By Charles Hallman
Benny King and Kelvin Quarles have known each other for years, dating back to the 1990s. The two met years ago when Quarles, now KMOJ’s station manager, was a radio executive in Atlanta and King was just starting out in radio. “I follow his footsteps,” admits King, who visited Quarles last week to pick up the North Minneapolis station’s old transmitter.
“When I found out he is here in Minneapolis running KMOJ, I had just got a license to start a radio station in Nigeria. Remarkably, I found out that his frequency and mine were the same [89.9 FM]. I asked him, ‘I am looking for a transmitter, and do you have anything that you are not using anymore?’”
King, who affectionately calls Quarles “my uncle” in the radio business, talked about the exchange in an exclusive interview with the MSR March 21 at KMOJ.
Quarles said that after KMOJ received FCC approval to boost its broadcasting power a couple of years ago, “He [King] called and asked me about a transmitter. We knew that we couldn’t use that 1,000-watt transmitter, so I said, ‘I might have one for you. Just give me some time, and let me find out what’s going on.’”
“The first transmitter, which we are currently using, came from an organization in Indiana,” said King. “The [studio] boards that we are using came from a station in Colombia. Now we are getting a bigger transmitter coming from my ‘uncle’ here at KMOJ.”
Legendary music producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis “stepped forward to help this radio station when we had issues with our first transmitter,” said Quarles. “It is the opportunity for us to allow this piece of equipment that helped us change so many people’s lives over so many years to be transferred over to Africa, hopefully to do the same thing.
“The rewarding part for me and for us as an organization [is] to help an organization in Africa reach more of our people,” states Quarles.
“[Radio broadcasting] always has been my dream [since] I was a little boy,” recalled King. “The first thing I could buy for myself as a child was a radio.” After he got his first radio job in 1988, “I knew what I wanted to do in radio, but no one was doing it. I looked at the people I worked for, and I didn’t see anything I couldn’t do. It’s good to be on radio, but nothing beats having your own [radio station].”
He gained a new perspective on broadcasting after a U.S. visit in the late 1990s, King said. “I listened to a station for about two weeks, and I went back [to Nigeria] a completely different person, because I realized it wasn’t about [me]. Radio can be an ego thing — you can easily get used to hearing your own voice. Are you touching someone’s life? It doesn’t matter — I like how I sound and my boss likes how I sound, and that’s all that matters.
“I came to the realization that radio is part of my purpose in life,” he continued. “To do that, I have to communicate and connect with my listeners.”
Before 1990, “All the stations were government-owned” in Nigeria, which meant that all programming content was government-controlled as well, explained King. However, after that, the government began offering independent broadcasting licenses. “Then, in my opinion, the quality of radio improved after that, because now government stations have this competition. It’s been improving ever since.”
He was one of 28 applicants to get broadcasting licenses in 2002, noted King. “The president gives the final approval, so the biggest obstacle for me was getting the federal government to approve [my application],” he recalled, adding that government officials had become wary of giving out licenses to broadcasters “who use their stations to attack them.” As a result, he was among “the last wave” of license awardees.
He plays gospel music in the mornings on his Crown 89.9 FM station “because that’s the music I know, and that’s the best music I can communicate with,” said King. “When I’m playing gospel music, I am playing good news music. It is giving someone out there hope.”
Other types of music fill most of the remaining broadcasting hours. “The most popular format is music. Nigeria is a place where we love all things American. Hip hop is very, very big. The emphasis is more music and less talk.”
Four of six on-air staff members are female, and each of his nearly 15-person staff “multi-tasks,” King says. “In hiring, I looked for people who had a better knowledge of [secular] music, who knew something other than gospel.”
Quarles said he’s proud of his “nephew” King: “He actually is living the dream most of us as young African Americans dream who start in radio — that’s our goal, to own our own station. When I first met Benny, I never thought that he would end up owning a radio station. I’m really, really proud of him, and I am glad that he is going to make a positive difference in his country.”
“The only way you can fail with a radio station in Nigeria is if you decide you really want to fail at this,” surmised King. “Otherwise, if you know what you are doing, you can make it.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]