Champaign council OKs street designation for black-owned radio station

Champaign council OKs street designation for black-owned radio station

CHAMPAIGN — The city will soon have a road named after the only black-owned radio station east of the Mississippi, WBCP radio.

The honorary designation will apply to the section of North Fourth Street between East Tremont and East Grove streets, west of Douglass Park.

A fixture of the local black community since 1989, the station was founded by three men — J.W. Pirtle, Vernon Barkstall and Lonnie Clark — who converted it from a country-western music station.

These days, you'll hear gospel music Monday through Friday, as well as blues, jazz and urban music. Over the years, the station has continued to draw crowds to Douglass Park for Champaign-Urbana Days.

When the black-owned station started, it wasn't as much of a unicorn as it is today, with similar stations in East St. Louis, Rockford and Peoria.

All those stations are gone now, and WBCP is looking for a new owner, too. Pamela Pirtle, J.W. Pirtle's daughter, said the station is a town crier for Champaign-Urbana's black community.

"It's certainly become a hub for information; people always want to make sure certain things are announced on WBCP," she said. "And it focuses on issues that people care about like crime and employment. On top of that, it's very diverse and culturally sensitive."

J.W. Pirtle's brother, Marvarine Pirtle, said WBCP isn't just a black station, it's a community station.

"Twenty years from now, no one will know anything about the station," Marvarine Pirtle said. "If they would name a street after the radio station, all the young people could think about the legacy."

City council member Will Kyles said it was an honor to vote yes on the honorary designation.

"To have such a historic piece that has affected all communities and all backgrounds," he said. "It's from my standpoint an honor and privilege to be able to support this initiative."

In other business:

— Council members voted to continue planning the downtown plaza project, but it was a close call, with Kyles, Matthew Gladney and Alicia Beck in opposition.

The biggest issue they cited was availability of disabled parking, as well as funding, which is not secured. They also voiced a desire to wait and see what other projects in development will do to downtown.

"Quite frankly, we're not good at accessibility," Beck said. "We also need to plan it so that it will be not just for middle-class white people, and we don't want just middle-class white people coming to our plaza. We want our entire community to be there."

Champaign resident Tonya Weatherly, who spoke during the public-comment period, said the plan may be beautiful, but it's not thinking about people like her.

"Where do I fit in as the poor, struggling single mom that won't ever get to visit this nice area?" she asked. "By the time you get it fixed up fancy, I won't be able to even afford to go there. They talk about renovating this area, while blocks away, people are getting killed."

Gladney said the project's five-minute walking radius may be acceptable for some, "but that's a place of privilege to be able to say it's accessible. There are folks with mobility issues. I feel callous to say to them, 'Oh, you'll be fine, it's just a five-minute walk.'"

Council member Clarissa Nickerson-Fourman, who was not at the meeting, previously told The News-Gazette that she opposes the plan.

"I have concerns that we keep making all these changes to downtown — no loitering in parking lots — but then we turn around and create a place for people to loiter" she said. "I also get a lot of calls about broken windows and damage with the parking lot there. What will happen when there are festivals? I have concerns. I am against the plaza."

But council member Tom Bruno said he doesn't see how the space discriminates against anyone.

"I didn't see anything about this that's going to be discriminatory of certain economic or cultural backgrounds," he said. "You don't need to bring your credit card to enjoy the space. You don't need to pay anyone to go there. If we're frozen in place because some places need parking spaces right up to the door, that won't be good for the community in the long term."