According to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, there are only 203 Black-owned radio stations in the nation. Evansville is home to one of them.

WEOA-98.5FM has been bringing R&B and hip-hop music to the Evansville area for decades.

Evansville native Edward Lander is the president and general manager of WEOA.

“Our audience comes first. We want to super-serve those that listen and enjoy what we do. It is hugely important to us,” Lander said.

Lander, 68, went to the University of Evansville, where he majored in criminal justice. He later attended the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield. From 1975 to 1978, he served as a deputy with the Vanderburgh Country Sheriff’s Office before leaving for a management position with Bristol Myers Squibb, where he worked for 40 years before retiring in 2018.

The Courier & Press sat down with Lander to talk about his career in radio and the changes WEOA has experienced over the years.

How did you start out in radio broadcasting?

Growing up, I had always been involved with some form of radio communication. I was an avid Citizens Band radio user and I enjoyed tinkering with the radios. Although one of my first radios was actually a walkie talkie, local CBers on occasion would stop by our house to see my equipment because they couldn’t believe the signal range I was able to achieve with my modified walkie talkie.

In the early 70s, the University of Evansville allowed students to program the radio station 91.5 WUEV on weeknights from 10 p.m. to midnight and around 2 a.m. on the weekend. A local student, and well-known deejay, “Big Hack” had a show called “Party Lights,” which was the closest thing to the city having a radio station that played R&B music.

After I started working at Bristol Myers Squibb, I was able to travel to some major cities around the country. I have always loved music so on my trips I would use my cassette recorder to record as many Black radio stations as possible, then listen to them for months until the next traveling opportunity presented itself. My trips took me to Chicago where I was exposed to radio legend Tom Joyner, who was known as the “fly jock,” because of his travel five days a week between Chicago and Dallas. He’d do morning broadcasts in Chicago before flying to do afternoons in Dallas.

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During my college internship at the Evansville Police Department, I met Gerald Summers, who became my best friend and fishing partner. While on the lake, and if the conditions were right, we could pick up different radio stations especially KMJM in St. Louis. And we always said, “One day, we’ll have a station like that in Evansville.”

How did the station happen?

While employed at Bristol Myers Squibb, Gerald and I met Desni Brannon who was from Lexington and grew up listening to Black radio. In 1996, a conversation sparked between the three of us of creating a Black radio station in Evansville, and for the next year, we spent nearly every Saturday morning at various local restaurants doing research and creating a business plan.

We meet the CEO of South Central Communications Corp., John Engelbrecht, who owned and operated different stations in Evansville and Tennessee. By the grace of God, we discovered they had a local AM station that was open. We signed a local marketing agreement with them, which was approved by the FCC to take over full control of the station. With the help of Jim Coy, president of the Beacon Group, a non-profit dedicated to serving small business start-ups, we completed our business play and soon received our business loan.

On Jan. 3, 1997, BLS (Brannon Lander Summers) Entertainment Inc, was created. We split it up by our skills: Desni would serve as the financial officer, Gerald managed sales and I was responsible for station operations and technology. We began building our staff with Eric Dockery as general manager and he had held various different positions in radio. Afterwards we were introduced to Sharron Brooks, who had a 25-year career with another local radio station.

She just completed 25 years with WEOA overseeing traffic and billing operations, and she’s affectionally known as my “work wife.”

We applied to the FCC to change the current call sign to WEOA, becoming the first Black-operated radio station in Evansville.

On the morning on May 19, 1997, in the early morning, myself, Desni, Gerald, Eric, and Frank Hertel, our engineer, gathered in the control room at for a prayer that was led by Larry Rascoe. At 5 a.m., we turned on the transmitter and began broadcasting the wonderful sound of the “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” and an urban adult contemporary radio station was born.

What was the general reception from people in the area?

People got word that a new Black format radio station was coming into the city. And as we were going through the process of getting all the equipment installed, and it would be on the air for five minutes here, or maybe an hour or two, as the engineers were running tests and things like that. People would hear it, but then they didn’t understand why it would be on and then it would would be off. And so it was a period of educating folks what was going on, because many of them had never lived through a start-up of a radio station.

The reception in the Black community was just overwhelming. It truly was, I think it was something we all wanted this for so very long. So when it happened, it was just unbelievable.

Who had a big influence on you? Why?

Tom Joyner. When I would travel to Chicago it was apparent from billboards to a lot of other marketing thing that Tom Joyner was the premier radio disc jockey from an urban perspective in in Chicago, and I would listen to him. But I would listen not just for the music, but just for his style. And I’d ask, why was this guy so popular?

And they used to refer to him as the Fly Jock. And the reason for that was he would be on the air during the morning hours until about nine o’clock in Chicago, jump on an airplane and be on the air in the afternoon in Dallas.

And he did that five days a week, can you imagine? But he was so good at what he did. He was in just such demand. So when you know we started looking at what programs are we going to have on the station in addition to our local air personalities? It was no doubt we were we were going to have Tom Joyner on.

How has the station changed since 1997?

In 1999, we created the Family Day in the Park, now the Family Day Cultural Celebration, which brings in arts and crafts, food, merchandising, live music performances. In the early 2000s, Gerald and Desni left the business.

In 2009, true to his word, John Engelbrecht offered me the opportunity to purchase the station. The FCC approved the sale and WEOA became the first and only Black-owned radio station to serve the Evansville area. After a few years on air, the FCC increased their efforts to revitalize AM broadcasting through rule changes and one allowed for AM stations to seek a license on the FM Band. A year later, WEOA was approved to purchase a FM translator with authorization to re-transmit WEOA 1400 AM on 98.5. And then in 2018, we changed the format from urban adult contemporary to urban contemporary.

How did you determine programming and what programming does the station have now?

We worked and continuously work with radio consultants. It was kind of easy knowing the popularity of hip-hop and R&B and not having any direct competition.

We would take road trips to adult contemporary radio stations in Peoria and KMJM in St. Louis, which helped in our decision to syndicate some of our programming. Nationally, we have the Breakfast Club, Weekends with the Breakfast Club, D Minor, Full Throttle Radio with Fatman Scoop & Dj Mister Vince, The Baka Boyz Hip- Hop Master Mix and Incognito. Locally, we have Community Chat with Melissa Morehead Moore, Leadership Connection with Lynn Miller-Pease and Gospel Vibes with Brother C.R.

What are some struggles that the station faced?

Our sales staff frequently found themselves educating potential advertisers about urban music, audiences and the spending power of our listeners. They didn’t understand urban radio, and many of them, if they didn’t understand that, they weren’t interested in that. The average spending power of our listeners is about $423 million annually in the Evansville metro which breaks down to $8.2 million weekly with local area retailers and services.

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What is one of you favorite things about your job?

I love doing what I’m doing. Like I said, I retired after a 40-plus year career with a Fortune 500 company. I love this. I love this because it is different every day. People enjoy it. And coming in with people that share the same passion here… It’s my dream job.

Why do you think it’s important for a city like Evansville to have an urban station?

One, through some of our syndicated programs that we bring into the market, it allows them to hear what’s going on in the world of Black people across this country. It really makes a huge difference in some of the conversations we have.

But not only the national programming that we bring in, it’s the local that we like to focus on. It’s giving the community an opportunity to talk about the things from a Black perspective. They can do it across the airwaves and be heard by thousands of people that make up our audience. Of course, they like the music. There’s no doubt about it, but it’s just knowing that it’s kind of like we’ve arrived. We can turn the dial and hear what we want to hear, talk or music or whatever. It’s right there available to us.

And you can get it now in today’s world of cell phones and all these other platforms. Sure you can listen to the music, but we all play the same kind of music. What makes the difference is the conversation between the music.

What are your hopes for the station’s future?

We want to be the most trusted source in the African-American community and beyond that. We want to inform, entertain and inspire our audience by providing culturally relevant content through radio and through our digital platforms.

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