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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Mom's Tears Were The Toughest by Jane Roberts


If Art Gilliam wrote a book on how to succeed in business, there'd be a chapter on what to do when your plans break your mother's heart.

His did.

Back in 1977, Gilliam, then the youngest vice president at Universal Life Insurance Co., left the possibility of promotion in corporate life to buy white-owned WLOK 1340, the 1,000-watt R&B station with struggles of its own in a post-Martin Luther King Jr. Memphis.

Gilliam, who'd gained recognition after King's death as a free-lance opinion writer and reporter at The Commercial Appeal and WMC-TV, realized his biggest chance to make a difference was in media, even though he knew the bulk of his advertisers would be -- and still are -- white-owned businesses.

"The risk didn't matter. The fact that my mother cried mattered," said Gilliam, 63, chairman and president of Gilliam Communications Inc., which also owns WHGM 1400 in Savannah, Ga.

"I had to go around the country to raise the money to get started. She couldn't understand because I had it all here."

Gilliam, the only child of the first people in his family to earn a middle-class living, says -- even now -- he was "foolishly optimistic."

But with Universal Life out of business and WLOK celebrating its 30th anniversary as the city's first black-owned radio station, farsighted seems more apt.

In April, Gilliam will be inducted into the Society of Entrepreneurs for the guts and savvy it's taken through the decades to be a clear, strong voice for African-Americans in the Mid-South.

But if you're Gilliam, being a voice for the community doesn't mean much unless you're also a force in the community.

The plaques and framed honors that prove his gumption line the halls at the station, 363 S. Second.

WLOK is famous for its Stone Soul Picnic -- the annual gathering at Tom Lee Park that is also sprinkled with voter registration tables and health screenings. But the station has also been a beacon for the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, Clayborne Homes, Operation PUSH and countless other causes that have needed a hand through the years.

"Art has paid a price. He's been right there, involved in everything meaningful that we've been involved in in Memphis," Rev. Samuel Kyles, civil rights icon and the longtime voice of the weekly Operation PUSH show, the longest-running program on WLOK.

When Gilliam bought the station, big accounts -- including Union Planters Bank -- were canceling their ads because they found Kyles' show inflammatory.

"Art told me, 'As soon as I buy the station, you're going back on,' " Kyles said.

"People seek information. When we wanted to get something done, we couldn't get our message on the traditional media. But we could on WLOK because it was owned by an African-American.

"When revolutionaries take over governments, one of the first things they go over is the broadcasting. There's a reason for that."

With PUSH back on the air, the power struggle re-erupted. Surprisingly, Gilliam doesn't remember whether customers pulled their ads, essentially saying their decision had little bearing on his.

"A lot of people appreciated the change in ownership, and they wanted to support a black-owned radio station," said Gilliam, a Yale graduate who got his start in Memphis public schools.

Ownership alone, he knew, wasn't going to be enough. "You still have to offer a product people want, or they won't use it."

Though he doesn't remember what listenership was in 1977, today WLOK has 70,000 listeners, including the thousands who tune in for Gilliam's weekly editorials, which lately have included commentary on topics from African-American coaches and the Super Bowl to Anna Nicole Smith.

"Art was willing to leave an obviously very cushy position for him at Universal Life and strike out as an entrepreneur in unchartered waters for an African-American entrepreneur," said Fred Davis, who as founder of the Fred L. Davis Insurance Agency, was the first African-American inducted into the Society of Entrepreneurs.

While entrepreneurs are vital for creating wealth and jobs in any community, their role as mentors cannot be diminished, Davis said.

"Whether in the white or black business community, it is primarily those people who own their own time as a result of some business achievement that have an opportunity to give back to the community, to volunteer for community service organizations and for governmental boards."

Without Gilliam, Memphis would be thinner in go-to power, clergy and business owners say.

"Art's the first person I called when I wanted to talk about getting a gang hotline going," said Rev. Dwight Montgomery, pastor at Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference here.

Since October, more than 200 gang members or members of their families have called, many after hearing about the hotline on WLOK.

"He's got a radio station. I wanted to see what he thought and if he would help."

This article was published in The Memphis Commerical Appeal


Jane Roberts

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

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