Mary Harris, Eric Trujillo, Del Armijo
NBC4's Michael Brownlee profiles Los Angeles radio station KJLH, owned by Stevie Wonder, for the Celebrating Black History Month special broadcasted Feb. 24, 2013.
KJLH is one of just two commercial radio stations in California that is black owned and operated.
"I love what I do and I love being at KJLH to do it," said Lon McQ, who has been behind the mic at KJLH for more than 30 years serving an audience that is primarily African American.
"They love R&B, hip hop. We play a little bit of gospel."
He makes himself laugh as he says, "We really haven’t got to Taylor Swift. She’s cool, ok, but we haven’t gotten to that."
NBC4 News spoke with McQ for nearly an hour before his three-hour show, which runs from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.
Stepping into the booth with him, you can’t help but notice the change to his show voice. It is a little slower, a little "cooler." You lean in to listen. It is classic radio.
McQ said he knows the key to KJLH’s longevity.
"You have to be more about serving people than you are about making a lot of money," he said, adding that he believes KJLH and its leadership are committed to more than just revenue.
McQ said KJLH gives the African American community a voice, and that was never truer than during the 1992 riots. And he is proud of how the station responded to the civil unrest. They stopped playing music, and just let people talk.
"We let them vent. If they wanted to cry, we let them do that," he said. "If they wanted to get info about what grocery stores are still open, heck, what grocery stores are still standing?"
Radio host Levi Booker said the station’s commitment to the black community starts with the boss. And that boss happens to be Stevie Wonder: the music legend and sole owner of KJLH.
Wonder "understands how we serve the community. He knows there is a dire need," Booker said.
Booker has worked for KJLH since before Wonder bought it in 1979 – he said back then, they didn’t even use the word black on the radio.
Booker said Wonder has given the station a great deal of freedom, "and with that freedom has come a great deal of responsibility."
In addition to understanding the social responsibility of being a local urban station, Booker said Wonder is a great boss because "he’s a radio fan. He loves radio."
Morning host Nautica De La Cruz said KJLH has been a great opportunity for emerging musicians as well.
"We’re providing the door for unsigned artists and local talent," De La Cruz said.
The music played at KJLH spans decades. But Booker insists it is the quality of the music that matters.
"There are only 2 types of music, good and bad," he said, crediting that quote to Duke Ellington. "We play good music." (Booker emphasizes the word good like only a veteran radio man can.)
Booker said one of the challenges that he embraces is trying to get music to bridge and connect generations. But he knows the power of music and if he spins it just right, the listener’s age and song doesn’t really matter.
"The youngsters go, 'Wow, OK, I get it. Man that was it. That was 40 years ago, but man!' That’s exciting for me," Booker said.
McQ believes strongly that local radio is here to stay despite the competition – competition that goes well beyond other bigger stations. McQ acknowledges that modern technologies mean people don’t have to listen to the radio to hear their favorite song. There is a bevy of ways to get music: iPods, phones, the internet and satellite radio, to name a few.
Still, McQ is confident that stations like KJLH fill a need that goes beyond a playlist.
"You don’t have that familiar, friendly voice saying, 'Hey, what a great day in LA.' 'Hey you know a great place to get a pastrami sandwich?' 'Crenshaw and Adams.' 'Hey! I know where that place is.'"
McQ said that’s what local radio is all about.
"So although you have all these different devices to listen to, people are still going to come back to local," he said. "They’re going to come back home. That’s the magic."