On April 21st, Art Gilliam, chairman and president of Gilliam Communications Inc., will be one of four inductees into the Society of Entrepreneurs.
Gilliam — along with Hilliard Crews of Shelby Group International, Doug Marchant of Unified Health Services, and Dan Poag of Poag & McEwen — will become a member of that august organization during its 15th annual dinner and awards banquet at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn.
It's one more accolade earned for Gilliam, who purchased WLOK 1340-AM 30 years ago. The city's first black-owned radio station grew into a historic landmark on South Second Street. While traditional gospel music is its forte, WLOK is a well-respected voice for communities throughout the Mid-South.
"We're really a community station and always have been," says Gilliam, 63. And even after 30 years, Gilliam is still talking growth. "We're in the embryonic stage," he says, adding that it might take a year or two to really find out what's ahead for WLOK.
Gilliam, who also owns WHGM Radio Inc., is in the process of selling that Savannah, Georgia, station. The $200,000 sale was approved by the FCC last year and was scheduled to be consummated in January, but that has been delayed. Gilliam expects the deal to be completed soon.
Gilliam says there's a hope "to preserve WLOK as a community asset going forward," but it's unclear what shape that would take. For instance, forming a foundation is an option, Gilliam says, because it would put the station's future under a structure more concerned with its role as a community asset than just a business.
In the last 30 years, Gilliam, a former Commercial Appeal reporter and opinion writer at WMC-TV, has seen the media landscape change dramatically. WLOK has changed too, switching from R&B to a traditional gospel-music format in the 1980s. It hasn't looked back since, building a loyal listener base that is primarily African American and older. They tune in daily to listen to longtime on-air personalities like Brother James Chambers, Jahue "Doc" Mumphrey, and Delsa "Fireball" Fleming.
Gilliam says the station's annual Stone Soul Picnic in September is a microcosm of what the station represents. The event, held every year at Tom Lee Park, features music but also offers health screenings and voter registration. The station is also part of an initiative that provides counseling for people suffering from drug addiction and a hotline for people who want to get out of gangs.
"People identify with us as a member of their family," says Gilliam.
Kim Harper, the station's program director, agrees. Memphis, she says, is definitely a gospel town, and WLOK wants to improve what it currently does. Take the Stone Soul Picnic, for instance: "We want to make it international. We are doing things now to invite some people, other cultures to come in," she says.
And Harper says the station will continue to grow its listener base. To that end, it can be heard via the Internet. "We're now heard worldwide," says Harper, who has been with WLOK for 10 years and hosts the early-morning show. As for the future, Harper says the day is coming when AM radio will sound no different from FM or even HD.
However, Gilliam says, that doesn't mean the station plans to get involved in satellite radio. "We may very well get into areas that are related to what we do, but we don't have a five-year game plan that puts us into another field [like FM or HD]. Certainly, it's possible that we would look at other things," he says.
Gilliam does not foresee any change in his personal program. Radio, he says, is a business that is most conducive to community activism.
"It never stops being something you are interested in doing," he says. "There's never a time that it wouldn't be rewarding and challenging to me."
Richard Thompson writes on Memphis media at Mediaverse-Memphis.blogspot.com.