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Radio Mon Apr 01 2013

WVON Turns 50: An Interview with Melody Spann-Cooper

MSCOOPER2.jpg

When talking to Melody Spann-Cooper, it is clear that she has two loves: the City of Chicago and radio. With the latter a part of her DNA (her father is legendary Chicago music and media icon Pervis "The Blues Man" Spann), Spann-Cooper has become a legend in her own right as president and general manager of WVON-1690AM, Chicago's only black owned and operated radio station, and also as chair of its parent company, Midway Broadcasting Corporation.

Named one of the "most powerful women in Chicago journalism," Spann-Cooper remains steadfastly committed to the station's mission as "the voice of Black Chicago," serving as a main source of information, empowerment and activism for the city's black community. "My passion is to ignite our people to wake up and have a clear dialogue on who we are today," she said.

And it is this same passion that has paved the way for the history-making station's celebration of its 50th anniversary this weekend in Chicago. Here, Spann-Cooper talks about the state of the black talk radio format, the power of WVON and its listeners and the station's long-time community and cultural impact.

You've been the head of WVON since 1999--what has the journey been like?

It's been an incredible journey but it's had its challenges like all businesses do. I'm a second generation business owner, so I already had my wings when I got in this position. But broadcasting is a very male-dominated industry, so I've learned to navigate as one of the few women at the table. I'm the luckiest girl in the world; I get up every day and my life's work is to empower people. I have a great job.

Growing up with your dad, was the family business a given? Were you going to go a different route?

Of course I was! You never want to do it because your parents want you to do it; you want to defy them when you have a family-owned business! [Laughs] Actually, I never believed that I would be the president and owner of my dad's company. I wanted to be a news anchor; I tell everyone that [ABC-7's] Cheryl Burton has my job and my paycheck! [Laughs] But that was not what God had planned for me. At a very young age though, I knew what my calling was and I then just fell into it.

When your dad first passed the baton, how was your working relationship? Did the two of you ever bump heads?

My dad is from the South and well, there was some chauvinism in him. He told me right off, "I'm going to give you this title and all you have to do is what I tell you to." [Laughs] After we got through with that 'dance', I think he began to trust my ability as he saw me make some good, strategic moves. But I got fired one weekend, though! He fired me and my mom made him hire me back the following Monday. So as you can see, we worked it all out.

Talk radio, especially in the black community, is often viewed as media for the older generation only, yet, you boast a diverse age range with the personalities at WVON--was this by design or did it just happen?

It was both. Talk radio, traditionally, is for older people. But I tell people all the time that our format is an acquired taste; I mean, how many times can you listen to the same 10 songs over the course of a day? I think as we get older we desire something a little more sophisticated.

How would you describe WVON's listening audience? What kind of listeners do you typically attract?

My goal, and I think the President helped me with this, is to attract young, conscientious, intelligent people, who want to operate at the highest level of citizenry. That's what we look for; if you really listen to some of our callers, you'll see our intent is to move our people to live better lives, and that's what I've been committed to regardless of whom I attract.

What part would you say WVON had with the election(s) and presidency of Barack Obama?

We are living in a world where we never--at least I never--anticipated seeing an African-American president. When you have youthfulness, style and class, and when he comes from Chicago, I want to believe we had a little something to do with that. That's why WVON is probably more appealing than your traditional talk station. I also think the city being such a progressive place for African-Americans also helps us with our niche.

A recent article in the Austin Weekly said that with regard to the black listening audience, talk radio is "increasingly losing out to music." What are your thoughts?

First of all, even music radio is talking now. If I turn on a show like Doug Banks' show, he's got a "question of the day," but it's a different level of talk; theirs is strictly for entertainment. We've got a different mission--we talk to educate and inform. I'm not knocking anybody, and I love music as much as anybody else, but to be a person that makes a major contribution to society, I've got to demand a little more.

Do you see talk radio ever in a place where it will have to compete with the music radio format?

I am not competing with music radio. I can't compete. [A station like] V103 probably reaches close to 2 million people a week. I reach 150. They're counting the people they reach, and I'm reaching the people that count. If you're selling mortgages, do you want to sell them to 500,000 people that don't qualify or do you want to sell them to 50,000 who could possibly afford them? It's a matter of which one you want. I'm not going to reach 500,000 people, but the ones I do reach? They get it done.

WVON covers a lot of politics, which of course, here in Chicago, is extremely interesting and complex. Does anything surprise you anymore?

No. I've seen it all. I've heard it all. I've even witnessed some of it. Nothing surprises me.

Of all the political stories you've confronted over the years, which one, in your opinion, has been among the most challenging to deal with?

Most recently, it has been the case with [former Rep.] Jesse and [former 7th Ward Alderman] Sandi. They are friends, so it's delicate. With stories that are delicate, the challenge becomes how to handle or cover them: If we don't cover this story, that's not fair. If I get mad at my hosts if I feel they say something out of line, that's not fair. Sometimes, dealing with media can be difficult because I don't want to lose integrity with my listening audience or seem disingenuous. But this story broke my heart. It was a tough one.

Violence in Chicago, unfortunately, is a subject all media here has to deal with. As a station that primarily deals with issues in the black community, does this topic ever drain you?

I'm tired of talking about it. When I travel and I say I'm from Chicago, people used to perk up and say, "Oh wow--Michael Jordan--or Oprah--or the President!" Now, I get, "Oh my, are you scared?" I don't want people to believe that about our city. This is a great city. I want to talk about things like Urban Prep graduating 100% of its young men who go on to college. That's the Chicago we need to talk about.

WVON's 50th anniversary is here, and it will be marked by a celebration entitled "Impact 50." What do you think the station's impact has been on Chicago's black community and the city as a whole?

You have this iconic station that came on the air April 1, 1963, with the call letters of 'VON, "Voice of the Negro"--you've got to love that! We came on at the right time, in the 60s, when black folks were starting to feel good about themselves. Very few stations can say they've been the bully pulpit for Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 60s and an early Barack Obama when he began his political career. And then throw in Don Cornelius, too? It's just a special place. And that's why we're celebrating.

In addition to the host, actress Tracee Ellis Ross, and a concert by Grammy Award-winning singer Toni Braxton, the anniversary celebration boasts major entertainment, media and political figures--what will the audience see?

It's going to be fabulous! Andrea Kelly will have an incredible dance opening--she'll take it from bebop to hip hop. Then there's Chicago poet Malik Yusef poet, the King High School Marching Band and music by singer Teresa Griffin. We'll also have history makers like Dick Gregory, [Radio One's] Cathy Hughes, and lots of other surprises. It is going to be a real celebration of who we are. And from a business perspective, we're going to reintroduce this brand to Chicago; it's going to be a show that says we are here, we are viable and we are here to stay.

~*~

WVON's "Impact 50" will be held Saturday, Apr. 6 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., at 7pm. For tickets and other information, visit the website or call 800-745-3000.

Melody Spann-Cooper photo courtesy of: Powell Photography.

 
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