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WGIV changes formats and business models — but will it succeed?




Charlotte's WGIV (103.3 FM and 1370 AM) isn't like the city's other urban radio stations.

For one thing, the station — which has been operating for more than 60 years and formerly had an all-gospel format — is independently owned, while others like WPEG (97.9 FM) and WQNC (92.7) are controlled by large corporate interests like CBS Radio and Radio One.

Secondly, rather than having a structured musical playlist with a set number of chart-topping songs and artists, radio personalities at WGIV pretty much play whatever they want — old-school R&B, hip-hop, gospel, jazz, reggae, mixes, music from local artists and more, from obscure tracks to major hits. Normally, stations have set formats, i.e., urban (hip-hop and R&B) and top 40 (pop), among others; program directors generally set the tone, deciding what songs will be played throughout the day, as well as selecting, scheduling and managing on-air talent. With the format set, the sales staff then usually goes out and finds advertisers to purchase airtime.

Which brings us to another unique aspect of WGIV: On-air personalities aren't paid a salary — they're compensated by selling advertising for their own shows.

Station owner Frank Neely said the community loves the change at WGIV, and what they're doing feels right. "It's like a breath of fresh air to be able to tune in. What you don't like you can tune out and what you like you can come back to it," he said. "When it comes to radio, we just bring a different flavor. It is a whole different vibe in the way we do it."

But could what sets this station apart be its downfall as well? It all depends on who you ask.

Program director and afternoon show host BJ Murphy said the station will be one of Charlotte's best pretty soon.

"We all work together and we're putting together some really good stuff at the radio station," he said. "We don't have to answer to investors and these banks that really run radio. So, we as an independent operation can do whatever we want to do. I've worked for every corporate company in radio, and I like this better because it is independent.

"[Neely] allowed A.C. Stowe, who used to program the Radio One station, to play some old-school urban [adult contemporary], and I just came in, in July, and just tweaked it a little bit, playing more of the '90s and '80s R&B," added Murphy, who hosted WPEG's Breakfast Brothers Morning Show until 2003. "A lot of those titles were not being played in the Charlotte market and that's where that format was born out of."

But radio veteran and former WBAV (101.9 FM) personality Alysse Stewart, who was the first big-name local personality to be hired by WGIV — a relationship that lasted about two months — said the station lacks focus, and she doesn't see it being a huge success.

"I don't ever see that station winning," she said. "There is no team play going on over there ... When I was there, the station was all over the place. I guess my overall perception is [that it's] the station that's trying to be everything to everybody without an overall direction."

During her tenure, Stewart said there was a lack of leadership and no programming with the shows. "Everyone just did their own thing." That's because Neely considers his on-air personalities "independent contractors."

"We decided to go to the partnership, letting [on-air talent] be responsible for producing a product that the community wants. We don't depend on a sales staff. We depend on doing good broadcasting, good information going out over those airwaves," said Neely. "Would you rather make $25 an hour for 40 hours a week — or the sky's the limit? Here, people have an opportunity to build their dreams."

Stewart, however, said she was not given the tools that she needed to sell the station to potential advertisers.

"It's told to you that you're supposed to be in charge of your show, but meanwhile, comments are being made about what someone thinks you should do on your show," Stewart said. "And you weren't given what you need to have a show that you could grow and that you could actually sell. You were starting out on a losing page."

But former 96.1 The Beat radio personality Jacinda Garabito, host of WGIV's afternoon show Just Jacinda, said the station is a good fit for her, even if it did take her a little time to sign on.

"When I got laid off from 96.1 The Beat, the 'GIV thing kept falling in my lap. It was always different people talking to me and telling me about the opportunity there. So, I was like: 'All right, let me look into this and see what's going on.'"

For Garabito, the partnership with the talent and the station allows her to control her income.

"When I'm on the air, this is my time," she said. "It is up to me to design and invent and create how I want to make money. At first, I was like, 'I'm not a sales rep. I don't know anything about this.' But now, I've built my own sales team, and I have about five or seven people who go out and sell for my show."

The percentage of sales that you walk away with, Garabito said, is double what you would get at a corporate radio station. She admits, however, this might not be for everyone looking to get into radio.

Murphy also opined that the corporate structure of radio has taken people away from the true purpose of the medium, and WGIV is taking it back.

"A year from now," Murphy said. "I think this will be one of the most important media outlets in Charlotte. In terms of getting important messages and certain movements, I think it will be a catalyst for change in Charlotte."