updated 1/14/2007 1:36:15 PM ET 2007-01-14T18:36:15

The talk-radio station that called itself the city’s “voice of the African-American community” has shut down after more than eight decades on the air.

WHAT-AM, which was founded in 1925 and 20 years later was among the first in the nation to hire black on-air personalities, was a low-power station with a small but loyal following. Its on-air talent, office workers and sales staff were told Thursday that their jobs had been terminated.

WHAT is perhaps best known for longtime personality Mary Mason, a household name in Philadelphia and an influential and nationally recognized voice on the city’s political landscape.

From the time black talk-radio appeared in the 1960s until today, it has been a powerful outlet for people who felt that other forms of media were unresponsive to them, said Thaddeus P. Mathis of Temple University’s Center for African-American Research and Public Policy.

“It’s a huge loss for the community,” he said. “For some people, this is their only way to find out what’s happening; it’s their key source of information.”

The station will be off the air, and playing a feed of blues music, until upgrades are completed, said new owner Tom Kelly of Marconi Broadcasting Co.

Kelly declined to disclose the new station’s format, adding that an announcement would be made after the upgrades were complete. The programming would remain locally based, he said.

Purchased for $5 million
WHAT was purchased for $5 million in November by Marconi, based in suburban Havertown, from Inner City Broadcasting Corp., based in New York City. Kelly, Marconi’s president, owns a company that performs market research for radio stations.

The station was ranked 29th out of 30 in listenership for the most recent ratings period, but “that doesn’t mean they weren’t profitable,” said Tom Taylor, editor of the industry newsletter Inside Radio.

He also said that the end of WHAT does not reflect a larger trend nationally. For example, urban broadcaster Radio One Inc. started a black talk-radio network called Syndication One a year ago that is heard in six cities.

“Every format decision gets made based on the specific situation in a specific market at a specific time,” Taylor said.

Kelly did not know how many employees were at WHAT. A message left Friday at Inner City Broadcasting was not immediately returned.

“What we were doing was something that no one else was doing,” said Bill DiMascio, co-host of a WHAT show on criminal justice and punishment issues and head of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “It’s important for the community to feel like it has that kind of access.”

‘Mornings With Mary’
The station’s loyal fan base can largely be attributed to Mason, who began her broadcast career as a gospel-music host at WHAT in 1958.

Her talk show, “Mornings With Mary,” started in 1970, according to a biography on her Web site.

As a testament to her influence in the city’s black community, then-President Clinton did a live call-in show with Mason during a 1993 visit to Philadelphia. The following year, she was invited to join Nelson Mandela, F.W. DeKlerk and Clinton on stage in Philadelphia when Mandela was awarded the Liberty Medal.

WHAT is not the city’s only radio station with a black talk-radio format but it was unrivaled in its listenership, with a regular set of callers who checked in daily with their favorite hosts, said Temple University’s Mathis.

“People may not fully appreciate the loss until after it’s gone for a while,” he said. “It filled a vital role and it’s not clear who is going to fill it.”

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