Chuy Gomez, the famed KMEL morning show DJ who was fired in late August, thinks he was a casualty of bottom-line decision-making. "They said they were heading in a new direction," Gomez says over the phone, recalling the fateful Thursday when station managers called him in for a meeting. "If I had to guess, it was over money, because nothing has changed ... [the station hasn't] done anything in [its] so-called new direction."
KMEL's parent company, Clear Channel Communications, is indeed bleeding money; it lost $424 million last year, according to corporate filings. But it's bled money for a long time, and if anything, last year's losses are less egregious than the $4 billion deficits the company posted in 2008 and 2009. And while Gomez's ouster may be economical for the station — rather than replace him, KMEL merely shuffled its other on-air personalities around — it's inconsequential to Clear Channel at large.
But the move certainly rankled listeners, ending what has effectively been a local hip-hop radio dynasty. And it didn't do anything to help KMEL aesthetically. The station still trots through the same hip-hop playlists it deployed before Gomez's departure; it hasn't done anything to reduce the number of Drake and Robin Thicke hits that currently clog airwaves. What did change — slightly — are the personalities, or at least the order in which they appear. Afternoon DJ Sana G took over Gomez's shift, bumping Big Von Johnson to the afternoons, and newbie Shay Diddy to evenings. Listeners scolded the station and memorialized Gomez on social media. Some pledged to stop listening altogether.
The protest — and its aftermath — seemed uncannily similar to the one lobbed at another urban station, KBLX-FM, after current owner Entercom Communications saved it from bankruptcy. Upon arrival in spring 2012, Entercom brass unceremoniously fired longtime morning-show host Kevin Brown, and replaced him with the nationally syndicated Steve Harvey Show. Listeners protested, begged, pleaded, batted their eyes, created online petitions, and wrote long-winded jeremiads on Facebook. Some did, in fact, make good on their threats to leave. But more came in, according to an Entercom spokesman. For the first time in years, KBLX's ratings swelled.
Although the Entercom spokesman hesitated to predict whether the same fate would befall KMEL, he did acknowledge that urban radio audiences are notoriously loyal, no matter what a station does to infuriate them. It's why politicians always advertise on black radio shortly before elections, he says. That might explain why President Obama granted Steve Harvey an interview while turning other media outlets away.
KBLX market manager Dwight Walker demurs, cautioning that urban listeners won't always just take what's given to them — not without a fight, at least. "I've been in the market for a few years," Walker says, chronicling his past history at various country and alternative-rock stations, whose audiences can be similarly high-handed. "They have the same characteristics as KBLX — that sense of ownership, of 'Don't mess with my radio station,'" he says. "When those audiences get annoyed, we hear from them."
But KBLX's ratings suggest that they stick around anyway. African-Americans comprise 6.3 percent of the overall population in San Francisco, but make up about 43 percent of KBLX's listenership. Had they all left along with morning DJ Kevin Brown, the station would have fizzled out pretty quickly.
All of which suggests that KMEL, also a fairly healthy station in comparison to similar ones around the country, will keep thriving post-Chuy Gomez. We're annoyed right now, but ultimately, we love our FM dials unequivocally.