In 1967, a 24-year-old black disc jockey from Memphis came to Columbia. Bill Terrell was a product of WDIA, “The Heart and Soul of Memphis,” a historic radio station that was the first in the country programmed entirely for an African-American audience.
The station, with its powerful 50,000-watt signal, played blues and gospel for black listeners across the South. But for African-Americans in the Memphis area, the locally owned station also started community programs benefiting disabled school children and raised money for everything from Little League uniforms to college scholarships.
WDIA taught Terrell the three core tenets of what became his mission in radio: entertainment, advertising and, most important to him, public service.
“I took pride in the latter,” Terrell says.
Terrell would later become one of the most well-known broadcasters in all of South Carolina. He started as a disc jockey for WOIC-AM, the black-owned radio station in Columbia. Then he created Job Man Caravan, the Sunday afternoon public affairs and entertainment show on South Carolina ETV.
For three decades, Terrell’s show curated job openings from across South Carolina and broadcast them to a statewide audience, geared toward African-Americans. Strangers still come up to Terrell and tell him he helped them get their first job.
“That was the connector,” he says. “It was so important and unique.”
Decades ago, when radio was king, at black-owned stations across South Carolina there were people like Terrell, the DJ and de facto community leader. Then in the 1990s much of the industry was deregulated, ushering in an era of syndication with networks broadcasting popular national shows in place of their local offerings.
Today in the state, locally black-owned radio, and the locally-based programming that propped up African-American communities for decades, is mostly a thing of the past.
But in Columbia, The Urban Scene, the long-running talk show that broadcasts weekdays on WGCV, is something like a last holdover of the Terrell era.
Featuring interviews with black newsmakers, announcements from local faith leaders and information about local black-owned businesses, the show has been the on-air bulletin board for Columbia’s black population for nearly three decades.
Columbia broadcaster Don Frierson, who grew up idolizing Terrell, has hosted the show since 1991. It’s likely the longest-running radio show of its kind in the state.
On a recent weekday, Frierson, 66, in a tan sweater vest covering an aqua blue button down, takes a seat in the WGCV studio on Millwood Avenue. He pops on his white Sony headphones and lifts the microphone.
“Good afternoon, welcome to The Urban Scene,” Frierson says. “So glad to have you along today. It’s a beautiful day because it’s a day that God has given us. We’re glad to be here. Glad you’re here with us.”
The Urban Scene debuted in 1989 on WOIC-AM while AM radio was on the decline. Cash-rich FM stations were paying consultants to carefully cultivate playlists, growing their audiences, building new studios and broadcasting with larger signals.
By the early-’90s in the Midlands, WWDM, an FM station with a powerful 100,000-watt signal, had taken over as the most-listened-to station among African-Americans.
“We were inexperienced,” says I.S. Leevy Johnson, the Columbia lawyer and former WOIC-AM owner. “We did not appreciate the significance of FM penetration. FM stations were blowing AM stations off the dial. We unfortunately were a step behind.”
Black-owned stations across the state, typically with smaller signals that didn’t broadcast outside of their local metro areas, faced similar challenges. Then the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated much of the radio industry and eliminated caps on the number of stations that could be controlled by a single owner.
The federal law fueled syndication, consolidated media ownership across the U.S. and helped give rise to radio giants like Clear Channel and Cumulus Media.
Alex Snipe, the African-American owner of several Columbia radio stations including WGCV, said the model for black-owned AM stations quickly became obsolete.
“There’s no question — proportionately, we were impacted more,” he offers.
The black-owned stations died off. In the early 2000s, WOIC-AM, under new ownership, switched to an all-sports format. Around that time, there were still at least eight black-owned radio stations in South Carolina, according to a list from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Today, while there’s no definitive tracking, the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters says there are just two remaining, including Snipe and a company in North Augusta, South Carolina.
In the WGCV studio on this recent afternoon, Frierson leans forward in his chair. Across from him is Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
“All right, sheriff, let’s talk about last Saturday,” Frierson says.
The sheriff’s department had been criticized for its response to a tailgate at the University of South Carolina football game the weekend before. The owner of a rented lot called the cops and said the tailgate of mostly black people had become too crowded.
Cell phone video captured what happened next. A Richland County deputy showed up on horseback, carrying a riot stick. He trotted the horse through the crowd, waving the stick and commanding them to disperse.
“I saw the video, and … you almost got the impression that he was herding wild cattle, or something,” Frierson says to Lott. “You know, for African-Americans, that takes on a connotation.”
Lott shifts in his seat.
“It looks awful,” he says. “I’m not African-American and it upset me. I don’t think we did the right thing and we need to address that.”
Lott comes on The Urban Scene for an hour twice a month. When not being pressed by Frierson, Lott takes questions largely from African-American callers, which aren’t screened.
“Good, bad, whatever — we deal with them,” Lott tells Free Times.
Whether it’s access to law enforcement and elected officials, or information about a community event, The Urban Scene offers a link. On recent shows there were announcements for everything from a veterans program to religious services to school sign-ups to a library book drive.
When Greg Moultrie, son of the owners of the local restaurant Palmetto Seafood, died last month, Frierson addressed the family on the air.
“I want to offer condolences to a place that I go to all the time on Saturdays,” Frierson said. “It was closed for about a day or two, of course, as a result of the funeral situation. But Palmetto Seafood is open. I’ll be back there Saturday.”
Frierson hosts the show Monday through Wednesday and Friday, with a fill-in host on Thursday. He works full-time as a housing investigator for the S.C. Human Affairs Commission. Frierson hosts The Urban Scene during his lunch break.
It’s not the only outlet for the area’s African-American community. Also on WGCV, The P.A. Bennett Show broadcasts on weekdays at 5 p.m., in addition to Onpoint! with Cynthia Hardy on Sundays. And the Carolina Panorama, a black newspaper owned by Nathaniel Abraham, Jr. that was debuted by his father in 1986, publishes weekly.
But The Urban Scene is the longest-running black talk radio show and is said to be the most popular.
Snipe doesn’t subscribe to a ratings service, so it’s unclear exactly how many listeners the show draws.
But it does garner about 5,000 listeners per show on streaming services, and the show has an overall streaming reach of about 35,000 people.
The full audience, including live radio listeners, is likely thousands more.
On another recent show before the Nov. 6 election, Frierson opened by asking, “I want to know — have you voted? Or are you planning to vote?”
One of Frierson’s regular listeners, an elderly woman who is blind, called in.
“Make sure you get to the polls and vote,” Frierson said. “And if you don’t have a way of getting there, make sure you call us up and let us know.”
After the election, he raised concerns on air about a lack of African-American outreach from candidates in the South Carolina governor’s race. He also highlighted results from prominent gubernatorial races featuring African-Americans in Florida and Georgia.
More than a dozen people called in.
Frierson has been rallying African-Americans to vote since he first volunteered for an NAACP voting rights drive in 1968.
Frierson became politically active after he and a black friend, as teenagers, tried signing up for their local YMCA and were turned away.
Around the same time, Frierson was pursuing a career as a broadcaster. He wanted to be the next Bill Terrell. He admired the way Terrell, as a DJ on WOIC-AM, offered words of encouragement in between songs. “Don’t forget to hug your kids,” he would say. Or, “Don’t let nobody or anything get you down.”
“He just made you feel good about what you could accomplish as a black person,” Frierson recalls. “He didn’t just play records. He gave information.”
After graduating from USC with a journalism degree, Frierson began working for the Columbia Black News in the 1980s. The paper was owned by local media figure Isaac Washington, who published black weekly newspapers through his Black Media Group in more than half a dozen cities across the state, including Charleston and Greenville.
Frierson and the Columbia paper covered hyper-local African-American news, like family reunions and church events. Its advertising pages were filled with black-owned businesses. Frierson wrote a weekly column, “Into Something,” which highlighted local African-American newsmakers.
But the newspaper couldn’t sustain its statewide reach. At its peak, Washington had a staff of more than two dozen, a budget of roughly $1.5 million and about 75,000 readers. But those numbers couldn’t compete with larger newspapers. The advertising dollars weren’t enough.
In the ’80s, Washington was forced to consolidate his papers into a single organization, the Columbia Black News, which still occasionally publishes online, though without any full-time staff.
Then with WOIC-AM in 1989 came a new outlet, The Urban Scene. Frierson was first hired to book the guests, before eventually taking over as host.
The show was envisioned as a call-in talk program where African-Americans could sound off on issues that weren’t getting coverage from other Columbia media. It was the kind of civic resource Washington was trying to build with his newspapers.
“I wanted to continue the process of gathering positive information,” Washington says.
“That’s why we worked so hard. That’s why we tried so hard.”
Continuing the Legacy
The Urban Scene became a local black radio mainstay. But after the change in ownership at WOIC-AM at the turn of the century, it was unclear the show would survive. There was a community outcry in 2001 when new ownership announced the show would move from weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. to a single show on Sunday mornings.
Around the same time, at another one of South Carolina’s oldest black-owned radio stations, the African-American community in Charleston had a program just like The Urban Scene.
On the historic WPAL station, owned by longtime Johns Island activist Bill Saunders, Open Rap aired on Saturdays, highlighting community events and featuring conversations with local black newsmakers and elected officials.
“I know it was filling a void,” Saunders says. “We didn’t have any talk shows at all. We didn’t have anything that ran directly to the black community. It was really something very special.”
But the station couldn’t survive the 1990s FM boom. By the end of the decade, WPAL had nearly $1 million in business debts and Saunders was forced to offer its AM station as collateral in a foreclosure. Saunders made a switch to FM before selling the station.
In Columbia, The Urban Scene was saved when Snipe offered Frierson his weekday spot at one of the stations Snipe owned through his Glory Communications, Inc.
“I see it as a part of who we are,” Snipe says. “It truly provides a service.”
“If you’re locally owned, you live in the community, you go to church in the community — it’s just a greater part of who you are,” he adds. “We love this community. That’s why we do the things that we do.”
The Urban Scene now broadcasts from WGCV’s tiny 2,500-watt transmitter, which doesn’t extend beyond the Columbia population. But then again, for Snipe and Frierson, that’s the whole point.
“It’s a vision for radio from people who saw a need for a voice in the community, everyday, Monday through Friday,” the host says. “It’s the exploration of black ideas and issues that would not be exposed anywhere else.”
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