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Innerviews: Radio director thrives in unlikely role

Chris Dorst
Alabama transplant James Muhammad feels at home in the studio at West Virginia Public Radio, where he serves as director of radio services. He started his public radio career in Tuscaloosa as a beat reporter and host of a classical music program.
Chris Dorst
"Public radio was not something ...
Chris Dorst
... I identified as embedded ...
Chris Dorst
... in the African-American community"
Courtesy photo
This picture shows Alabama Gov. George Wallace holding hands with James Muhammad and his father, James Williams (right), when the Stillman College Choir performed at the Alabama Governor's Mansion in 1984. Wallace stopped Muhammad, took his hand and struck up a conversation. "He stared at me and wouldn't let go of my hand," Muhammad said. He keeps the photo in his office as verification of his Alabama roots.
Courtesy photo
In the fourth grade, James Muhammad (then James Williams) went to Arcadia Elementary where his mother, Dorothy Williams, taught. The principal and her husband, Betty and Joe Pilegge, were West Virginia natives.
Courtesy photo
A photo from a 1989 edition of the Tuscaloosa News features James Muhammad (left) with three other members of the Stillman College Choir preparing for a Christmas concert. His father, James Williams, directs the choir. Muhammad changed his surname after college during a brief commitment to the Muslim faith.
Courtesy photo
A snapshot preserves memories of James Muhammed's visit to Giza, Egypt, with his father, James Williams.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's about as southern as you can get. Hometown: Tuscaloosa, Ala. But don't expect a Dixie drawl.Reared in a highly cultured environment by educators who loved opera, classical music and public radio, James Muhammad absorbed gentility. Blessed with a deep, rich voice, cautioned by his parents to always speak clearly and crisply, he talks in the smooth, universal manner of a born broadcaster.His father, a professor at Stillman College, fell in love with West Virginia in the '70s while traveling as director of the Stillman choir.Appropriately, his son landed here in 2001 as program director for West Virginia Public Radio.Many successes include a Peabody Award for a documentary on the textbook controversy.Equipped with a huge smile, a hearty laugh and a cordial demeanor, his commanding 6-foot-3 frame exudes charisma.Those Alabama roots are firmly transplanted in West Virginia. His father's favorite place hooked him, too.He's 42. "I'm from Tuscaloosa, Ala. My mother was a public school teacher and my father was a college professor at Stillman College, an historically black college in Tuscaloosa where I attended school. He taught music there and was the choral director."My parents met in college in the choir, the same place I met my wife. Music was a heavy part of my growing up. I played flute, piano and cello, and sang. It wasn't that I had an extreme interest in music. But if I quit one instrument, my dad would just throw me into another one."Public radio is all my parents listened to. My father, an organist, set the alarm full blast at 5 a.m. on Sundays just to hear 'Pipedreams.' His choir was featured on NPR specials. He was a regular volunteer during pledge drives."I had to listen to 'Morning Edition' in the car on the way to school. If you wanted to listen to anything else, you had to do it in your own space and you shut the door. They didn't want to hear hip-hop or rock."I loved the classical music and jazz and news and the documentaries on public radio. It just wasn't my sole existence in the broadcast world. "We lived in the African-American side of town, but my parents had a lot of friends who were white. A lot of that had to do with music. They were involved with the opera and the symphony.
"I thought about law or communications and journalism. I never thought about public radio. I needed an internship my senior year, and my journalism professor said I should consider interning at public radio. I got desperate, and that's how I ended up interning there."Public radio was not something I identified as embedded in the African-American community, so there was some trepidation about working in public radio. But when you get involved in it, you find that it's really something for the masses, not for particular segments of the community."I ended up working at the station where I interned. I started with regular beat reporting. After a while, because I had a background in the arts, I did art reporting on plays and concerts."Later, there was a position for a classical music host. The general manager knew my father was a musician and that I had gone to college on a choir scholarship. I was new and young and trying to move up the food chain. I felt my days were numbered if I refused."I was producer of an arts magazine, too, and still producing features for arts and working with other reporters to get that off the ground. Then I became operations manager."After leaving Alabama public radio, I went to WCVU in Peoria, Ill., and was program director there and had a daily classical music shift. I was there about three years.
"My father's Stillman College Choir performed many times in West Virginia. His first visit was in the '70s, to Logan. He fell in love with the people and the mountains, the beauty and nature of it all."We would come up here when I was a kid, and he would drive around and show us things he'd found in the state. He took me to Lewisburg to a church that had woodwork made by slaves. He took me to the Exhibition Coal Mine."On his first trip, he met Buck Harless, who became a strong supporter of the choir and a member of the board of Stillman College."West Virginia was the Garden of Eden as far as my father was concerned. He still calls and asks if I've been here or there. 'Have you taken a train to see the fall foliage?' 'Have you been to Big Ugly?'"I came here in 2001 as program director. Now the title is director of radio services. My son, Salih, loves it here. He's 14. He's doing very well with his skateboarding. Has a bunch of sponsors."We spend a lot of time in Ohio because West Virginia doesn't have the investment in skateboarding parks. People would think he was from Ohio. 'No, I'm from West Virginia,' he'd say. People started referring to him as 'that kid from West Virginia.' Now he calls himself 'that West V boy.'"One thing I noticed immediately is that we have very talented people working here in public broadcasting. It has become a place where bigger operations are coming to look for talent."I had to get a sense of what listeners in West Virginia would want. It's easier in one city where you are covering one metropolitan area. When you cover an entire state, you go to the southern part close to the coalfields and they might not be as city slick as people in the Eastern Panhandle."They all want quality. There was a desire for more news and information programming. We still have heavy emphasis on classical music, but based on diminishing demand, we have had to adjust how much we do."It's a moving target and not an easy job. Every day, I am talking to a listener. Everyone doesn't like a change or what you are doing currently. I do my best to communicate and make sure they understand why we're doing what we're doing."Radio is such a personal medium. With public radio, you have people who leave it on all day. Any shift can directly impact their lifestyle. At 2 o'clock, they will do this, and public radio will be doing that. When public radio is not doing that, there's a problem in their lifestyle. That's really a good sign, that people care so deeply about content."I'm on the air when folks here get sick. The more important you become, the more distant you become from the microphone, so it's fun when I get to spend some days in the studio doing actual broadcast work."I started in public radio so young, but I always sounded older. I got into the classical music thing because they were looking for someone without a distinguishable southern accent. A lot of it had to do with having a father who taught voice and was always saying to speak clearly. My mother probably was worse than my dad with things like that. So I always had a limited southern drawl."We won the Peabody Award for a great project I did with Tray Kay. He called out of the blue and said he had an idea for a documentary. The anniversary of the textbook controversy was coming up, and he wanted to do something."We partnered with the historical society here, and it really came together. When I listened to the final product, I thought, 'Omigod, this is huge!' I knew it was Peabody material."We'd done other documentaries. I have to credit Rita Ray, my predecessor, for Della Taylor Hardman. Rita had the first conversation with Della who said she had archived tapes of all these historical figures she'd interviewed."Della died as we were working on it. I was able to get her daughter, Andrea Taylor, involved. I knew the national people, but I didn't know who the area people were, and there was too much tape. Ancella Bickley and Lucia James helped us. I drafted Sam Hendren, my mentor from Alabama, as the producer. I learned so much from listening to her interviews with all these interesting people who had come through West Virginia."Ann Baker was one of the people she interviewed, and we were able to use excerpts in our documentary on Ann Baker."I've had ideas on how to get more minorities involved and listening to public radio. It's a debate as to whether it's a content issue or an exposure issue. A lot of it is not being exposed to it."I'd like to produce more content about minorities. At a general audience station, it's hard for that to be your focus because listeners will range from 90 percent Caucasian to higher."I have a doctor friend in the D.C. area who loves to bring me over and show me off. There is no one else of color in her neighborhood. She will say, 'He's in public radio! Do that public radio thing, that quiet voice.' Everything's quiet and peaceful in public radio."I enjoy living in West Virginia and don't have any plans to go anywhere else. When I go back to Alabama, friends say, 'Why in the world are you still up there?' Some have had to drive through West Virginia, and then they say how beautiful it is. They say they saw the gold dome. I tell them I don't live far from there."Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-348-5173.
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