How Nashville's HBCU-Owned Jazz Station Holds A Community Together

Jun 6, 2020

The last week of protests and unrest has put many Americans on edge, especially those in communities of color. Some local leaders, like Sharon Kay, are using the airwaves to help organize and inform their communities.

Kay is the general manager of WFSK, a radio station owned by Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tenn.. She also hosts a talk show, What's the 411? with Sharon Kay. WFSK is primarily a jazz station, but has also historically been a hub for news and organization in Nashville's black community, a role that has become even more important during the recent protests against police brutality.

Scott Simon spoke to Sharon Kay about the role of WFSK as people protest for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On the role of WFSK in Nashville

Being owned and operated by a historically black college and university makes us very, very needed and unique in the city. We're very proud to do everything that we can since we sit in the heart and soul of the African American community, where Fisk University is located in the historic North Nashville area.

Our constituency is not 100% African American; there's a good segment of our listening audience that's about 40% white. They like our station because they hear different opinions and other perspectives that the other type of radio just doesn't offer. And we are able to talk about things and be real and quit all the namby-pamby political crap. We're trying to get down to the facts so we can solve some problems.

On the history of WFSK and promoting civil rights issues

When they started the station back in '73, what a lot of those students did back in those early days was take a stand because their voices were not getting heard on mainstream radio. Our campus radio station at that point was the clarion call to the black community for protests, rallies and various events. The students literally started the station because they wanted to get out the word about prejudice and racist activities in Nashville. They wanted to have a platform and a place to tell the community "Okay we have someone coming --Jesse Jackson or whoever — coming to speak."

I can't help but honor that by continuing the spirit in which the station was founded. So the community, they have an affinity for the station because they know the rich history. And Nashville has had such a struggle with civil rights and housing and poverty and unemployment — and just feeling, in this city, like you're really not wanted here. So the community has been working on these issues for decades in Nashville, and the struggle still continues.

On the widespread protests and national attention on racial inequity

Everybody's so shocked — "it's impacting black people," they're shocked. Why do you keep getting shocked? Advocates have been telling you that this disparity exists and dots are lining up like crazy. The dots are there in housing and poverty. There's disparities in the justice system. There's disparities in the law enforcement system, the judicial system. There's disparities all across the board because we're not dealing with any of them. And then here comes the pandemic, and the pandemic is like a tsunami and blows back everything so people see what's on the bottom.

So for me, it's a joy to hear people echo it because I'm like, how many times does it take for y'all to learn something? I just keep hitting it as hard as I can as long as I can.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This last week of protests and unrest has put many Americans on edge, especially those in communities of color. Local leaders are trying to help. And some, like Sharon Kay, use the airwaves. She is the general manager of WFSK, a radio station owned by Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville. She's also the host of a regular talk show - What's the 411? with Sharon Kay - and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHARON KAY: Absolutely. Glad to do it.

SIMON: What's the 411 on how you and your neighbors in the community are doing, may we ask?

KAY: Well, we are learning the patience and resilience like no other way we've ever have (laughter). You know, we have so much that is on our plate here, as the rest of the country and the world. But it just for us has been a lot. It's a lot.

SIMON: What's your station been doing? I understand you play great jazz, but in addition to that.

KAY: Yeah, we play smooth and contemporary jazz. We're a 24/7 operation. And our station is somewhat different. Since we sit in the heart and soul of the African American community, we are able to talk about things and be real and quit all this namby-pamby political crap. You know, we're trying to get down the facts, so we can solve some problems.

SIMON: Yeah. The station has a proud history too, doesn't it? - I gather. If you could tell us something about that.

KAY: Yes. WFSK - the Fisk University students - when they started that station back in '73, our campus radio station at that point was declaring a call to the black community for protest, rallies. And the students literally started that station because they wanted to get out the word about prejudice and racist activities in Nashville.

SIMON: Do you have young people calling into your program in recent days?

KAY: We do. And we have them on the show, as well. I have found that they are engaging more now than ever. And I'm glad that they're fed up because this yoke has been heavy. And they want to move around and be free. They don't know what it's like - all this stuff. They don't like it. And I'm glad they don't because it's going to help the rest of us.

SIMON: You know what you're going to say, what you're going to talk about on Sunday - this Sunday?

KAY: I do stories that have a focus on civil rights and things that are resourceful, helpful to the community. And there's disparity - everybody's so shocked it's impacting black people. They're shocked. Why you keep getting shocked? We have - people have been - advocates have been telling you that this disparity exists. And dots are lining up like crazy. I mean, so really, y'all? Can we not - and I'm speaking to you just like I talk to my audience. I mean, I'm asking the question, really, y'all? Can we not - before some of us go home to Jesus and solve some of these problems. And when you know that that's at the center of them, why are you not working on that 24/7? I'm not talking about your hair and your pocket books and all that foolishness. I'm talking about things that help save somebody's life. Does that make sense?

SIMON: Yeah, it sure does. Sharon Kay of WFSK in Nashville. Her talk show - What's the 411? with Sharon Kay. I think I'm going to tune in soon. Thank you.

KAY: Oh, you're welcome. And thank you for calling and thinking of us here in Nashville on the historic campus of Fisk University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.