WADL Brings 'Good Times' to Motown

What do J.J. Walker, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and God have in common? All star in the revamped WADL Detroit. Formerly a home shopping station, Adell Broadcasting relaunched WADL last month with a host of vintage syndicated shows and religious fare that caters to the black community in the No. 11 DMA. “We took a page from radio, where your station is country or blues or jazz, and narrowed our niche,” says CEO Kevin Adell. “People in the community recognize this as their station.”

Adell, who also owns the “urban religious” cable channel The Word, saw opportunity when the WB and UPN networks folded last year, believing Detroit's black community had been left without a channel to call their own. Add the fact that the market has a sizeable black population—WADL president/General Manager Lewis Gibbs says the city is around 80% black, while BIA Financial says blacks represent 21% of the greater DMA—and station executives say the decision to launch a black-centric station was a slam dunk. “If you're going to do urban television, what better place to do it?” says Gibbs. “It's programming everyone can relate to.”

Bus ads, radio spots, billboards and an ad wrap of the downtown People Mover rail informed the public of the new WADL's arrival. Much of the lineup is either vintage or old, depending how you look at it. Ghetto-based '70s sitcom Good Times airs weekdays at 5 p.m., Sanford & Son airs at 5:30, and police drama In the Heat of the Night runs at 6. On weekends, the acclaimed Chappelle's Show airs at 11 p.m.

A mix of local shopping and religious programs, including one with preacher T.D. Jakes, airs in prime, and Gibbs says the upbeat tone of latter fits nicely with the comedies. “This isn't your Grandma's 'fall asleep in church' religion,” he says.

The 40-person WADL staff is also at work on a modest slate of originals, including the weekly Two Minutes With The Mayor, which is a sitdown with Kwame Kilpatrick, a TV version of a popular radio show from Frankie Darcell, and an as-yet unnamed local dance show similar in spirit to Soul Train—scheduled to premiere in the next two months. There are also short community-affairs segments, though the station does not plan to do full newscasts.

Some TV consultants think the WADL folks are on to something. Bill Hague, Senior VP at media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates, says research shows that minority audiences watch 30% more television. “I think an ethnically-skewed local channel in Detroit is terrific,” he says. “They're delivering what the audience wants—and what the audience can't get in too many other places.”

Adell and Gibbs say WADL is profitable. Adell is close to announcing a national rep firm, and says blue-chip advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson are on board. WADL is also targeting black-owned business in Detroit. “We're reaching out to advertisers that maybe can't afford time on channels 2, 4 and 7,” says Adell. “We've had a great reaction from local businesses.”

Less than dy-No-mite?

To be sure, WADL won't grab Detroit's ratings crown any time soon; nothing on the schedule got even a full ratings point in the 18-49 demo in a recent week. One manager at a Detroit Big Four station says, “from a competitive standpoint, WADL is not a factor.”

And while WADL positions itself as the voice of the black community, some wonder if shows like Sanford & Son and Good Times, featuring bumbling characters stuck in the ghetto, reinforce negative perceptions about the community. One prominent member of that community who asked not to be named believes such programming “doesn't reflect the fact that the race itself has been uplifted. Those are old stereotypes.”

Adell and Gibbs counter that there's a wide range of programming on the schedule, at least half of it religious, and add that In the Heat of the Night stars Carroll O'Connor—best known for playing racist sourpuss Archie Bunker —as a Deep South police chief with abiding respect for his black police colleague and black wife. The show was frequently lauded by the NAACP for its positive depiction of black characters.

Others may question the wisdom of doing business amidst the ever-ailing Detroit economy. But Adell says opportunity abounds. “The Big Three (automotive corporations) are still here and it's still a Top 11, $364 million TV economy,” he says. “It's a gigantic market.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.