“The early 1980s brought a lot of changes to American culture. In 1981, MTV launched, IBM introduced the personal computer, and a year later the compact disc came along. 1981 was also the year that my tiny, family-owned radio station in Cleveland called WZAK changed formats to urban contemporary. …”
How did one small radio station previously best known for programming “ethnic” music break into — and come to dominate — the emerging urban contemporary scene of the 1980s and beyond? In Change Is On the Air, longtime WZAK owner Lee Zapis tells the true story of his radio journey, bringing unique insider’s perspective to the story of the station responsible for launching the careers of Mary J. Blige, Usher, MC Hammer, and many more.
In the 1980s, the Cleveland metro area was 20 percent black; the city itself that number soared to 50 percent. Yet, the black community was persistently marginalized. Key to WZAK’s success was management’s skill at both pushing back against the racism of the era and capitalizing on an underserved market through the three pillars of programming, sales, and promotion.
For programming, WZAK relied on the vision of radio veterans like program directors Lynn Tolliver and Bobby Rush, who were unafraid to champion up and coming artists, or bring in star power like the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner. With little turnover, the on-air personalities at WZAK, Zapis points out, were well established in the community — and became almost trusted friends to listeners. Meanwhile, Zapis credits WZAK’s ad sales team for the prescient realization that the buying needs of the black community extended far beyond the niche “ethnic” products that were then the advertising mainstays of urban radio. And, of course, there were promotional events. From the legendarily canceled “Street Dance Monopoly” to the distribution of thousands of safe sex kids just as the AIDS crisis was becoming public in 1988, WZAK was always ahead of the curve.