A Broadcasting Beacon: WANN Radio, From ‘The Other’ Annapolis to the Smithsonian
Feb 05, 2016 11:20AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
WANN Remote Broadcast set, late 1950s
Contemplate, for a moment, late 1940s Annapolis.
Post-World War II, downtown was still a decade away from gentrification. City Dock was a place to work and shop, hardly a tourist haven, with various retailers and taverns dotting its hardscrabble landscape.
The Civil War may have ended more than 80 years earlier, but this was also before Brown vs. the Board of Education. Jim Crow was alive and, sadly, well.
Morris Blum, of Jewish descent and from Baltimore, who in 1947 founded Annapolis radio station WANN at 1190 on the AM dial, also knew prejudice. He also knew that, despite the stranglehold of The Capital newspaper, radio was the fastest way for locals to receive their news and entertainment. That’s why he couldn’t understand how 10-watt WANN, the only station in town, wasn’t attracting listeners with its middle-of-the-road (or MOR) format.
Blum also saw that WDIA-AM, of Memphis, was spearheading a budding trend of catering to a large, growing and underserved audience—African Americans—featuring disc jockeys like Rufus Thomas, B.B. King, and soon-to-be Baltimore legend Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert. And how it was working.
What happened next is quite the tale. It’s about guts in the face of racism and building a station into a 50,000-watt blowtorch that was marketed along a new frontier—and the success that led to the new WANN exhibit in the American Enterprise section of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Starting OverThe story began at Church Circle, WANN’s home until Blum built its modest brick studio in 1959 on Bay Ridge Road, about a mile past Edgewood Road, the home of Carr’s Beach (more about the bayside venue later).
After the format switch from MOR to what was called “race” music, WANN’s ratings skyrocketed, with Blum’s DJs—notably former cab driver and barber, Charles W. “Hoppy” Adams II—spinning the hits of the day by R&B artists like Ruth Brown, Sarah Vaughn, and “Big Joe” Turner, among many others.
Of course, given the times, there was backlash. “The young people all liked it, but their parents didn’t want the music in the homes,” says Larry Blum, the younger of Blum’s two sons. “From the time the concerts at Carr’s Beach started in 1952, there were complaints. They weren’t due to the noise, but due to the race music.”
It seemed like WANN had “an invisible audience” with the black listeners, Blum says. “I think most white people in the Annapolis area didn’t really hear it.”
Still, the station was quite involved in the community. “My dad put public service ahead of profits,” he explains. “That was part of the mystique of WANN. It was a place where people could express themselves freely. Remember, Annapolis, at that time, had perforated borders. People lived a public life, but lived another when they were among themselves, before the racial lines became somewhat blurred when the Civil Rights movement ended Jim Crow by the mid-’60s.”
Speaking of the mid-’60s, listening to that steady stream of R&B tracks gave Blum a leg up on his musically-inclined contemporaries when the four lads from Liverpool started the next revolution.
“People acted like [the music] the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the other British Invasion bands were playing was new, but we’d heard much of it on WANN and at Carr’s Beach,” he says, also noting that “It’s All Over Now,” for instance, was originally recorded by the Valentinos, but hit number 26 on Billboard in 1964 for the Stones.
The Man on the MicWANN’s fortunes also had much to do with the emergence of the affable, enthusiastic Adams, the Annapolis native who had offers to move to other markets during his 35-plus year-run at the station—his son, Charles W. “Bop” Adams III, said James Brown wanted his father to run his radio stations—but stayed local and loyal to Blum.
“He treated the station like it was his business, too. He viewed his job as a cause,” Blum says. “My dad learned much about African-American culture from Hoppy [a nickname that many people thought came about after a car accident; polio was the real culprit]. They helped that community emerge from the shadows.”
Another notable point about the station was that WANN, after the signal was boosted to 10,000 watts in 1959 and to 50,000 watts in 1983 (it dropped back to 10,000 watts in 1989), reached several states, spanning from Central Pennsylvania and Virginia to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and south to Buford, South Carolina, sometimes beyond.
“And the station had advertisers from the different states,” Blum says. “They all loved Hoppy’s ability to sell anything from liquor to cigarettes to clothing,” to what the station once estimated to be “600,000 Negroes spending more than $250,000,000 a year!” in “Baltimore, Washington, and the Eastern Shore” in its sales brochure.
The always dapper Adams also famously presided over the “Bandstand on the Beach” at Carr’s Beach, a staple stop on the famed “Chitlin’ Circuit” that spanned the Eastern and Southern states. It wasn’t unusual for more than 10,000 fans to show up at the beach for the Sunday concerts, which WANN promoted from 1952 to 1966 (Annapolitan Deni Hynson is working on a documentary, “Carr’s Beach: The Sands of Time,” as of this writing).
Off the air, however, Adams, who passed away in 2005, was “very private. He generally enjoyed his family and a few close friends,” Blum says. “He connected with the public through the station. When at work, he didn’t accept any particular rules regarding his presentation and was known for a casual interview style. The performers were very comfortable with him.”
R-E-S-P-E-C-T…Despite WANN’s legendary heyday, the station was still subject to the whims of the market. That fact, and the dominance of FM, led to dropping the black format in 1992 to target a growing country audience, but with mixed results; in 1999, the Blum family sold the station to WBIS, which switched to news-talk. Today, 1190 AM is the home of WRCW, of Washington, D.C., which presents Chinese business news in English.
But while building its famed legacy, WANN collected a great amount of … well, stuff.
“After we sold the station, we still had thousands of records that no one else could get their hands on, as well as microphones, turntables, remote equipment, banners, and lots of pictures,” Blum says. “I thought the National Archives might be interested in it.”
He was right. Rather than sell it, the Blums gave it to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. It turned out to be a great, albeit untimely, move. “With the start of the Iraq war, budgets froze,” Blum says. “We didn’t hear much about plans to present our artifacts for years.”
But Kathleen Franz, curator of business history for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, said the institute “happily included” some of WANN’s collection for the new American Enterprise exhibit, which “should be up for around 20 years.
“We’re always on the lookout for great stories,” Franz says, adding that the artifacts were brought in by former Smithsonian employee Charlie McGovern, now a professor at The College of William & Mary, who is writing a book on the history of African-American radio.
…and ReflectionsMcGovern offered this perspective on WANN’s place in broadcasting, and American, history.
“Coming out of World War II, many ethnic groups were served by radio stations,” he says. “Many came to serve the black market, but there is less need for that now.”
What was unique about Morris Blum, who also passed away in 2005, was that he never sought to outgrow the market. “He might have sold the station and moved on to bigger things if he’d been strictly a businessman,” McGovern says. “He probably held on to the station longer than he should have. But again, he felt that he had employees and a community to serve.”
“We were on the air for 50 years and six months. For one station to be owned by one person for that long is virtually unheard of,” says Blum, who echoed McGovern in reiterating that WANN was more of a cause than a business.
“Though most people around town didn’t want to talk about what my father did, I was happy to,” Blum says, though allowing there was a cost. “In the late ’60s, a shot pierced WANN’s lobby and studio after sign off. Thankfully, no one was hurt. There were also assorted mutterings and occasional comments, and my father did worry about cross burnings and demonstrations at the station.”
But that never happened.
“What did happen,” Blum says, “was that we helped many people turn lives of desperation into better lives.”
Mark R. Smith, editor-in-chief of The Business Monthly, in Ellicott City, has concurrently written about the media for 25 years. He can be contacted via Smith On Music on Facebook, Twitter and WordPress, and at MSmith1277@aol.com.
A Foundation of EncouragementGenerosity and helping others work toward a better life were among Hoppy Adams’ ideals, so it only makes sense that he, posthumously—with the direction of Bop—is still doing so, via the Hoppy Adams Foundation.
Bop, an upbeat sort like his father, understands that enthusiasm is a by-product of confidence and education. “Even though my dad was successful, he barely finished at Bates High School,” the younger Adams says. Still, Hoppy completed a four-year degree at the University of Maryland, then earned a master’s from Florida State University’s extension program. He also served on the Annapolis planning and zoning commission for many years.
The foundation is a 501(c)(3) that promotes economic, educational, scientific, and religious enlightenment and empowerment. “We donate turkeys and food to families, and toys and gifts for Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day,” says Bop, as well as recognize community members and offer various activities, like attending sporting events and going on field trips, to broaden the kids’ experiences.
Basically, the Hoppy Adams Foundation is about “what my dad and Mr. Blum were always about,” he says, “showing benevolence to the community.”
To learn more, visit www.hoppyadams.org.