Shocking the World of Shock Radio

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Harvey is preaching.

Preaching to a caller, a girl with a tiny voice talking on live radio at KKBT-FM, the station that calls itself The Beat. She has phoned to compliment Harvey's morning program, but he brushes her off. How old are you? he demands. Why aren't you in school?

"I got kicked out of Henry Clay Junior High last week," says the 12-year-old caller, D'Angela. She had violated the campus dress code.

That launches him: Let's talk about obeying rules and having discipline, about the pain of punishment, he tells her. Harvey's in-studio producer impatiently gestures that it's time to play some hip-hop, some R&B;, but Harvey's too upset. His voice is rising. "I got something to say to little Angela."

Disobedience in school can lead to bad habits as a grown-up and to prison, he tells her. "There are no privileges in lock-down."

At D'Angela's home, a distant voice is cheering. "That's right, Steve!" It's her mother.

"Preach!" she yells.

Harvey invites the girl to visit the station the following day--on her way back to school--and promises that his staff will mentor her in coming months. He good-naturedly extends an open invitation to any youngster who needs an "ass whoopin' " and plays a popular song with a head-bobbing beat.

This is hip-hop radio, so often the home of profane music and crass talk?

It is, Steve Harvey style.

In barely six months at The Beat, the 44-year-old comedian and actor has brought the station's morning show from 19th place to fourth in Arbitron ratings, a phenomenal leap, radio experts say.

Harvey has done it by defying most conventions of rap and R&B; radio stations. He manages to be old-fashioned as well as edgy, down-home Southern as well as urban. He's engaged in civic issues, not alienated from them.

Experts are shocked at his success.

"Steve has brought a different brand of entertainment than L.A. urban radio has seen in many years," said Kevin Fleming, urban editor for Gavin magazine, a national radio trade publication.

By contrast, for example, nearly every hour on hip-hop stations in L.A. and across the nation, a popular artist named Shaggy depicts sex acts on the bathroom floor.

At worst, "everything is 'Yo, wassup, wassup, playa?' " says Walt "Baby" Love, a veteran Los Angeles radio personality, now with KJLH-FM (102.3), which plays older R&B; music. "Ignorance is supreme. Some of these people on the radio nowadays, they don't care if someone walks down the street and shoots 10 people. They'll make some joking comment about it."

Although most urban DJs indulge talk of "big pimpin' "--the violence and ostentatious wealth--that fills much of gangsta rap, Harvey preaches about studying hard and being financially responsible. He criticizes sexual jokes or trash talk about women, frequently mentioning his wife and three children on the air. He is a throwback to a style of black radio unheard for decades, reminiscent of a time when black DJs were important, often eccentric personalities in segregated communities bereft of political power.

Says magazine editor Fleming: "He's saying, 'Go to school,' while he's playing Mystikal's 'Shake your Ass.' When I first heard him, I was like, 'Uh-oh. I don't know if this is going to work.' But then it did.

"I still continue to say, how does he get away with this?"

Data show that an uncommonly large pool of Harvey's listeners are fresh: not defectors from other stations, but people who are new, or newly returned, to morning radio. They range from preteen Eminem fans through professional thirtysomethings to retirees.

Many of his listeners, about half of whom are African American, were drawn to the show because Harvey is well-known in television and comedy circles, especially among blacks. He is now taping his sixth season on "The Steve Harvey Show," a Warner Bros. top-rated program among black viewers.

But a broad range of listeners say they enjoy Harvey's style because he fills the air time between hip-hop songs with sharp, clean humor, an unscripted persona and a concern for minority-community issues.

In the space of five minutes, Harvey may rant in defense of Jesse Jackson and the reverend's out-of-wedlock child, poke fun at a member of his morning team ("Dominique's pants so tight they need a Hoover to get all that air out!"), condemn the lack of books in schools in poor neighborhoods and provide tough-love relationship counseling to a listener. Then he'll thank God for giving him another day. Then he'll play songs by hot rap groups like OutKast or Ludacris.

It's a combination blessed by the station's owner, Radio One, a politically progressive, black-owned company that purchased KKBT, which broadcasts at 100.3 FM, in August.

Not Another Sound-Alike

What stands out first about Harvey, a Cleveland native, is his molasses-rich drawl, filled with slang and fractured grammar, turning can't to cain't and air to ay-yuh.

He is proud of being unvarnished. "You come hang out with me, you know you ain't got to behave no certain way. . . . We may feel different but I'm talking just like you so I make you feel pretty comfortable."

Harvey's voice and style are, to many, jarring in a world of corporate-owned radio stations where on-air personalities sound eerily alike.

"He's really refreshing," says Celina Martinez, 30, an education researcher who, despite her love of hip-hop music, had switched to National Public Radio news until she recently tuned in Harvey. "Most stations are really gimmicky and are trying to be super cool or super hip."

Some listeners have been known to cringe. "He revels in being country, in something that I find to be not progressive, nor cutting edge nor that interesting," says Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor at USC's school of cinema and television and author of "Am I Black Enough for You?", an examination of how popular culture celebrates a derogatory view of black life. "He takes this real traditional, cliched sort of middle-class black approach."

Harvey doesn't pretend to be a fan of hip-hop. ("Steve Harvey ain't a DJ. I'm a man with a radio program.") Most of it is too lewd for him, he tells listeners. Not enough love songs. His favorite band is Earth, Wind and Fire, and he slips oldies from artists such as Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield onto the playlist at least a few times daily.

Yet his unabashed disregard for what's cool hits on a central theme of hip-hop culture: keeping it real. Being authentic. It resonates with the screaming masses of teenagers who greet The Beat's mobile team, which calls Harvey from a different high school each morning.

"Everybody can point to somebody in their family who is just like him," says Damon Oliver, 30, a marketing consultant, avid hip-hop fan and loyal Harvey listener. "I think that makes him very touchable, very real in terms of his delivery."

Harvey begins and ends each show with a mention of God. "He is where all things start," he says at 6 a.m. Then at 10 a.m., "God is everything. Without Him you ain't got nothing. Take that to the bank."

"I was raised in church." he says. "Most people are afraid. Afraid that it'll offend somebody, or somebody'll think they're not as hard, or not as hip or not as cool. I don't give a damn what nobody think. I don't."

You hear that sense of mission when you ask Harvey, as many have, whether radio is a step down from TV. "Really, who I am judged by is God. I'm doing something on behalf of Him. I'm doing something that needs to be done, so I don't care. What people miss, they lose sight on their way to the top of their purpose.

"Why do you think you have the power you have with your ink pen?" he demands of his interviewer. "What do you think about when people read what you write? What was your purpose for writing it? It has to be one or the other--it has to be either to inform, to uplift, to motivate. If it ain't none of them, you're tearing somebody down."

It is this wholesomeness, radio researchers say, that probably helps Harvey draw a rare audience to urban radio: older listeners. Nearly one in six is over 45 and nearly two-thirds are older than 25--tough listeners to reach.

Says Harvey: "When you're driving to work with your kid in the car, they having a good time [listening]. You're a parent, you're having a good time. You don't have to cover the kids' ears."

His most solid listeners are young adult black women. He draws more than 10% of all women radio listeners 18 to 34, who make his show their favorite in the morning. Arbitron data show blacks stay tuned longest, says Stuart Naar of New York-based Interep, which does radio research.

Yet he struggles to navigate Southern California's complicated cultural landscape. He admits he knows little about Latino or Asian cultures, let alone any of the dozens of smaller ethnic groups that make up the city. He's openly considering endorsing former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor of Los Angeles, but routinely fumbles the man's name. He has made jokes using thick, derogatory Latino and Asian accents. He nicknamed the station's in-house recorded announcer "White Mike."

On a recent show, during his closing remarks, which are uniformly serious commentaries, he apologized to those he might have offended.

"I'm in a tough predicament here," he says. "I ask that you let me grow with you. I have [in my career] spoken to hundreds of thousands of black people but never to hundreds of thousands of all kinds of people. So I'm learning. I'm growing."

Harvey took an unconventional route to radio. Starting in comedy at age 27, he became successful in acting and stand-up, and hosted "It's Showtime at the Apollo" on NBC until 1997. He starred in last summer's Spike Lee documentary "The Original Kings of Comedy," centered on one performance in a top-rated comedy tour Harvey did with comedians Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac. The four were recently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken-Word Performance.

Until last July, he split his time between Dallas, where his wife and children were, and Los Angeles. The family joined him last summer during negotiations for the job at KKBT-FM.

At the time, the station, then located at 92.3 on the dial, was struggling amid intense competition from Spanish-language stations and Power 106, KPWR-FM, which is the most listened-to urban-format station in the city. Harvey had twice been a hugely popular guest host on The Beat.

Cathy Hughes, founder and majority shareholder of Radio One, asked him to sign on permanently because, she says, the station needed someone who could appeal to listeners across the region's wide ethnic spectrum. The two quickly found they had a lot in common.

"One of the things [Harvey] said to me in our initial meeting was he liked my philosophy," says Hughes, who bars songs on her stations that are degrading to women or excessively violent--even when they are popular with listeners. "He said, "I think you and I are going to find that we're pretty close in how we view community justice.' " Radio One has for decades aired clean, popular music on its music stations and positive, black-focused political messages on its talk shows. With 62 stations, it is the nation's largest black-owned radio corporation.

Hughes was delighted that, once on the radio, Harvey promptly immersed himself in issues like gang violence, local politics and schools. His tirades come when the mood strikes, between sappy love songs and rap with a heavy bass.

Drawing Attention to Local Issues

While visiting several South Los Angeles high schools last year, he was outraged that students, particularly those in Compton, were forced to share books because of an alleged lack of supplies.

"Listen, people," he screeched on the air, calling for protests and donations, "These are your kids. Ain't some kids over there somewhere."

He assigned one of his three female co-hosts, Dominique DiPrima, to investigate solutions. He demanded that the state-appointed administrator overseeing Compton's schools, Randall Ward, call the show. In January, the Compton school board gave credit to Harvey when it approved $500,000 for additional books. (Allocation of the money is still being worked out by Ward and city officials, a Compton city official said.)

Earlier this winter, Harvey turned his attention to Jill Scott, a new soul singer who has for months had a strong following in underground R&B; circles, and whose first single was creeping into the Top 50 on urban charts. Harvey loved her CD. He wanted her songs on The Beat.

The station balked, saying Scott did not fit the beat's format. Harvey hit the roof--on the air. He threatened the station's programming director, only half-joking. He played Scott's songs himself, and the singer called the show, effusively thankful.

A week later, The Beat designated two days as Jill Scott Weekend and gave away dozens of tickets to a concert. One of her songs, "A Long Walk," now is in regular rotation, said station manager Nancy Leichter, taking pains to add that Scott's single was already being played on other Radio One stations, and that "Steve Harvey does not control the songs on his show at all." Scott's single now is in the Top 10 on urban charts.

Black celebrities such as veteran soul singer Gladys Knight, comedian Chris Tucker, singer R. Kelly and Clipper basketball star Lamar Odom have been drawn to the show, calling or stopping by often. Harvey calls them members of his Hit List, along with callers like Mayor Richard Riordan and Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. As the mayoral election heats up, he gives candidate Villaraigosa ample air time. He has broadcast from City Hall, inviting listeners to visit and talk on the air about neighborhood concerns. Former President Bill Clinton (not on the Hit List) phoned in last fall to answer questions about affirmative action.

The Beat's overall ratings have soared since Harvey arrived, and they're gaining rapidly on Power 106. He's making noises about pursuing national syndication--but only if he can keep his show, with its focus on local issues.

He doesn't want to give up moments like the one when young listener D'Angela and her mother visited the show. On the air, Harvey gently prodded the shy girl to talk about her dream of becoming an entertainer, urging her to stick with singing lessons. He took call after call from listeners pushing her to straighten up.

"Yeah," cheered Harvey as Jay-Z pulsed in the background. "That's what I'm talking 'bout."

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