According to the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters, there are only 203 black-owned radio stations in the country. Evansville is home to one of them.
WEOA-98.5FM has been bringing R&B and hip-hop music to the Evansville area for decades.
Edward Lander, a native of Evansville, is the President and CEO of WEOA.
“Our audience comes first. We want to super-serve those who listen and appreciate what we do. That’s extremely important to us,” Lander said.
Lander, 68, went to the University of Evansville, where he majored in criminal justice. He then attended the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield. From 1975 to 1978, he was a deputy in the Vanderburgh Country Sheriff’s Office before leaving for a senior position with Bristol Myers Squibb, where he worked for 40 years before retiring in 2018.
The Courier & Press sat down with Lander to talk about his radio career and the changes WEOA has gone through over the years.
How did you get started in broadcasting?
Growing up, I had always been involved in some form of radio communication. I was an avid Citizens Band radio user and loved tinkering with radios. Even though one of my first radios was actually a walkie-talkie, local CBers sometimes stopped by our house to see my gear because they couldn’t believe the signal range I was able to reach with my modified walkie-talkie.
In the early 1970s, the University of Evansville allowed students to program radio station 91.5 WUEV weeknights from 10 p.m. to midnight and around 2 a.m. on weekends. A local student and well-known DJ, “Big Hack” had a show called “Party Lights”, which was the closest thing to town having a radio station that played R&B music.
After starting at Bristol Myers Squibb, I was able to travel to some major cities across the country. I’ve always loved music, so on my travels I’d use my tape recorder to record as many black radio stations as I could and then listen to them for months until the next travel opportunity presented itself. My travels took me to Chicago where I met radio legend Tom Joyner, known as the “fly jock”, due to his five-day-a-week commute between Chicago and Dallas. He was doing morning shows in Chicago before flying out to do afternoons in Dallas.
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During my college internship at the Evansville Police Department, I met Gerald Summers, who became my best friend and fishing partner. While we were on the lake, and if the conditions were right, we could pick up various radio stations, in particular KMJM in Saint-Louis. And we’ve always said, “Someday we’ll have a station like that in Evansville.”
How was the station born?
While employed at Bristol Myers Squibb, Gerald and I met Desni Brannon who was from Lexington and grew up listening to black radio. In 1996 a conversation broke out between the three of us about starting a black radio station in Evansville, and the following year we spent almost every Saturday morning at various local restaurants researching and creating a plan. business.
We meet the CEO of South Central Communications Corp., John Engelbrecht, who owned and operated various stations in Evansville and Tennessee. By the grace of God we found out they had a local AM station that was open. We signed a local marketing agreement with them, which was cleared by the FCC to regain full control of the station. With the help of Jim Coy, President of the Beacon Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving small start-up businesses, we finished our business game and quickly received our business loan.
On January 3, 1997, BLS (Brannon Lander Summers) Entertainment Inc, was established. We divided it according to our skills: Desni held the position of financial manager, Gérald managed sales and I was responsible for operations and technology of the station. We started building our team with Eric Dockery as general manager and he held various positions in radio. Next, we were introduced to Sharron Brooks, who had a 25-year career with another local radio station.
She just completed 25 years with WEOA overseeing traffic and billing operations, and she is affectionately referred to as my “work wife.”
We petitioned the FCC to change the current call sign to WEOA, becoming the first black-operated radio station in Evansville.
On the early morning of May 19, 1997, myself, Desni, Gerald, Eric, and Frank Hertel, our engineer, gathered in the control room for a prayer led by Larry Rascoe. At 5 a.m. we turned on the transmitter and began playing the wonderful sound of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” and an adult contemporary urban radio station was born.
What was the general reception of the inhabitants of the region?
People have learned that a new black format radio station is coming to town. And while we were going through the process of installing all the equipment, and it would be on the air for five minutes here, or maybe an hour or two, while the engineers were doing tests and things like that. People would hear it, but then they didn’t understand why it would be on and then off. And so it was a period of educating people about what was going on, because a lot of them had never experienced starting a radio station.
The reception in the black community was simply overwhelming. It was really, I think it was something that we all wanted for so long. So when it happened, it was just amazing.
Who has had a big influence on you? Why?
Tom Joyner. When I traveled to Chicago, it was obvious, from billboards to a lot of other marketing stuff, that Tom Joyner was the number one urban radio disc jockey in Chicago, and I listened to him. But I wasn’t listening just for the music, but just for its style. And I would ask, why was this guy so popular?
And they called him the Fly Jock. And the reason was that he would be on the air during the morning hours until about nine o’clock in Chicago, hop on a plane and be on the air in the afternoon in Dallas.
And he did that five days a week, can you imagine? But he was so good at what he did. He was in such demand. So when do you know we’ve started looking at what programs we’re going to have on the station in addition to our local air personalities? There was no doubt that we were going to have Tom Joyner.
How has the station evolved since 1997?
In 1999, we established Family Day in the Park, now the cultural celebration of Family Day, which features arts and crafts, food, merchandising and live music performances. In the early 2000s, Gerald and Desni left the company.
In 2009, true to his word, John Engelbrecht offered me to buy the station. The FCC approved the sale, and WEOA became the first and only black-owned radio station to serve the Evansville area. After a few years on the air, the FCC stepped up its efforts to revitalize AM broadcasting through rule changes and one of them allowed AM stations to apply for a license on the FM band. A year later, WEOA was allowed to purchase an FM translator with permission to rebroadcast WEOA 1400 AM on 98.5. And then in 2018, we changed the format from Urban Adult Contemporary to Urban Contemporary.
How did you determine the lineup and what lineup does the station currently offer?
We have worked and continue to work with radio consultants. It was pretty easy to know the popularity of hip-hop and R&B and not have direct competition.
We were taking road trips to adult contemporary radio stations in Peoria and KMJM in St. Louis, which helped us in our decision to syndicate some of our programming. Nationally we have The Breakfast Club, Weekends with the Breakfast Club, D Minor, Full Throttle Radio with Fatman Scoop & Dj Mister Vince, The Baka Boyz Hip-Hop Master Mix and Incognito. Locally we have Community Chat with Melissa Morehead Moore, Leadership Connection with Lynn Miller-Pease and Gospel Vibes with Brother CR
What difficulties has the station faced?
Our sales staff have often found themselves educating potential advertisers about urban music, audiences and the buying power of our listeners. They didn’t understand urban radio, and a lot of them, if they didn’t understand that, they weren’t interested. The average spending power of our listeners is approximately $423 million per year in the Evansville metro, which breaks down to $8.2 million per week with local retailers and services.
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What is one of your favorite things about your job?
I like doing what I do. Like I said, I retired from a 40+ year career at a Fortune 500 company. I love that. I like it because it’s different every day. People appreciate it. And coming with people who share the same passion here… It’s my dream job.
Why do you think it is important for a city like Evansville to have an urban station?
First, through some of our syndicated programs that we put out, it allows them to hear what’s going on in the black world across this country. It really makes a huge difference in some of the conversations we have.
But not only is the national programming that we bring, it’s the local that we like to focus on. It gives the community an opportunity to talk about things from a black perspective. They can do it on the airwaves and be heard by thousands of people who make up our audience. Of course, they love music. There’s no doubt about it, but it’s fair to know that it feels a bit like we’ve arrived. We can turn the dial and hear what we want to hear, talk or listen to music or whatever. It is right there at our disposal.
And you can get it now in today’s world of cell phones and all these other platforms. Sure, you can listen to music, but we all play the same kind of music. What makes the difference is the conversation between the music.
What are your hopes for the future of the station?
We want to be the most trusted source for the African American community and beyond. We want to inform, entertain and inspire our audience by providing culturally relevant content through radio and our digital platforms.