||This article's tone or style may not reflect the encyclopedic tone used on Wikipedia. (April 2014)|
|City of license||Belle Glade, Florida|
|Power||1,000 watts day
22 watts night
|Owner||BGI Broadcasting L.P.|
WSWN (900 AM) is a radio station broadcasting a Gospel format. It is better known as Sugar 900 after the surrounding sugar cane industry in the Belle Glade and Pahokee area. The station is licensed to serve 18 counties across South Florida, USA and the Caribbean. .
The station is owned by BGI Broadcasting L.P. and carries programing from ABC Radio The Radio Stations on air personalities include Albert Lee Polk IV A.K.A. Church Boy, Harvey Poole Jr. and Mike D. DJ Church Boy was awarded the Gospel Radio Announcer award for 2011, and WSWN was also awarded Best Gospel Radio Station of The Year 2011. DJ Church Boy also known as DJ Church is a very community oriented young man, he is one of South Florida's most used MC's, he is humorous, biblical, and hip. The radio station was the first station to broadcast music by the Pahokee Soul and Gospel artist Freddie Lee Peterkin aka Freddie Lee.
WSWN-AM900 signed on as a full service, daytime only station in 1935. Licensed to Belle Glade, it was called 'The Mighty Ninety' (the same as its sister station WEAS in Savannah, GA) for many years since most radios of the time featured two digit dial positions. "Dee" Rivers, the owner, was very clever in having a station at 900 kHz in Savannah, GA and WSWN at 900 kHz in Belle Glade, FL, with somewhat overlapping patterns.
After it won FCC approval to go to a 24-hour broadcast schedule it became known as the "Little Station with the Long Reach" for its ability to be heard as far away as Charleston and Mobile from dusk till dawn. This, despite the fact that its paltry 1,000 watts could scarcely be heard in West Palm Beach during the day! Over the years attempts at raising power were blocked due to signal overlap issues with a station on the same frequency in Ocala.
With its fate virtually sealed as a local-only station during the day, the 1970s saw even its nighttime listenership erode with the emergence of country music powerhouses like WQAM & WIRK. But with a devout local following and a niche Southern Gospel morning show, management/ownership stubbornly clung to the country format even though the demographic was at least sixty-five percent black.
Finally, in the 1980s longtime owner Rivers Broadcasting relented and an experienced black PD named Joe Fisher was permitted to change the format to what was then referred to as R&B, with a strong emphasis on Black Gospel. But for only 18 hours a day! The station would retain its Southern Gospel morning show. Rivers' station in Savannah, GA had been R&B from the late 1940s until 1960, when it changed to a country music format.*
Since the early 1960s its beloved host had been Jimmy Sims a homespun, American Gospel type character from Alabama who had previously enjoyed success at a station in DeFuniak Springs. By the 1980s he had become known to many as Reverend Sims, though he was never formally ordained. Sims actually had a significant following among blacks, but there were those who resented the half-hearted attempt by ownership at addressing that community.
In this difficult environment the new PD positioned WSWN with the moniker: 'Sugar 900' (pronounced Suga900), a reference to the number one industry in the Glades, sugarcane farming and processing. He managed to craft a slick package including professional imaging and good talent that at times sounded world-class! Additionally, the all-important weekend (and especially Sunday Morning) programming had been left open for Black Gospel. This was something of a "cash cow" thanks to ministries both near and far anxious to purchase air-time.
Meanwhile Belle Glade's FM frequency (93.5), purchased by Rivers in 1965 and left dark for over a decade, was being prepared to assume the Country format. Power was 10,000 watts broadcast from a 420 ft. tower, the maximum permitted due to its close proximity to an airport and overlap issues with similar frequencies in Vero Beach and Key Largo. Once again, a Belle Glade station was relegated to "local-only" status.
It was clear that the new station (WSWN-FM) would struggle to find its place, but 'Sugar 900' (WSWN-AM) reached new heights. However, within 2 or 3 years Fisher was allegedly struck down by the crack cocaine epidemic and the station foundered under his less than attentive direction.
A succession of replacements including self-styled program consultants, fresh faced Connecticut School of Broadcasting graduates and Phil Haire's own daughter tried their hand in the late 80s and early 90s. All sunk to new lows in programming.
In fact, Tammy Haire may have pulled one of the all time blunders in this market when, as acting GM in her father's absence, she switched the FM's format to Soft Hits. This virtually dropped the Country format into the lap of competing station WAFC in Clewiston. And since white listeners in the south Lake Okeechobee area listen almost exclusively to country music, one is left to wonder what she had in mind. She also incurred the wrath of ownership when she made nearly $35,000.00 in improvements to the studios at WSWN-FM (now WBGF).
Nonetheless Phil Haire was welcomed back by his old friend Marie, the widowed owner of Rivers (now Seminole Broadcasting), when his cancer battle was over. He quickly validated her faith by automating WBGF. Arrangements were made to carry programming via satellite from Jones Radio Networks for a very reasonable $250.00 per station per month.
Of course an up-front investment of around $10,000 in computer automation equipment was needed, but payroll would immediately be reduced by at least fifty percent! Then, ignoring traditional format constraints he began selling blocks of airtime to any and all comers. Suddenly, the listed format (Gospel, Country, etc.) became nothing more than filler for blocks that remained unsold.
While such a move repulses programming purists, it was actually quite savvy. With the only considerations now involving decency things like unfortunate format changes and declining sound quality seem irrelevant. Infomercials, broadcast ministries, political messages, agency media, sponsored events. These weren't new to radio, but their wholesale inclusion was. Brilliant in the minds of ownership! Infuriating to the mainstream listener.
In one swoop Haire had slashed payroll (with the promise of more to come), completely eliminated programming positions and helped pioneer a new business model for small struggling station owners. Even larger stations in metropolitan areas have since employed similar programming with the internet, iPod and satellite taking ever larger portions of the pie.
By 1996 both stations had been on the block for several years and Marie Rivers was anxious to retire. She accepted an offer made by 2 partners from New York calling themselves Atlas News & Information Service, Inc. David Lampel was the hands-on "radio man" who had worked his way to PD and later GM at WLIB in New York City then to Senior Vice President of the station's parent, Inner City Broadcasting Corporation. Michael Wach was a sales and administration specialist with connections, and had served as vice president and general manager of WLNY-TV on Long Island and held executive positions with WPIX-TV in New York and Boston's WHDH-TV. Together, they had already purchased a television station and several radio stations in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Now WBGF/WSWN would be united with a 100,000 watt FM in Isla Morada under the name BGI Broadcasting.
Their first move was to flip WBGF-FM to the Hot New Country format offered by Jones Radio, call it 'Big Dawg Country' and launch a live/local morning show. The WSWN-AM format remained largely untouched. But the axe finally fell on the air staff. Henceforth, 6P-6A would be satellite automated featuring the Urban Gold format from ABC Networks. Saturday was live Gospel from 6-10AM, then automated until Sunday when live Gospel aired from 6A to at least 6P, and sometimes later depending on how much airtime had been sold.
The patented Phil Haire method was embraced. In fact it was given new life with the prospect of offering customers more coverage via simulcast to other properties. And even hobbled, with failing health in his late seventies, Haire was a formidable sales tool with connections that reached to Tallahassee, and beyond. Besides he was something of a local icon with a colorful past, referred to by many as the 'Glades Radio Boss'.
In 1998 Michael Wach sold his interest in Atlas News & Information Service to become vice president and general manager at WNYW/FOX 5-TV in New York, the Fox Network's flagship station. This left Lampel as majority shareholder, if not outright owner. Since he had directed operations thus far anyway there were no new changes, just forward progress. More employees were dismissed until, by 1999 the entire staff (including part-time) consisted of only 7 or 8 individuals. And there was about to be one less.
By 2000 the decision was made to swap studios. That is to say, the more successful WSWN-AM would be moved from its cramped hovel with archaic equipment to the much larger state-of-the-art WBGF-FM studio that had been improved years before. The perennially strapped FM would now rightfully occupy the less prominent quarters in the back of the same building.
While one might assume WSWN personnel to be jubilant over this new development, it actually became a source of contention between management and one of South Florida's longest-running on-air personalities, Jimmy Sims. For years Sims had battled a variety of ailments including severe arthritis that left him with gnarled digits and painful joints. He was physically unable to stand for long periods at the much higher console in the former FM studio. When the counter-height chairs that had been provided still complicated his condition, ownership was unmoved and offered no further compromise. Sims faded from the airwaves. The inevitable wave of complaints from loyal listeners and the threat of a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act changed nothing. His long 38-year association with broadcasting in the Glades came to an unceremonious end.
The stations are still owned by Atlas News & Information Svc/BGI Broadcasting (now headquartered in Las Vegas). WSWN remains a Gospel station, but WBGF has switched to a Mexican Regional format and now calls itself 'Radio Lobo'. Phil Haire died in April 2006. By all accounts he remained GM and checked in daily right up to the last week of his life. Current Station Manager is Mike D'Augustine.
No commentary on the history of radio in the Glades, and specifically these two stations, would be complete without mention of Harvey J. Poole Sr. Born in Georgia, he came to Belle Glade in the 1930s. Following several menial jobs Poole landed at WSWN in 1947 and over the next five decades served loyally in various roles, most notably air personality and account executive. All the while suffering racial indignities from an attempted lynching by area teenagers to extreme prejudice by landlords and employers.
He quietly built a large stable of clients and became known to listeners as the "Ebony Voice" for his deep-throated tones that could be equally thunderous or velvety soft. Somewhere in there he managed to buy a home, run several of his own businesses, become a pillar of church & community and raise 4 children with his wife. Close associates knew him as Brother Poole, or just Mr. Poole and greatly respected his age and gentle wisdom. He died 04/23/08 at the age of 94! His son Harvey Jr. (known professionally as Harvey J) is still WSWN Program Director as of this writing.
(Information by Mark Tillery, Ocala, Florida)
History Information by Mark Tillery, Ocala, Florida
- Query the FCC's AM station database for WSWN
- Radio-Locator Information on WSWN
- Query Nielsen Audio's AM station database for WSWN