Black radio, at its best, has always been the drum, sending messages and signals that connect the community.
Bob Slade, the WRKS and WBLS newsman who died Sunday after a long battle with failing kidneys, was one of its finest drummers.
Slade was a journalist of the old school. He was cordial and curious. He followed everything. He was interested in everything. He understood and appreciated history. He could put what was happening today in the context of a hundred yesterdays.
He also had a newsman’s nose for what didn’t smell right, and that sense led him to perhaps his most impressive and important campaign.
Almost from the moment the wrong five young men were arrested in New York’s Central Park jogger case in 1989, Slade and his cohosts James Mtume and Bob Pickett on WRKS’s weekly “Open Line” talk show declared this was a railroad job. When the DNA didn’t match, the timeline was off and the stories didn’t mesh, Slade and his colleagues agreed, the law was sacrificing justice for fall guys.
Years later, the courts agreed. Another man confessed and Ken Burns’s daughter made an acclaimed movie about the failure of the justice system. But no one stayed on the case with more determination than Slade and the “Open Line” team.
“It’s satisfying that the truth finally came out,” Slade said when the case ended. “But you can’t be happy when these young men lost so many years of their lives.”
“Open Line,” which ran on WRKS from 1989 until 2012 and then moved over to WBLS when the two black stations merged, served as a tiny oasis in a talk radio world dominated by white hosts with national platforms.
It was local to New York and it focused on but did not limit itself to the black community. The hosts were an interesting mix that reflected much of that community — Mtume on the activist side, Pickett often with more reserved views, Slade taking the part of a moderator and newsman who wasn’t shy about offering his own analysis. Its long-time producer, Fatiyn Muhammad, was (and is) a committed journalist and advocate.
“Most of my work is straightforward,” Slade said, noting that his primary job was delivering the news on WRKS morning and music shows. “I put on a different hat for ‘Open Line.’ “
“Open Line,” which won the 1998 Award for Public Affairs, wasn’t his only different hat. For years he also hosted “The Week in Review” late Sunday nights on WRKS. “Week in Review” was segmented, with several extended features that often included an entertainment section spotlighting guests from all across the spectrum.
“He was a great interviewer,” said his long-time friend and sometime colleague Jonny Meadow. “He got Henry Mancini talking about how he didn’t think that much of ‘Moon River’ until he heard the lyrics.”
While Slade conducted hundreds of interviews, Meadow said he had one notable regret: He could never land Eddie Murphy, because Murphy’s team steered him to mainstream outlets.
Slade also incorporated interviews into researched documentaries, like “The Rise and Fall of Vee-Jay Records.” Recounting the story of that iconic R&B label won Slade a Peabody Award, an honor rarely conferred on black radio programs.
One of Slade’s favorite projects was “Soul Beginnings,” another Sunday night feature he convinced WRKS to let him create. Most chapters focused on the music and stories from particular years, going back to the late ’50s and running up into the 1970s.
While it won him an Achievement in Radio Award in 1997, he admitted he was a little disappointed the show was never picked up for national syndication.
“I thought it had that kind of appeal,” he said. “So many radio listeners grew up with this music. But it never happened.”
Born in Harlem — around 70 years ago, though he kept his exact age confidential — Slade started his career in a more visual medium. He studied acting at Queens College and was a member of the Negro Ensemble Company.
When he moved over into radio, he credited acting with teaching him timing and delivery. He worked at a couple of small stations before joining New York’s WXLO in the mid-1970s. .
He worked with hosts like Jay Thomas there, and when WXLO became WRKS in 1981, Slade (and Yvonne Mobley) stayed around. He worked with all the names who passed through Kiss-FM over the years, from Anne Tripp, Ken Webb, Jeff Foxx, Peter Noel and Lenny Green to Wendy Williams, Isaac Hayes and Ashford and Simpson.
In addition to straight news reporting, he helped create features like short dramatizations of important moments in black history.
“It’s never been a 40-hour-a-week job,” he mused at one point, a pace made more remarkable because he suffered from kidney disease for decades. For a long stretch before he got a transplant, he went in for dialysis three days a week.
Equally impressive was the fact he remained a radio newsman at all. When he started in the 1970s, almost all radio stations had newspersons. Within 20 years, a news department was like a unicorn at most music radio stations.
“I’ve been lucky,” Slade admitted a couple of years ago, though he also benefited from skill and tenacity.
He never stopped lobbying for shows like “Open Line” and “Soul Beginnings,” and one reason, he said, was that there were so few of them.
“Too much of radio has become a jukebox,” he said. “I understand people like music, and programming music makes economic sense. But radio should also be talking to people. That’s always been one of the reasons people tune us in. We’re in the business of communication.”
In ancestral villages, one function of the drum was to deliver coded messages — calls understood by the community and perhaps not by outsiders.
“The black community is not monolithic,” Slade said. “We have the whole gamut of viewpoints. But there are things that affect us in very specific ways, or that we see in unique ways, and the mainstream media often doesn’t provide a forum for those views.”
He was right, and while Bob Slade himself was way too much of a newsman to ever become just an ideologue, he spent a half-century never letting the drum fall silent.