WLLE 570-AM — affectionately known as “Wonderful Willie” — was the musical backdrop for the lives of many people in Raleigh in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, playing hits by James Brown, Little Richard, The O’Jays, Earth Wind & Fire, and even some gospel.
But the station, started in 1962, was about much more than music, and when it went off the air in 1997, an important voice for Raleigh’s African American community was silenced.
Now, more than 20 years later, Willie is back. In spirit, at least.
Gary Antwon Williams, who started working for local Raleigh radio stations — including WLLE — as a teenager, has resurrected the station as an internet streaming site. Williams, now 50, has kept the musical feel of the station with a rotating playlist that focuses on soul and R&B music from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
Williams launched 57WLLE.net in September, and the site provides free streaming from phones, tablets or computers — no app is required. The music plays 24/7, with at least seven hours a day during the week accompanied by live radio announcers (and four hours on weekend mornings). The station has some advertisers, like McDonalds, Jack’s Seafood and Computer Repair Doctor — enough to keep the bills paid, Williams said. (As far as making a living for himself, “it’s getting there.”)
For Williams, born and raised in Raleigh, radio is a lifelong passion, and resurrecting WLLE has been a dream. He caught the radio bug as a young teenager listening to WLLE and WSHA, the Shaw University station sold last year to the Educational Media Foundation. (WSHA is also now available as an online streaming station). When Williams was 13, he reached out to WSHA student DJ Tim Green and asked how he could be on the radio.
“I said, ‘Hey, I want to do what y’all are doing, I want to be a radio announcer,’” Williams said in an interview last week at 57WLLE’s temporary studios off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh.
Green told him to come down to the station.
“I got on the CAT bus, I’ll never forget it, and went on down there,” Williams said. “I lived in Method so I caught the bus and got off downtown. I was so excited — my heart was beating fast — I ran down there. I got there and I was just, ‘Oh wow.’ — I just looked at all the people in there.”
Green showed him around, and Williams even met the station manager. “They started showing me things, this and that,” said Williams, describing his training. Not long after, when he was 14, he was offered a part-time job at WSHA, going on air to talk about music stars of the day — “like Cameo,” he said. (Remember, this was the ‘80s.)
“They said ‘we’ll give you a chance,’” Williams recalled. “I was so excited.”
Williams did this all through high school, working mostly weekends at WSHA and three nights a week at NC State’s WKNC station. He said he spent his free time “listening to radio announcers, studying their styles.”
After graduating from high school, Williams worked at WLLE for five years and then went to a hip-hop station in Memphis, returning to Raleigh a couple of years later to work for other local stations, like WPTF, Foxy 102.9, WCLY and 99.9 The Fan.
But his time at WLLE was never far from his mind.
‘Learn, love and overcome’
In a short 2015 documentary produced by journalist Cash Michaels in conjunction with NC State Libraries and NC State’s Africana Studies Program, listener Fabette Smith said of WLLE: “For the first time we had a broadcast alternative that belonged to us. You heard our voices, our music, our rendition of the news.”
From the beginning, the station had distinctive radio personalities like Oscar “Daddio” Alexander, Sweet Bob Rogers, Chester “CD” Davis, Jimmy “JJ” Johnson, J. Willie Moore and Brother James Thomas, a gospel singer with the station from start to finish.
The music and personalities were important, but WLLE strove for more, making community affairs an integral part of its programming.
Michaels, who went to WLLE in 1983 and later, as the station’s program director, ushered in more talk programming, noted in the “WLLE Remembered” documentary that the station “empowered generations of their listeners to learn, love and overcome.”
Margaret Rose Murray hosted a “Traces of Faces and Places” program about community events and black history, with guests like U.S. Rep. David Price. The station took on causes, like awareness of AIDS in the black community and pushing to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state paid holiday. Michael’s interview with Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, was a scoop, making WLLE the first station in the state to talk to her. WLLE was also the first black radio station to interview the grand dragon of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Carroll Crawford, on the 10th anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre — another interview by Michaels.
“When you talk about WLLE, it is more than just entertainment,” Michaels said at a symposium at NC State in 2015. “We were part of the fabric of the community.”
But in the ‘90s, the station had to compete with FM stations with stronger signals, like Foxy 104, and ratings declined. It was sold to a Kentucky company in 1997, which used the 570 AM frequency for religious programming. Two years later it was purchased by locally owned Curtis Media, which changed the station’s call letters several times over the years. Most recently, 570 AM has been a classic country station.
Bringing ‘Willie’ Back
At the new WLLE, Williams hopes to add some of the community affairs programming that made the original station so vital.
Williams’ plan is to have programs that will “discuss concerns in the community,” and he’ll bring in different people to host.
“I want to do some talk shows and preaching and teaching programs,” Williams said. “Helping kids avoid drugs, and other things to get involved in the community. If something happens, I want to reach out and get involved and be a down-home community station that’s giving you what you need to know.”
Michaels said this week that he’s happy Williams has revived the station.
“I’m proud of Gary,” he wrote in an email to The News & Observer. “I hired him as a young part-timer many years ago, and his enthusiasm for being on WLLE was just tremendous then, and apparently has never died.”