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Virtual Radio

Media personality Tyrone Bynum left traditional radio to make sure his message would be heard.

By Daniel Schoonmaker
Photography by Johnny Quirin

One day removed from a heart attack that left former Kent County Commissioner Paul Mayhue hospitalized, the longtime staple of local urban politics was on “The Tyrone Bynum Show.”

“After the black political leadership meeting, I had planned to go get my minutes in at the Y, but (the meeting) ran long and I felt weird,” Mayhue told Bynum on a recent Friday night broadcast. “Later on that night was when all that stuff hit me. It was a blessing from God to still be standing here today.”

Mayhue has been a frequent guest on Bynum’s show over the years, one of two polar-opposite talk radio programs that, for much of this decade, have been the face of black politics in West Michigan. Bynum’s WMFN-AM supported and often entertained Mayhue throughout his contentious re-election campaign against challenger and rival talk show host Robert S. of WJNZ-AM.

The hospital-bed interview is fairly brief. They chat about arterial blockage and faith, about the scandal of another local black politician before Bynum signs off and brings his show to a close for the evening.

But this most recent Mayhue appearance is different than his previous on-air conversations with Bynum — besides the heart attack, of course. Anyone dialing into WMFN 640 AM between 4 and 8 p.m.
would not have heard Bynum’s voice or the rhythm and blues music he plays, but the Spanish language station “La Ponderosa.”

Late last year, Bynum, then WMFN general manager, opted out of his lease agreement with Birach Broadcasting, which owns the station and soon began broadcasting the Hispanic station in its place. A few months later, WMFN AM 640 Smooth Vibes re-emerged as a 24-7 online stream at www.wmfnam640.com.

“The revenue for the radio station was falling and we just weren’t generating the sort of business that we needed to keep up with costs,” said Bynum. “So we made the difficult decision to go online only.”
Online there are no station lease fees. By setting up a studio in his home, Bynum saves on real estate costs. There is no FCC to worry about if he needs to speak frankly on an issue. And with the growing availability of mobile Internet devices and Internet-enabled phones, an online stream can be every bit as mobile as broadcast radio.

“This is where media is going,” said Bynum. “The Internet is already the home for much of the conversation, particularly in the urban communities. You can look at things like Facebook and MySpace and see how it’s changing the face of communications. It is going to change the way local communities talk to each other.”

The Voice of the Black Community
In the not too distant past, talk radio in West Michigan — and for that matter, practically all media in Grand Rapids — was a starkly homogenous enterprise. The region’s first Urban Contemporary format station appeared in 1998 when Goodrich Radio launched WJNZ, today found at 1140 AM: “1140 Jams.” A year earlier Bynum had launched a talk show devoted to urban issues on the now defunct WKWM-AM, a precursor to WJNZ that had briefly experimented with the talk format.

 

In 2008, media personality Tyrone Bynum took his radio show online.

This was one of many firsts for Bynum, whose career as a media personality began with one of the most notable events in modern black history — the beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers in 1991. With racial tension at a boiling point nationwide following the subsequent Los Angeles riots, Bynum, a teacher by trade and Kalamazoo native, worked with former Upjohn Co. CEO Theodore Cooper to stage a live call-in panel on race to air on community access television.

“After we were done, he told me, ‘Tyrone, let me know what it would cost and Upjohn will sponsor it,’” recalled Bynum. Soon his television program, “Black Perspectives,” found a home on the fledgling Fox affiliate WXMI in Grand Rapids, and later at WZZM 13. When a corporate shuffle landed the program on PAX, it gave Bynum access to new equipment and viewers statewide. Today, his current program, “The Other Side,” reaches 3.4 million households via CW affiliates in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Flint, and Detroit’s urban format station WADL TV.

In 2003, Bynum took his show to the radio airwaves again, first as a weekly program at WMFN, where he became one of the region’s most notable black media personalities, hosting the likes of Gov. Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, before taking the show to WJNZ, later returning to WMFN as general manager.

With the program as his platform, Bynum has been in the midst of the city’s most contentious recent inner city de-bates, including school board battles, the Mayhue-Robert S. feud, his own feud with Grady family scion Kevin Grady Jr., a police brutality scandal, and a personal campaign against youth crime and gangs.

“You cannot fix a problem without diagnosing it, and you can’t diagnose a problem without understanding it,” Bynum said. “I brought the disease to the airwaves. Everybody can talk about their symptoms, and through dialogue and conversation, we come up with a cure.”

With that, he had a legion of loyal listeners and dozens of daily callers. He had a stable of sponsors and even a 2007 Giants award from the Woodrick Diversity Learning Center.

“I came into radio with nothing. I came into television with nothing. This was the first time I’ve had to worry about losing something.”

Rob Huisingh is host of Inside West Michigan.

Extra Terrestrial Experiment
Virtually every radio station in West Michigan is now broadcasting both terrestrially over the airwaves and virtually via the World Wide Web. There are also many thousands of stations streaming online and via satellite without an accompanying terrestrial broadcast, but with few exceptions (Howard Stern, Sirius NFL Radio), these stations have more in common with an iPod than “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

For a terrestrial radio show to drop off the airwaves is not unprecedented. Besides notable defections to satellite radio, a handful of DJs and hosts in other markets have gone online following cutbacks or controversy, mostly in the form of podcasts.

“But I don’t think a station has much motivation to stop terrestrial broadcasting,” said Kevin Murphy, general manager of community radio station WYCE-FM in Grand Rapids. “I think we’ll see them doing more special content online, but there will remain a market for the delivery of programming on the air.”

Murphy is excited about the new technology available for content distribution, including WunderRadio, an iPhone application, and his station’s Free Music Archive. But there are just too many limitations for commercial radio to go online-only any time in the near future, the largest of those the record labels that control the most popular content. At least in the C suite, the music industry is leery of online radio, which, due to the sheer number of potential stations, is limited in its ability to promote sales. To avoid potential piracy, restrictions are based on the number of times a track can be played, against giving advance notice that a track will be played and making it available for download.

“I guess the basic answer is that what we know as ‘radio’ and what we know as ‘Web’ will become closer together,” Murphy said. “There will always be a demand for that traditional linear media delivery, but it may wane in comparison to non-linear, on-demand content. But honestly, I think the definition of ‘Web’ is in decline just as much as traditional media. In the near future, it’s all going to be fed into the iPhones and BlackBerrys of the world, and radios and computers are going to seem like anachronisms.”

At least in West Michigan, that hasn’t happened yet. There are audio and video programs available as on-demand content, such as WYCE’s “Catalyst” talk show, and a variety of news podcasts. A handful of organizations, such as the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, regularly create podcasts to deliver their messages to stakeholders, but there are only a few non-commercial podcasts coming out of Grand Rapids on a regular basis. We were only able to identify two being produced regularly with no connection to another media outlet: “Inside West Michigan” (www.insidemieducation.com) and G-Rad’s “Hello Friends” (www.hellofriendspodcast.wordpress.com).

“Monetization is an issue,” said Rob Huisingh, host of Inside West Michigan and a partner in Foxbright, the local educational technology firm that sponsors the program. “We had to decide that this was something we wanted to commit to. When it becomes difficult, you still have to make the time.”
Inside West Michigan has produced 52 shows in the past two years and now has over 1,800 direct subscribers.

Bynum, meanwhile, has converted a large number of his listeners to his Internet program. He still hears from his most popular call-in characters, including Santa, B.W. and the Political Prince, among roughly a dozen calls a night. He has 10,000 weekly listeners and a number of core sponsors, including Fifth Third Bank.

And the larger question may be whether AM 640 Smooth Vibes should remain a local station. Another local Internet personality, Mary Lou Brock, is the most popular DJ on the national Polka Jammer Network. Bynum has regular listeners from Las Vegas and Atlanta, among other locales.

“This has given us the freedom to expand beyond West Michigan,” Bynum said. “Traditional radio will be a thing of the past over the next three to five years. Maybe this is what it’s going to look like on the other side — national and local issues, national and local callers. They’re not going to be able to control the minority community with the media anymore. Our voice is going to be heard.” GR
Daniel Schoonmaker is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids.

   
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