A Life Remembered | 'The soul of the twin cities'


Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — At the time, there wasn't another radio station like it anywhere east of the Mississippi — African-American-owned and operated, giving a voice to the local black community.

WBCP 1580-AM, aka "the soul of the twin cities," was launched in 1989 and named after the initials of its three founders — J.W. Pirtle, Vernon Barkstall and Lonnie Clark.

"Minority people in Champaign County haven't had something they can really put their hands on and say, 'This is a part of our community,' and yet they can do that with WBCP because it's been here for 28 years," Pirtle said upon his retirement last year.

Mr. Pirtle, the station's last surviving founder, died Saturday at his home. He was 87.

Much more than a media pioneer, Mr. Pirtle played baseball in the Negro Leagues, served in the Korean War, sat on the Champaign City Council, owned a gas station for eight years and, at times, ran a cab company and a restaurant and bar.

But he was probably best known locally for helping launch a historic radio station, converting it from a country-western music format to one of urban, contemporary music and gospel.

Carletta Donaldson had family connections with the Pirtles, but got to know him best as an intern at WBCP. She still sells ads on contract.

"His drive, his initiative to go ahead with the station and keep it together 30 years, that really says a lot about him," she said.

Mike Haile, vice president of News-Gazette Media and general manager of WDWS/WHMS/WKIO, was also a close friend.

"I was very blessed to have the opportunity to be a sounding board for him," Haile said.

"His vision for wanting to have an African-American radio station was so important. He could have walked away from it, he could have cashed it in, but he didn't. He continued to provide a great service for this community."

Some of that was personal sacrifice, Haile added. "He and Lonnie and Vern were a great trio that put a lot of their own money into this to make it fly."

Donaldson also noted American Legion Post 559's "Salute Our Veterans" event in May singled out Mr. Pirtle for his Korean War service.

The former city council member has a street named in his honor, a section of North Fourth between East Tremont and East Grove, west of Douglass Park.

In that area, Mr. Pirtle had owned several businesses.

"I would say radio is probably my favorite one. Second in line is the Central Cab Company," he once told The News-Gazette. "I like music."

With his long experience in business, Mr. Pirtle mentored Seon Williams of Williams Memorial Services.

When Williams decided to open a barbershop, Mr. Pirtle told him, "Seon, we'll get you in business."

"That's what started our friendship, and he's been a big, big part of my life," Williams said.

The mentorship continued even to this month at Sam's Cafe in downtown Champaign, Mr. Pirtle's breakfast spot of choice.

"We had breakfast, and he insisted on paying my bill," Williams said.

"He was stern, warm-hearted," Williams said. "He was a wealth of information about the city of Champaign and the African-American community."

As of Sunday, funeral arrangements remained incomplete.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).