Tuesday, October 19, 2004

WGIV Signs Off

Black radio dynamo fades away
WGIV's sound transformed from R&B to gospel to silence
TV/Radio Writer

One of the South's most admired voices fell silent this week at age 56, snuffed out by the flick of a switch.

In life, Charlotte's WGIV radio became one of the nation's powerhouse black radio stations, captivated teens of both races and hatched the careers of radio greats like "Chatty Hattie" and "Rockin' Ray" Gooding. Once it even captured a killer.

Sunday, the station went silent at 11:59 p.m., the victim of low listenership and changing demographic tastes, says its owner, New York-based Infinity Broadcasting.

"We're all saddened by the station going dark," said Terri Avery, operations director for Infinity's WPEG-FM ("Power 98" 97.9), WBAV-FM, ("V" 101.9) and the late WGIV (1600 AM).

"But it's kind of like a sign of the times with the way business goes these days. ... It hadn't received much in the way of ratings, which equals listenership, which equals revenue."

WGIV was a product of the postwar baby boom and came of age in the turbulent era of Southern integration. In midlife, it struggled against powerful competitive currents in the ever-changing radio industry and spent its last days in the harness of religion, radiating the power of Southern gospel music.

WGIV was born in a two-car garage in 1947, one of the first broadcast licenses issued after World War II. The call letters stood for "We're G.I. Veterans."

Its founder was Francis Fitzgerald, who had an uncanny knack for finding talent. His first discovery was "Genial Gene" Potts -- never just "Gene," not on the air anyway.

In 1948, he sent Potts to host a broadcast from the old Excelsior Club featuring a vocal group named the Calypso Four.

Potts nailed the gig and was soon hosting gospel and soul programs, then became the station's morning announcer, a shift to showcase his ability to chatter in verse.

"We're setting the pace for others to trace," Potts would ad-lib. "This is Genial Gene on the air; have you got 15 minutes to spare?"

Potts took to rhyming in order to overcome a stammer that vexed him. He collected synonyms to replace words that would not come and his rapping became his trademark.

He would go on to join the Original 13, the first group of full-time black radio announcers in the South.

Once, a man sought for killing a police officer strolled into WGIV. He proposed a deal: Play a song for my mama and I'll surrender. Potts played it, then dialed the cops. The man went peacefully.

Attracted blacks, whites

WGIV rippled the segregationist fabric of the 1950s and '60s when white teenagers started tuning in to hear Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Ray Charles, James Brown and other influences of the emerging -- some grown-ups called it corrupting -- rhythm and blues movement.At its heart, WGIV reverberated with personality.

There was William B. Sanders, who started out running errands for Potts and was so eternally optimistic that Potts nicknamed him "Joy Boy."

Potts teamed "Joy Boy" with "Hot Scott" Hubbs on the morning show in the early 1960s. Sanders was black; Hubbs white. They became the first integrated morning radio show in the South and for a while, the hottest show in town.

There was F.P. Toomey who went from broadcasting sock hops in the 1950s to a spot on the Charlotte police force.

And there was "Rockin' Ray" Gooding, who worked at WGIV from 1960 to 1968 and went on to WBT-AM to host the old "Sunday Night Hall of Fame."

Chatty Hattie's rise

Perhaps best known to this day is Hattie Leeper, who went to work for Potts as a high school student in the mid-1950s, doing odd jobs. Potts had her before the microphone before long and soon she was a regular part of WGIV's schedule known as "Chatty Hattie."

After the death of Fitzgerald in 1967, the station was sold, the first of many ownership changes. Facing foreclosure in 1982, the station went up for auction.

In a single decade, AM radio had lost half its listeners to the powerful and clearer FM. WGIV's influence was ebbing.

By the early '80s, WPEG-FM dumped its disco format and started down the path to primacy in the Charlotte market with its mix of jazz, rock and rhythm and blues, effectively stealing WGIV's core audience.

WGIV eventually adopted a gospel format and became indispensable to Charlotte's black religious matrix. With personalities like Altheresa Goode-Howard and Beatrice Thompson, it forged a powerful bond with listeners.

Listener misses WGIV

Avery said she was notified Nov. 24 that Infinity intended to pull the plug at WGIV. A 10,000-watt license the station held for the frequency at 1660 AM was salvaged and activated Monday to provide a second transmitter for Infinity's sports-talk station WFNZ (610 and 1660 AM).

"It was sad to just see it go so fast," said James Barnett, who came to Charlotte in the 1960s and knew the station at the apex of its influence. Barnett wondered why Infinity couldn't sell it to someone who would keep it on the air.

"I think those in the black community should be asking some questions," he said.

"As a church musician, I depended on WGIV as my cup-of-coffee radio station in the mornings," Tony McNeill, music minister at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church said Tuesday.

"It made it bearable to sit in traffic."



..and a couple of personal notes

My old friend from Central High School, Obie Oakley told me about the demise of WGIV. He was kind enough to write the Observer to tell them that they had left out a couple of things:

Here's what he wrote:

As a teenager growing up in Charlotte during the early 50’s, I have very fond memories of WGIV and especially “Genial Gene”, so I view the station’s signing off as the passing of an era.

However, in addition to the personalities cited in the article, I feel there are two other WGIV alumni who deserve mention. Ed Myers, Central High student leader and Shrine Bowl quarterback, was an “on air” DJ who went on to make a name for himself in broadcasting in the Washington, DC Area.

Julian Barber was the station’s news director in the early 50’s and he later became a top rated TV news anchor who won 3 Emmys.

WGIV can be proud of its service to the Charlotte community.

s/ Osborne Oakley

Charlotte, NC

Very nice, Obie. Thank you.

Everytime Julian and I got together...we would talk about those days.....for hours. He never forgot anything! He could even name all the little urchins...who lived out there on Toomey Ave (next to the dump) who used to hang around the station. (My daddy used to bring those kids presents on Christmas. He'd go by Stanleys on Christmas eve....and whatever toys old Doc Stanley hadn't sold....he'd let my Dad have them at cost...so he could give them to those kids. He carried on that tradition for a number of years, even after I had left for college. My dad's favorite was a little fellow they called "Little Bill."

My Dad passed away on Chrismas Eve, 1957. Around noontime the next day, there was a phone call......... from Little Bill....wanting to know where Mr. Myers was.

I regret that I didn't have the presence of mind that day to try to somehow get some toys to those kids....and carry on my father's tradition.

But most of my memories of WGIV are happy ones! If you ever see any old WGIV memorabilia for sale.....let me know.

Thanks for letting the Observer know that there was more to WGIV...than what they wrote about.


(I just went on the internet and ordered 2 cases of Cheerwine.....and when it arrives....I'm going to drink myself silly toasting ....and saying goodbye ......to WGIV!)