NYC’s ‘Open Line’ radio show goes national, bringing African-American issues to SiriusXM

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African-American news outlets have faced grave economic difficulties in recent years, particularly evidenced in the recent consolidation of New York City’s 98.7 Kiss FM radio station with its former rival 107.5 WBLS.

This move enabled both black radio stations to survive in a market in which many “old media” news entities — from newspapers to magazines — have faced cut-backs and closings.

The “Open Line” show, which currently broadcasts on 107.5 WBLS and focuses on issues affecting the African-American community, has managed to survive these bumpy media shifts for more than two decades. Open Line is one of the few successful, black talk shows on a major commercial radio station.

Open Line launched in 1995. Hosted by Bob Pickett, a former judge, Bob Slade, a radio host and  former news director of 98.7 Kiss FM , and songwriter, composer, musician, arranger, and now radio personality,  James Mtume, the show has long been a local cult hit.

(Mtume, who started his career working with Miles Davis, is also famous for penning the chart-topping classic “Juicy Fruit,” performed by his eponymous band in the ’80s.)

The evolition of Open Line

When Open Line’s Sunday morning time slot on WBLS was recently cut in half and made much earlier, now airing from 8-9 a.m., many listeners took this as a major blow.

“What we do is pick issues and subjects that most folks are talking about in their homes,” Open Line co-host Bob Slade told theGrio. “It’s sad. It’s a sad commentary on what is going on here. There are no  other outlets for African-Americans to get that kind of information.”

Activists and listeners worried that, with only one black adult-targeted station left in the New York City area, community voices won’t have the reach they deserve now that Open Line has been scaled back.

But now Open Line is expanding its listening audience beyond the tri-state metropolitan area surrounding New York City, where WBLS broadcasts.

On July 8, Slade, Mtume and Pickett began hosting a limited edition show called “Open Line Nation,” a two-week series that aired on SiriusXM Channel 110, The UrbanView, from 4-6 p.m. each week day. (Mtume left the local show on WBLS after its length was reduced, but remains part of Open Line Nation.)

Needed: National voices in black radio

According to The State of the News Media 2013, a study compiled by The Pew Research Center’s Project For Excellence in Journalism, few television news programs in 2012 were geared toward African-Americans.

In radio, the report shows that black voices are getting scarcer.

“Black owned radio stations continued to wither in number and several programs hosted by major African-American personalities went off the air. The year also witnessed the consolidation of two of the largest black radio networks,” said report authors.

“There is no question. We need Open Line if — for nothing else — for truth and facts about what’s good and bad in our city, country, world and homes,” listener Vernon England noted about the void of black voices in radio.

If listeners provide positive feedback for the airings of Open Line Nation on SiriusXM, which aired for a limited run that ended on July 19, the show could be picked up for a longer period, perhaps filling that national void.

Future bright for Open Line Nation

With a slightly different format than their Sunday morning show on WBLS, the hosts of Open Line Nation say their national satellite radio show covered a broad spectrum of national issues from all angles.

Pickett represented the conservative view on the show, Mtume, the liberal view, and Slade the moderate.

Most stories discussed on Open Line Nation were of urban interest, the type that generally don’t receive widespread coverage in mainstream media. “We believe there’s a unique opportunity available to us to talk to a national audience every day and to be able to share with them and to be able to provoke and to discuss issues that are important to them in their lives,” said Pickett.

“I always felt our show was more suitable for a national format,” said co-host James Mtume. “We’ve already proven ourselves in the tri-state area …but the opportunity we’ve had for the last two weeks has shown us that our suspicions were correct, because the show’s response has been astounding.”

Fatiyn Muhammad has been producing Open Line for 21 years. He believes the original show’s recipe for longevity could carry a national show and its new audiences even further.

“If you put someone in there who knows the issues, knows how to talk and knows how to bring the issues to the forefront, you start to see that people of color want that and will support it,” Muhammad said.

Follow Nia Hamm on Twitter @niaahamm

This article has been updated to reflect that Open Line Nation ended a limited run on July 19.