By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
Growing up in Birmingham’s West End community, G. Courtney French was surrounded by a rich cultural history and some famous neighbors, including legendary radio personality and media executive Dr. Shelley Stewart.
“I, as most people in our community, looked up to Dr. Stewart as an icon, and he is till this very day—not only locally but nationally in the broadcasting community,” said French.
At that time, French said it was “beyond my wildest dreams” to one day buy the station once co-owned by Dr. Stewart, who was named a Pioneer of Radio Inductee by the Smithsonian Institution, among numerous other accolades.
But some dreams do come true.
In 2017, French bought radio station 900 Gold WATV-AM and owns the station under the company name Courtney French Broadcasting LLC. He has since rebranded it myV94.9 FM radio—the “V” stands for “Variety.”
“It is an awesome responsibility to know that you stand on the shoulders of those like Dr. Stewart and [former WATV co-owner] the Rev. Dr. Erskine Faush, who paved the way for me to be in the position to be the owner—one of approximately 100 black-owned stations across the country,” said French, 46. “It’s also a position and a role that I take very seriously because I understand that as we provide information . . . it needs to be information that uplifts our community.”
French said he did a survey of the radio broadcasting industry before his purchase and learned that of the 15,000 radio stations in the U.S., fewer than 1 percent were black-owned. It was crucial to have ownership in a city like Birmingham, where blacks make up more than 75 percent of the population, he said.
“It was important that we have a medium for information, entertainment, and music,” French said. “It was important as a community to have a station to give our perspective and to be an outlet for callers at any point. Those were the kinds of things that led me to purchase WATV.”
The primary goal was to look at what the need was in the community, French explained: “Radio stations across the country have gotten away from what radio was meant to be, which is local. So, we use the technology for a broader reach, but our focus is still local.”
Being local means serving the community in times of need—times like those in 2019 when Birmingham Police Sgt. Wytasha Carter was killed, when Homewood’s Aniah Blanchard was abducted outside a gas station in Auburn, when 3-year-old Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney’s body was found in a dumpster. At those times, French said, “We came in and opened up our phone lines.”
The station will also tackle national topics, such as “… the tragic, untimely deaths of [National Basketball Association phenom] Kobe Bryant and his [13-year-old] daughter Gianna. [That night], we went on the airwaves and talked about it when that news hit, to give callers [an outlet],” he said.
The station relaunched on Feb. 1, 2018—with its rebranded identity “WATV V94.9, where the ‘V’ stands for ‘Variety’”—and moved to FM radio. On Feb. 28, the station will host its second anniversary party at Carter’s Seafood (512 Abraham Woods Blvd.) downtown Birmingham.
“When I came in, we did an entire facelift to the station: the towers, we went from AM to FM, we added the myV94.9 app, and we’re [available] on Alexa and Google Home,” French said. “A station that had a small reach when I purchased it now has a worldwide reach through the technology we have.”
A major change was also made to the programming. Every Wednesday on the “Home Team Morning Show,” a spotlight shines on women making strides in Birmingham. On Fridays, local pastors visit for a segment about their ministries and the work they’re doing across the city.
French recently made a major move by wooing—no pun intended—Dana “Lady Woo” Woodruff’s “Vital” show from 95.7 JAMZ (WBHJ-FM) to myV94.9; the “edutainment” program airs Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“With Lady Woo coming on, we’re saying ‘V’ stands for ‘Vital,’” French said. “The information she’s putting out through her platform and her show [involves] important issues in our community. [Combined with] the professional background she has, [‘Vital’] is really going to be another important program on myV94.9.”
French said Lady Woo’s show complements that station’s other daily community-focused programming, which includes “Knowledge is Power,” hosted by attorneys Jonathan F. Austin and Richard Rice and University of Alabama (UA) professor Chenoia Bryant, PhD, on Sundays, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Another popular feature is “The Think Tank,” which airs weekdays at 4p.m.; it’s part of the “Chris Coleman Radio Show,” hosted by myV94.9 on-air personality and Vice President of Programming Chris Coleman weekdays, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“We like to go out into the community to do live remotes, to be on set broadcasting live [from community events],” French said. “We were the only radio station broadcasting live from the [Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast]. … It was important [to be there] because of what Dr. King did for this community. When we say the ‘V’ in myV94.9 stands for ‘Variety,’ you see that with our programming.”
The station and its on-air talent are a presence in Birmingham City Schools, too.
“We try to partner with others and bring [people] together,” French said. “We try to use our platform to uplift others.
“We’re in reading programs, … going in and reading to elementary school-age students. We go into high schools throughout the city of Birmingham and [Jefferson County, including] A.H. Parker, G.W. Carver, and Huffman, where we try to impart positive things into our kids because they see and hear so many negative things. We let them know, ‘You can be an attorney. You can own a radio or TV station. You can do anything you want to do, and you’re only limited by your imagination.’”
“Good in the Hood”
The name G. Courtney French is well known in Birmingham. He is a prominent attorney and part owner of Fuston, Petway & French LLP Law Firm, and he is married to Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Elisabeth French. The father of three is a graduate of Minor High School, Birmingham Southern-College, and the Samford University Cumberland School of Law. Today, the little kid from West End is now an entrepreneur, community leader, philanthropist, and real estate developer with an evolving business portfolio—and a radio station that aids all of his endeavors.
“I’m now able to offer help to and assist other associations of mine with this platform. I thought that … was important to have,” said French. “A large part of being an attorney involves marketing, and a lot of attorneys spend a lot of money on radio, TV, and billboards. So, I said [to myself], ‘If I’m going to spend this money anyway, why not invest it into my community?’”
French said, myV94.9 helps others “get out the good things they’re doing in the community” via citizen-focused segments in the station’s programming.
“We have [a segment called] ‘Good in the Hood,’ through which we highlight nonprofits and individuals who are making a difference in our community,” French said. “[The ‘Home Team Morning Show’] has a segment called ‘Talent You Need to Know’ … that brings in local talent, [giving them] a worldwide platform for their music, for their art, for their writing.”
The station supports local businesses.
“We’re proud to be black-owned-and-managed,” French said. “We really love [helping] small businesses and business owners that probably wouldn’t be able to advertise on other radio stations or on TV. … We try to give them packages that are affordable [because] we know that if their brand is broadened using our platform, they can be successful. They just need that start.”
The media outlet also gives a voice to local voices in ways some may not expect.
“One of the local talents we’ve highlighted that we’re very proud of is [Stellar Award nominee] Pastor Mike McClure Jr., who’s the pastor of The Rock church. We’re the only urban, R&B and hip-hop station that plays his gospel song alongside Snoop Dogg. … With other stations, if the record companies don’t tell them to play [a song] and it’s not a national [hit], they won’t do it. It’s important to us that we continue to spotlight and play music from local artists just as we would Jay Z or Beyoncé.”
During a recent interview at the Ensley-based station, French said he is pleased with the progress the station has made over the past 24 months, but he will not be satisfied until myV94.9 branches out to other urban markets.
“[When you look at the ratings], myV.94.9 is the fastest growing station in the Birmingham market. From where we were two years ago to where we are now, every single month our audience is growing and the platforms here are growing, and it’s because we are a live and local radio station—that’s rare these days. … Other stations are just going toward syndication and a more computerized digital platform.”
French is bullish about the future because of his team.
“I tried to find the best broadcasters in their respective areas, and they came in from other stations and joined the team here,” he said. “All of those individuals are people who were already entrenched in the community, people who were highly respected, involved with, and engaged in the community. … As I assembled the team, I made sure I focused on bringing together a group of people who had the same vision for the station as my vision because we all needed to be pulling in the same direction.”
Expect to see the station’s brand more around the city.
“You’re going to be seeing a lot of bus wraps,” French said. “We’ve gone and gotten [Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority MAX] buses wrapped with our local myV94.9 personalities, so you’re going to be seeing those around the city. We’ll also do what we call ‘pop-ups,’ broadcasting live on location. Instead of just being in the station, we’ll go [across the city]. So, people can call and tell us, ‘Hey, I want you guys to do ‘The Think Tank’ from my business.’ Those are just some of the things you’ll see from us in the near future.”
French added, “Every single day, we strive to bring information that will uplift our community. It’s an honor, but it’s more of the saying, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ … God has blessed me, and I want to continue to be a vessel to and through the radio station to uplift the community.”