Take the A(AMI) train

Lee Manley dreams of having his own talk show. The Silver Spring, Md., substance-abuse counselor envisions a program devoted to helping people recover from a range of addictive-behavior problems-not just drugs but gambling, eating disorders and domestic violence.

Although no stations have shown an interest in such a narrow and serious format, Manley says he's at least half way to his goal. Thanks to a nine-month training program at the African-American Media Incubator in Washington, Manley has landed a once-a-month on-air gig with WWDC-FM Washington.

"I'm getting first-hand experience on a legitimate radio station," says Manley, who graduated from AAMI in 1999. His current show, taped the first Wednesday of every month and aired the following Sunday, is put together with the help of wwdc's public affairs director. Topics range from taxes to foster care to the hazards of secondhand smoke.

Manley is one of 53 who have graduated from AAMI since the school opened its doors, but is one of the few who have chosen to make it on the air, says Keith Murphy, administrator of the training program. Students in the program are offered instruction in all aspects of the broadcast business: engineering, news writing and sales.

"When prospective students apply, 75% to 80% assume they want to be on-air personalities," says Murphy. "But few will be successful. We try to point them into other areas, such as engineering and sales."

Although students pay $4,500 tuition for the AAMI program, most of the school's funding comes from the CBS Infinity Radio Group, which along with Lanham, Md.-based Radio One Group, provides most of the internships for graduates.

Relations between CBS and the school's founders weren't always so cozy.

Murphy's father, Washington, D.C., businessman Ed Murphy, pressured Infinity into funding the school's creation by leading a coalition of executives of African-American-owned businesses seeking to deny the station group's $60 million purchase of WPGC-AM-FM in 1994. The group was protesting allegedly racist statements made by the company's raunchy talk-show host Howard Stern.

The group dropped its petition in return for a five-year commitment to the school and agreements to provide discounted ads rates to some minority-owned businesses.

Infinity officials indicated that the price was small for such a valuable media property, and since taking over the company, CBS has stepped up its effort to help minorities gain meaningful roles in the media, including launching a $170 million venture fund last year.

After the deal with Infinity, Pearl Murphy, Keith's stepmother, was named executive director of AAMI, and Keith joined as a teacher and administrator in 1998, after his father's death.

Since the settlement, CBS/Infinity has funded $100,000 of the school's $150,000 average budget. The rest of the money has come from tuition and smaller contributions from media companies such as Viacom and Chancellor Media. With the CBS commitment expiring this year and the company just completing a merger with Viacom, company officials say they haven't had time to give much thought to renewing the relationship. CBS outside counsel Steve Lerman, however, says he has recommended that Viacom continue support for the school. AAMI officials are hoping to drum up other corporate supporters in case CBS cuts its funding.

The current corporate support has allowed AAMI to invest in a 24-track mixing console and digital audiotape recording, as well as training labs encompassing simulated radio shows.

Both Keith and Pearl Murphy are active broadcasters, as are the school's other instructors-most of whom donate their time. "Everyone here is still a hands-on radio employee."

Today, AAMI graduates are working the boards, on-air or in sales at several Washington-area stations. "Generally, there's somebody from AAMI working at our stations," says wpgc General Manager Benjamin Hill. "We'd like to see more broadcasters get involved."

The concept of minority-training centers is catching on in other cities as one way to counteract the industry's consolidation and a perceived decline in opportunities for minorities to get into the business. The San Diego Community Broadcasting School has been offering a free, 12-week program and a training program is also operating in Cleveland.