'll find that most jazz artists have recorded some gospel or inspirational music," he says. His show features a broad spectrum of artists, from more traditional jazzers who have dabbled in inspirational music, like pianists Ramsey Lewis and Joe Sample, to smooth jazzmen like saxophonist Kirk Whalum to more expressly Christian or jazz/gospel recording artists like Grammy-winning a cappella sextet Take 6.

When WNOX downsized and WJBE came on the air, Clay saw an opportunity to return to his roots. "I talked to [station manager] Jerry Mason, we looked at some times, and we went from there," he says. "I think the station has more of a mature R&B audience than what you might find on some of the hip-hop stations. And I think that's why the jazz/gospel show is doing well. There's a more mature audience listening."

Which, up to a point, fits with the M.O. of the station, which began its AM broadcasts in January. If you haven't made the connection, WJBE is a revival of the original WJBE, a "raw soul" station owned by James Brown from roughly 1967 until 1979. State Rep. Joe Armstrong, who worked his way through college in sales at the old WJBE, recently purchased the frequencies and the rights to the call letters. Now, through the new WJBE, he hopes to bring music and message to an underserved community, and pay worthy homage to a golden moment in Knox broadcast history.

"When that station went off the air, there was a void, for smooth jazz, for R&B, for the Motown sound and classic soul," Armstrong says. "There's also a shortage now of local programming. It seems local folks have a hard time accessing the radio; every station is owned by conglomerates. We believe in local programming. We have two syndicated shows. Our focus is on community, and our community is Knoxville."

With the WJBE call letters in tow, there's a tradition to uphold, Armstrong says—a seemingly antiquated notion of radio station as community hub. "It was a center point, at one time," Armstrong says of the old station, which began life on McCalla (now Martin Luther King) Avenue before migrating to Prosser Road. "It was the only media outlet for local news, information, sports, politics, for the black community, and for the East Knoxville community. Everybody who was running for office came to the station."

Armstrong says he first met Lamar Alexander at WJBE, when the now-senator was in the middle of his famous walk across Tennessee, the folksy publicity stunt that won him the gubernatorial race. Randy Tyree and Kyle Testerman—former Knox mayors, from opposite sides of the political spectrum—also paid their respects there.

Armstrong remembers, too, that WJBE even hosted a weekday morning program called The Watchdog, with cantankerous local politician and lowball grocer Cas Walker—not a gentleman renowned for his progressive outlook. "The station was center point for anyone who wanted to get on the air and talk about their aspirations," Armstrong says.

Current program director Jerry Mason, who worked intermittently through the '70s at the original WJBE under the DJ name Jerry Boone, says there was considerable pride, too, surrounding that earlier enterprise. "There was a spirit under that original radio station, because it was endorsed by James Brown," he says. Brown went on to purchase two other stations, but WJBE, which stood for James Brown Enterprises, was his first.

"Being part of the James Brown organization made people feel they were part of history," Mason continues. "He was the first black man to own more than one radio station. Black power had begun to emerge, and WJBE was one of the fruits of that emergence. There was a family atmosphere.

"And there were forces dead set against the station being here. There was an organized effort to deprive us of advertising revenue. That only solidified our resolve. There were times people had to feed me because I couldn't cash a check."

According to Mason, Brown was a surprisingly hands-on owner, at least as far as iconic, conglomerate-level superstars can be expected to be such. "He'd come by a few times a year," Mason says. "Sometimes he'd come in town and we wouldn't even know he was there. He'd be down at the Andrew Johnson listening to the station."

Brown's famous disciplinary code as a bandleader—strict dress policies, fines for band members who showed up late or missed cues onstage—extended, to a point, to his radio station, too. "He was a person who laid down the rules, and if you abided by the rules, you wouldn't have a problem. But if you tried to circumvent the rules, you had a problem.

"He believed in a strict dress code, and in addressing people as mister or missus. It was a very formal atmosphere, a very respectful atmosphere. He was very big on respect."

Formal, maybe, but fertile, too. Several former WJBE staffers went on to larger careers, including Tene Croom, now a national news director for Sheridan Broadcasting; Doug Steele, who garnered his own syndicated radio show; Larry Tinsley, who went on to become a big name in Atlanta broadcasting; and Arthur Takeall, who was a national spokesman for Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign.

As for the new WJBE, its current lineup features two syndicated shows—the Tom Joyner Morning Show and the D.L. Hughley Show, featuring comedian/political observer Hughley and a variety of guests. Those two shows are scheduled during the all-important morning and evening drive-time hours, during which time the station features a mix of contemporary hits and oldies that Mason describes as "no hard rap, no fussin', no cussing. Music you can listen in the car with your grandbabies."

The rest of the week is exclusively local, and heavy on the old-school. Weekdays feature both a classic soul and a classic R&B show; Mason's own Blues at Sunrise happens on Saturday mornings; DJ K Swiss hosts a weekend dance party on the radio; James Upshaw plays live recordings from a host of popular artists on The Live Show; Gospel Caravan runs on Sundays, along with Jazzspirations and a host of other religious and inspirational programs.

And then there are WJBE's issues-oriented shows, which Mason says are as vital to its mission as its playlist.

"There was a special relationship between the station and the people it served," he says. "And when it closed, we felt the people lost a voice. There have been other minority stations since, but not like WJBE."

And while the new WJBE may not offer anything as incendiary as Cas Walker in the morning, it does have The Bill and Bill, Frank and Frank Show, a yap fest featuring two liberals and two conservatives, including Metro Pulse columnist Frank Cagle. Some of the station's other regular features include Teen Talk, hosted by local activist Lady Ladd, and Business on Demand, a regular show featuring local businesses and business issues.

But the question remains: Can WJBE maintain this approach in an era when industry trends have dictated cost-cutting, syndicated programming, and corporate ownership? Joe Armstrong is unequivocal in his belief that listeners are starved for a better brand of radio.

"We had a generation grow up without R&B radio," he says. "Now, they're getting it, and they're realizing how much they've missed. We're tying in with the high schools getting students that want to come in and work.

"We also have very loyal listeners. And they support our advertisers. You wouldn't believe how many advertisers we get who come to us because their customers said, ‘Why haven't I heard you on WJBE?'"