Last week Paragon’s Jordan Lee and I spent an exhilarating week in Jackson (MS) building a new local radio format the old-fashioned way.  That means using the type of local audience research that used to be the norm in commercial radio and is only possible in this case due to a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

Licensed to HBCU Jackson State UniversityWJSU-FM in Jackson is currently a full-time Jazz station, but later this Summer will become a dual format with Urban Alternative music during night and overnight hours.  WJSU’s small but multi-talented and nimble management and staff absorbed a firehouse of audience research and within two days produced a game plan that will launch the station as hyper-local for the local Black community in Mississippi’s capitol city.  But there is a more important story underlying their evolution.

When the small plane pulled up to the concourse, I noticed the airport is named Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport and remembered the tragic reason for the airport name.  I asked the cab driver about it, and he said there was a public battle to have the airport named after Medgar Evers, but eventually the Jackson mayor thwarted the governor’s attempt to stop it.  I asked the cab driver the name of the big lake I saw from the plane, and he said it was Ross Barnett Lake, a former Dixiecrat governor who supported racial integration.  The city doesn’t control the lake, so the name still reminds locals that their past is still their present.

L-R: DJ Unpredictable, Dr. Elayne Anthony, Dale Morris, Meredith Hairston, Jordan Lee, Mike Henry, Michelle McAdoo, Anthony Dean
Inset L-R: DeShun Nance, Cynthia Maxie Milton

Chief Engineer and Assistant General Manager Dale Morris told me he grew up knowing Evers.  Dale’s mother warned him about hanging around Evers because of Evers’ risky job as Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP.  Dale still knows Evers’ daughter.  I learned that new Community Engagement Manager Michelle McAdoo’s father, Larry McAdoo, was an earlier General Manager at WJSU who was initially hired by current GM Anthony Dean.  Anthony is a Black public radio pioneer, having started Blacks in Public Radio in 1985, founded Alabama Public Radio, and served on the board of directors at NPR in the 1990s.  The Department Chair of Journalism and Media Studies, Dr. Elayne Anthony, was active in all the meetings and the first Black female TV anchor in Mississippi.  Newly promoted Music Director DeShun Nance and WSJU Morning Edition host Cynthia Maxie Milton are Jackson State alumni.  DJ Unpredictable was a drum major for the JSU “Sonic Boom” marching band.  WJSU’s Jazz Program Director Meredith Hairston recently added Urban Alternative PD duties and is another native who started as a volunteer five years ago and is the lead singer in a popular R&B band.

The Mississippi Delta is where call and response slave songs rang out from the fields they worked, where bluesman Robert Johnson came and went, and is now the proud home of rapper Big K.R.I.T.  In between, American Jazz roots grew from the same red dirt.  WJSU in Jackson represents the evolution of American music.  The staff at WJSU are the definition of America’s racial struggle that finds temporary salve in the power of music.

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