The WURD production team. (Courtesy WURD Radio)

WURD Radio is celebrating 20 years on Philadelphia’s airwaves this week by looking back at its founding and forward to the future.

Exciting plans are in the works to deepen the station’s physical presence in Mantua and extend the station’s outreach to younger listeners.

The mission is stronger than ever, said Sara Lomax, WURD president and CEO. Pennsylvania’s only Black owned-and-operated talk radio station doesn’t take that description lightly.

“That’s a really different level of accountability to the community,” Lomax told Billy Penn. Ownership provides a level of independence, she added, and allows the station to “advocate for and serve your community in a way that is not beholden to shareholders [who] may not prioritize how your community thrives.”

WURD is a community affair in many ways, from the Lomax family’s fundamental involvement to the network of Black media professionals who’ve held down a spot on the station’s programming sheet over the years, incorporating their friends and neighbors in the process. 

The key importance of the talk radio, for Lomax, comes in the chance for audience talkback. 

“We are this two-way talk interactive platform where people who rarely get to tell their story, rarely get their voices heard, have an opportunity to speak in their own voice and share their experiences with a broader audience,” she said. 

It’s that same imperative that helped inspire the man behind WURD’s resurgence: Walter Lomax Jr. 

‘You can give everyone a voice’: WURD’s past

In 2002, radio legend William “Cody” Anderson approached Dr. Lomax, a trailblazing physician and serial entrepreneur

As Lomax tells it, Anderson had just sold WHAT 1340 AM, a Black talk station he owned through the 90s. He was deeply concerned that Philly, a city “with such deep roots in Black talk radio,” would be left with nothing in that vein. When he learned a local AM station which previously had WURD as its call sign was for sale, he made his pitch. 

“He approached my father about acquiring it,” Lomax recounted. Her father was unsure, but Anderson’s reasoning was based on a principle that still grounds the station. 

“You know, Doc,” Cody told the entrepreneur, “you can’t give everyone money, but you can give everyone a voice.’” 

The suggestion resonated, Lomax said. Her father moved to purchase the station and resurface the call sign. By 2003, they were ready to hit the air. 

Anderson was WURD Radio’s first general manager and a longtime host. He kickstarted the station’s programming by bringing on other experienced figures in Black talk radio, including Reggie Bryant. Leadership changed hands a few times after that, and in 2010 Lomax stepped into her current role as company president and began serving as general manager. 

A comprehensive list of people to credit with WURD’s continuance would be far too lengthy to recall, Lomax noted.

She lifted up people like prior hosts Fatimah Ali and Rev. W. Nick Taliaferro, past general manager Monica Lewis, media pros like Jos Duncan Asé and Charles Ellison, and people who have long made WURD tick behind the scenes like Mike Thomas, Kwasa Mathis, and Saundra Ali, as some among many who deserve their flowers. 

WURD’s elders — those still here and those who’ve passed on — will be honored during an anniversary celebration held this evening. 

The ‘connective tissue’ of a diverse Black experience: WURD’s present

WURD’s emphasis on Black ownership was made evident to Ashanti Martin, the current general manner, in typical fashion: Martin first connected with WURD as a guest, invited on to speak about an organization she founded that focuses on reparations and reclaiming land stolen and swindled away from Black Americans. 

Black self-determination continues to be “a common thread among every single program,” Martin said. That doesn’t mean that the station’s content becomes predictable. She sees it as a chance to dive deeper into stories instead of claiming to encapsulate “what the Black community thinks” on any given issue.

“It’s not to say that we are a monolith,” said Martin. “That’s the whole point of talk radio, you know, to explore all the different perspectives within that Black experience.”

Offering live, fresh content everyday from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. (and later on weekends) is no small feat, Martin said. But the team does it, broadcasting from WURD’s current studio at Penn Treaty Park Place in Fishtown, as well as through remote broadcasts that are often done on location at events and news scenes. 

In addition to daily and weekly programs, WURD carves out slots for specific discussions about pressing matters, like a recent three-part conversation about the Israel-Hamas war.

Then there’s the different initiatives within WURD: ecoWURD is keyed in on issues of environmental justice, while the station’s Lively-HOOD offshoot focuses on alerting listeners to opportunities for economic advancement. In-person community engagement happens at a range of events.

Sara Lomax, WURD president and CEO. (Courtesy WURD)

Lomax, the station’s CEO, sees all of the company’s activities as part of a holistic effort. 

“What WURD has been doing over the last 20 years is to be that connective tissue, to be the way that resources, information, opportunities that exist in the Philadelphia region — whether they’re government contracts, internships, scholarships, or whatever — do not get overlooked or circumvented in terms of [Black Philadelphians’] access to that information,” she said.

‘We can co-create community solutions’: WURD’s future

WURD has every intention to keep up its information-sharing mission, while branching out in many ways. 

A new headquarters is part of a suite of projects closely tied to the station’s future, as well as the ongoing changes in West Philly’s Mantua neighborhood. 

Plans jointly crafted by Lomax Real Estate Partners, GoldOller Ventures, Parkway Corporation’s Joseph and Roberty Zuritsky, and the Mount Vernon Manor CDC amount to a $43 million development that includes:

  • WURD’s new HQ
  • A long-awaited Met Fresh Supermarket, grounding 31,145 square feet of commercial space
  • A medical center above the grocery store
  • A cafe and bookstore
  • Over 160 housing units, including 32 units using HUD tax credits to serve low-income tenants

“We’re really excited about being able to host events and live broadcasts and book signings, things like that onsite,” Lomax said. 

Those are just the structural changes. Martin was brought on to the WURD team in part to help craft the station of the future, she said. Younger folks simply aren’t picking up the phone to call into a radio show. 

“It gives me a sense of honor to be able to make the voices of older Black generations heard,” said Martin. “On the flip side, it is a struggle, because the voices of younger generations of Black people are not heard on our airwaves for a variety of reasons.”

Using SMS messaging and streaming on platforms like Twitch are part of how Martin sees this effort moving forward — but there’s only so much that can happen on the technical side. 

If young people “don’t hear themselves reflected in the conversation, that will make them even less inclined” to tune in, said Martin. It’s an exciting challenge for the team, one that they foresee involving the new HQ as they can increasingly invite members of the community into WURD’s working space. 

With a rich history, a typically busy present, and physical and technological expansion on the horizon, the team at WURD plans to be an institution where Black Philadelphians can be, as Martin quips, “embraced for their differences, but also don’t have to feel different.” 

“Not every city has a radio station like WURD,” said Lomax. “I think that that allows us to let the people speak directly about what’s on their heart and on their mind, and we can co-create community solutions and find answers to the challenges that we encounter.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...