Still On the Line
Who sent you? Who sent you?" ask the intimidators. Slap! Crack! Pop! Crash! The radio crackles with the sound of a man being beaten. "Who sent you here?" the voice repeats. The terrified captive stutters, his big lips fumbling for the words, "The HATERS!"
On January 10, the day former 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) radio personality Al B. Sylk returned to the Miami airwaves, he opened his first show on rival station Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.5) with a staged assault on the competition, the Big Lip Bandit at 99 Jamz. "The whole objective was to arouse," explains Sylk over steak and eggs at his favorite South Beach diner. Responding to objections raised by the 99 Jamz crew, Sylk says, "I was on your team for three years. You know what I do. When I'm in a competitive state, I don't feel laid-back or on down time."
Disgruntled by Sylk's challenge to the Big Lip Bandit, WEDR's program director Cedric Hollywood told New Times: "I thought the station [Power 96] -- more so than Al B. -- was bigger than that, or rather classier than that. Eventually they took it off. I guess they figured it wasn't the right thing to do." Hollywood points out that his own station "didn't even acknowledge" the affront. "After all," he says, "it made them seem like the bad guys."
With or without the offensive intro, WEDR does not believe the defection of its former number one attraction is a threat. "The ratings success that [Sylk] had was as much the station as him," says Hollywood. "He inherited the number one spot. [Sylk] maintained and increased it, but we were already number one at night and still are without him. We put him in a perfect platform to succeed, and not many people know that. We'll have to find out if his current situation will suit him like this one did. I doubt it. But my opinion doesn't count," he adds. "It's the listeners." (The Arbitron ratings for January, Sylk's first month at Power 96, show 99 Jamz still on top. No new ratings will be released until May.)
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Exactly why the popular personality left neither party will reveal. "It was just time, and we both knew it," insists Hollywood. "The station knew it, Al B. knew it. It wasn't a situation where we were mad at each other. I have no problem with him whatsoever, no problem on a personal level." Sylk agrees: "[General manager] Jerry Rushin is still like a father to me. Cedric is still good with me," he pauses, "unless there's something I don't know about."
Since first taking the mike in his native Texas, Al B. Sylk has captured the highest ratings in his time slot in every city he has worked, from Houston to Pittsburgh, from Philly to Norfolk. Although his showtime favorites, such as the "World Famous Roll Call," draw deeply from African-American call-and-response traditions, his delivery has appealed to a much broader demographic. Sylk first introduced his roll call in Pittsburgh, the nineteenth largest market in the nation. In a city where the population was only seven percent black, Sylk held the top position for two years.
Sylk sees his move from 99 Jamz to Power 96 as a graduation to a broader demographic in Miami, noting the change is like "leaving BET for MTV. It's just part of a growth process." Sylk took a detour on his way to Power 96, however, stopping off at the morning show on Orlando station WJHM-FM 102. "I'd been doing nights for like seven years when I left 99," he recalls. "In every city I've been blessed to be number one. I wanted to try the morning." The Orlando station also was undergoing changes, from an urban to a Top 40 format, which made for an uncomfortable transition. Of his brief stay Sylk comments, "It's like when you know something is not for you."
If Sylk did not groove with Orlando's Top 40, he acknowledges the pop format at Power 96 has inspired him. "Top 40 has mass appeal," he says excitedly. "You have more freedom to be creative." Sylk finds fault not just with his former station but with the urban format in general. "Urban is more controlling in terms of the people involved that run it," he observes as he sips from his coffee mug. "I had problems with some tactics or antics [at 99]," he says of his old employers. Then he adds emphatically: "Urban music has no substance to it. Back that ass up'-- how creative is that?"
Creativity aside, Power 96 program director Kid Curry had long coveted the 99 Jamz star's draw. "We were in secret negotiations for two years," Curry chuckles, "but due to his loyalty to 99, we couldn't get him. But luckily we had built a relationship." Curry, who has been in the radio business since 1976, describes himself as a "vibe radio guy" who believes that when a personality "feels good in the building" it reflects "out there.
"When Al B. walks in here, the place lights up. So I know it's gotta be working. When he started beating me," Curry jokes of his own on-air show, "I said, This kid, there's something about him!'"
Unemployed after his disappointment in Orlando, Sylk stopped by Power 96 to wish Curry a happy new year. The program director seized the opportunity. "When I saw him, I went to the station owner and said, Give me the authority to hire this kid!'" he recalls. "And I went for it. I didn't care what it cost." Sylk started one day after the six-month noncompete clause in his WEDR contract expired.
The Babalu Bad Boys, who formerly held the 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. slot, were let go. "It was an experiment," Curry admits. "Two twin Latin DJs. They were the best in the street, but the ratings never recuperated when Al B. came to town. It was a ratings decision. They tried very hard." Pleased with the ratings outlook since his new acquisition, Curry observes, "Al B. is one of the top five guys in radio in America." Critics feared Sylk might be too urban (i.e., black) for Power's large Latino audience. Curry disagrees. "I think he's like Chris Rock. He's real loving to his audience."
Both Curry and Sylk believe it is the personality and not the station that made Al B. Sylk the man. As the affable DJ points out, 99 Jamz continued to air some of the features Sylk had brought to the program, such as the game Lucky 9, with his former assistant Supa Cindy stepping in. Sylk says that was meant to "give people the illusion the show was the same, but it failed, proving it's not just the feature but the delivery."
At the Power 96 studios on a recent Friday night, Al B. Sylk stands behind his mike facing his two cohosts. The bright-eyed nasal-toned Coco, a half-Cuban, half-Italian New Jersey native, offers a feminine perspective and reps the Latino peeps. Next to her is the eccentric dread Teddy T., who claims to come from the planet Niburu. Down here on Earth, Teddy T. was with Al B. at 99 Jamz and says the experience at Power is "like night and day." On the other side of a wide glass, DJ Def spins beats to back the roll call. Friends DJ Zog, DJ Holiday, and Chichi drop in to join the chorus that celebrates call-in rappers who know how to flow -- "oh baby baby" -- or disses whack MCs -- "you're a Doedoe-head." Sylk has to hold back his laughter as a middle-school kid screws up the simple roll-call refrain. Teddy T. yells, "It's pandemonium in here!"
Later, during the Top Eight at Eight, Sylk asks a young caller from Fort Lauderdale for a shout-out. "I'd like to shout out my cousin Rhonda and my sister Shonda," says the sassy teen, "and tell my boyfrien' Nick I don't need him." Perhaps thinking of his own shifting allegiance, Sylk eggs her on. "I know that's right, girl," he tells her. "You can make it happen yo-self. You make sure you look out for you. Who's gonna look out for you like you? NOBODY! NOBODY!"
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