Hear: What’s gonna fit the groove at WSHA-FM

Sharon Berry-Vivian dances during her "Funk Friday" show on WSHA.by Lewis Beale
photographs by Scott Sharpe

Five in the afternoon, and the request line at WSHA-FM, Shaw University’s eclectic radio station, is starting to light up. Sharon Berry-Vivian is already one hour into her weekly “Funk Friday” show, 88.9 FM’s four-hour blast of hot soul, funk and r&b. It’s the kind of program where a cut by retro soul outfit Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings will be followed by some New Orleans rock from The Funky Meters, then segue into a cut by legendary East Bay bump and boogie band Tower of Power.

So here’s Brad on the phone, and he wants some Cold Sweat by the hardest-working man in show business, Mr. James Brown. Then it’s Joe, who’s thinking of something by Sly and the Family Stone but isn’t sure what. “Let’s see what’s gonna fit our groove,” says Berry-Vivian, and after a short discussion, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) hits the airwaves.

“If you’re looking for really deep grooves, intelligent music,” this is the place, says Berry-Vivian, who also doubles as the station’s program director, as she shuffles through a bunch of CDs looking for more cuts to play. “It’s alternate programming, serving a niche that’s not being served. That’s our specialty.”

She’s not just blowing smoke. Fact is, if you flip around the Raleigh radio dial, you could be in Anyplace, USA – it’s the all-too-ubiquitous mix of drive time DJs, contemporary pop, country, Christian, oldies, classical, some Latin, and a few college stations playing hours and hours of indie sludge.

WSHA doesn’t go that route. The station – a 24-hour NPR affiliate with funding from Shaw and various grants and donors – sees itself as a community service, and acts on its belief.

Musically, it plays sounds almost no one else seems to be interested in. Lots of jazz (including ’30s and ’40s big band), reggae, gospel, African pop, blues and Latin. This is mixed in with a slew of community service programming that takes on local issues, and features regular guests like the Raleigh police chief, Wake County commissioners, the state attorney general, and the state’s insurance commissioner. Plus, there are NPR shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Its 50,000 watts reach as far west as Greensboro on a good day and as far east as Tarboro.

“Our mission is to serve the community like no other, with music and our public affairs programming; to inform people, and to project Shaw University,” says Rashad Abdul-Muhaimin, the station’s assistant general manager.

Julius Cromwell, a jazz lover who moved to Raleigh from Philadelphia in 2008, appreciates the mix. “I like the music,” he says. “They play the modern jazz, the contemporary; but they also go back to Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Adderley.” He also likes the slice of civic life the station highlights, with guests ranging from the mayor to “grassroots” people. “It’s a pretty diverse station.”

Sharon Berry-Vivian during her "Funk Friday" show on WSHA.WSHA began as an r&b station back in 1968, then added smooth jazz and gospel on the weekends. After bringing in blues programming, the station started to develop a core following and added other racially and ethnically diverse musical forms. Yet despite the preponderance of blues, jazz and r&b, the breakdown of WSHA’s listenership is about 55 percent white males over 50 – the kind of guys who probably had their minds blown as kids by listening to musicians as diverse as Art Blakey, Buddy Guy, and Earth, Wind and Fire.

Which means the audience is a bit limited. Something over 20,000 weekly, and about 7,000 on a good day – although, thanks to the Internet, WSHA has listeners as far away as Belarus, Chile and Japan. Still, says Berry-Vivian, “Those numbers should be better. I don’t think people know about us.”

“We have a lot of people who have relocated, and they find it surprising that there is a station in Raleigh that plays jazz,” adds Abdul-Muhaimin.

Part of the reason for this limited listenership is that jazz has a rather small audience, and a lot of the other music the station plays doesn’t appeal to a younger demographic that prefers hip hop and contemporary pop artists like Lady Gaga. “The type of people who gravitate to the station,” says Berry-Vivian, “do not like that commercial sound. And we offer such a broad range of music during the day.”

Not that the station isn’t trying to expand its audience. WSHA has a Facebook page, and holds occasional public jam sessions that are advertised over the air. There’s also an attempt to bring in younger listeners by experimenting a bit with the musical mix. “Like I’m a big fan of Stevie Wonder,” says Abdul-Muhaimin, who hosts a morning jazz program, “and I like what jazz musicians are doing with his music, and that of the Beatles, and bands like Chicago. And how they’re collaborating with hip hop artists.”

And WSHA is determined to maintain its listenership. So here’s Kenny, calling into Funk Friday, and he’s requesting a tune by Weather Report. “That’s real fusion-y, you know that, right?” says Berry-Vivian, referring to the band’s mix of jazz, rock rhythms and electronics, not something the program is geared towards.

Kenny knows what they are. And he really doesn’t care. He wants to hear them anyway. Berry-Vivian rolls her eyes a little, but the next thing you know, Weather Report’s Boogie Woogie Waltz is on the air.

At WSHA, it’s about giving the people what they want.