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WILD to air new African-American talk-radio network

QUINCY -- Two powerhouses of urban radio are teaming up to launch an African-American-centered talk-radio network, the cornerstone of which will be programming hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Baltimore-based Radio One, the nation's seventh-largest radio company, and Reach Media, which owns and syndicates the highly successful ''Tom Joyner Morning Show," aim to roll out the network after the first of the year. Radio One owns a controlling interest in Reach Media.

The ambitious plan was discussed yesterday by Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins III during an interview at the new WILD offices at Marina Bay. WILD-AM, which will carry the new network's programming, and its sister station, WILD-FM (the former Hot 97.7 WBOT-FM), underwent format changes on Oct. 20. Both are owned by Radio One.

If all goes as planned, the fledgling talk network will begin broadcasting on as many as 10 of Radio One's 70 stations, including AM outlets in Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, Cleveland, Washington D.C., and a handful of other cities. The programming would also be offered to stations not owned by Radio One.

''When we look across the landscape of formats that are missing," Liggins said, ''black -- African-American -- [talk radio] is one that is really underrepresented."

While programming has not been finalized, Liggins said that the as-yet-unnamed network will provide programming from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

As the centerpiece of the new programming, Sharpton is expected to be topical, if not entirely political. ''Life is political," said Liggins. ''Rush Limbaugh is political. Howard Stern has been political. That's the nature of the human existence. We won't focus exclusively on politics. We'll deal with the human existence of African-Americans in the broader landscape of America." Sharpton's show is scheduled to air weekdays from 1 to 4 p.m.

In May, Chicago-based Matrix Media had reported a syndication deal with Sharpton in the trade publication Inside Radio. When contacted yesterday, Matrix Media spokesman Brad Saul declined to comment on the Radio One announcement.

Founded in 1980 by Liggins's mother, Catherine L. Hughes, Radio One has stations in 22 of the top 53 African-American markets and attracts approximately 13 million listeners, according to Forbes magazine.

The new talk network will not be the only service producing African-American-focused programming. Pittsburgh-based American Urban Radio Network, formed in 1991 out of previously existing groups including the National Black Network, provides African-American or urban programming to many stations.

American Urban Radio Network does not own any stations, although its parent company, Sheridan, owns six. The network handles the syndication of more than 300 programs from various sources, including the ''Russ Parr Morning Show," which is owned by Radio One.

Until Oct. 20, Parr was heard weekday mornings on WILD-FM. That station, formerly Hot 97.7 WBOT-FM, now carries the Tom Joyner show from 6 to 10 a.m., which previously aired on WILD-AM. WBOT became WILD-FM and changed its programming from hip-hop to more mainstream R&B during its daytime hours; WILD-AM shifted from R&B and soul to gospel. Since the format switch, the AM station has been all music, with no talk. Parr's show no longer airs in Boston.

Liggins said that Radio One is seeking a network-wide midday host to fill a 10 a.m to 1 p.m. shift, and that each market will have its own local morning host, probably broadcasting from 6 to 10 a.m. A morning host has not yet been named for WILD-AM. The Boston station currently broadcasts only during daylight hours and will provide its own weekend programming.

Doug and Ryan Stewart, Atlanta-based brothers who also have a sports program on ESPN2 as ''2 Live Stews," are slated to follow Sharpton with a show from 4 to 7 p.m. network-wide.

Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers, a radio trade publication based in Springfield, thinks the market can sustain more African-American-focused programming.

''African-Americans have many points of view," Harrison said. ''They deserve more than one network. Radio One has the expertise. They have the personnel. They have the resources."

Although Radio One remains family controlled, it went public in May 1999 and in recent years has been valued at more than $2 billion. The group purchased its first Boston station, WBOT, in 1999 and the next year bought WILD-AM. Along with Comcast and several other partners, Radio One also recently launched the TV One cable and satellite network.

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