In a corner of WADL-TV/Channel 38 owner Kevin Adell's cavernous office — more a museum-quality display room of local broadcast history — sits a gleaming orange Vespa motor scooter, obviously vintage. Adell says he outbid Kid Rock for the bike at an auction, and is happy to recount the blow-by-blow details.
Suddenly he turns to Lewis Gibbs, his station president and general manager, and grins. "Remember when I took it for a spin down the hallway?" he says. "Everyone was freaking out."
Gibbs responds with a rueful smile, shaking his head. "For the safety of all the employees," he declares, "we got together and took the battery out!"
These are lighthearted, fun days at WADL, maybe for the first time since Adell's father, the late Frank Adell, launched the independent UHF station out of a Mount Clemens house trailer this month in 1989. Despite a 5 million-watt signal that's easily the most powerful in the state, WADL has for most of its history been the very definition of a media wasteland, a virtually unnoticed black hole of home shopping mumbo-jumbo and infomercial drivel. Operated expressly for profit, Channel 38 ran on the strength of Frank's memorable credo. "I'm like Consolidated Freightways," he once said. "If you've got the money, I'll carry you."
Last fall, however, the sleeping giant of Detroit TV bolted to life, claiming its identity as if awakened from a long communication coma. With a striking new red-white-and-black logo and a massive advertising blitz on freeway billboards, shrink-wrapped company vehicles and People Mover trains — even covering the outside of its 24,000-square-foot Mount Clemens complex with huge images of its programs' stars — WADL has re-branded itself as "Detroit's Urban Television Station," catering specifically to 18- to 49-year-old African-American viewers in southeast Michigan.
During the day it airs wall-to-wall religious programming: gospel music concerts and urban ministers, many borrowed from The Word Network, the worldwide Christian satellite and cable channel based in Southfield that Adell Broadcasting also owns and Gibbs manages, and which is seen by more than 55 million viewers weekly. Nighttime is a pastiche of classic black-oriented sitcoms (Fresh Prince of Bel Air at 8 p.m., Good Times, Sanford and Son, Benson, The Jeffersons), and action hours like In the Heat of the Night and The A-Team (Mr. T returns!). For late-night weekends, the station snagged reruns of cable's raunchy Chappelle's Show, thus running the complete gamut from heaven to hell.
"Even a year ago, people didn't know what WADL was," concedes Kevin Adell, an ebullient 41-year-old who literally laid the foundation — and hauled many of the bricks — for his family's broadcast property. "Today, if you're African-American, you know what ADL is, because your favorite shows are there. You look at the bad economy, then you look at shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons and you remember those were better times back then. People like going back and seeing the old shows. You don't need full digital cable to watch them, you just need a TV, and they're evergreens."
There's a 4 p.m. weekday dance show, D-Party, hosted by WJLB-FM personalities Bigg Dogg Blast and Sunshyne and recorded at the Plan B nightclub downtown, which evokes torso-twisting memories of Channel 62's notorious dance hour of the '80s, The Scene. Talk shows have been mounted starring local radio talents Mildred Gaddis and Frankie Darcell as well as NAACP Detroit branch president the Rev. Wendell Anthony. A locally produced sketch comedy series, Switch Play TV, airs Saturdays. There's even a standing segment called Two Minutes With the Mayor featuring Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which could prove valuable as Hizzoner begins training for his next career.
But as they used to say on WADL's infomercials, wait, there's more. Adell has picked up old-timers Room 222 and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids for this fall, alongside cutting-edge cable entries Pimp My Ride and MTV Cribs, as the urbanization of Channel 38 intensifies.
"I'm going to run Pimp My Ride and Cribs in prime time, right after Fresh Prince," Adell says. "Now if the other stations were going to run them, they'd air them at 2 in the morning! I got the syndicators to give me these shows because they believe in what we're trying to do here."
Adell is banking on fairly solid statistics to support his strategy. Detroit has nearly 400,000 African-American households, making it the nation's seventh largest (not 10th or 11th, if you counted everybody) media market. And research studies have consistently shown that blacks watch TV longer and more frequently than any other demographic group.
"Timing is everything," Adell says. "And I'm a cautious businessperson. I travel with the yellow light flashing. If there were eight stations in the market, somebody else might be competing with the same programming. But there are only seven, and I know the other six are not going to make a run at us. They can't.
"[Channels] 20 and 50 turned their backs on the African-American community after they got their networks established, and the others have major network commitments. The beautiful part is, we are the home office. We can make all changes and decisions right here."
Adell admits he's negotiating to acquire a FM radio station on which to cross-promote WADL-TV. We're talking empire building here, which can give way to bursts of hyperbole. "If someone in Detroit has an idea for a television show, bring it to us, let's talk about it," he says. "That's how Motown got started, with the talent from the streets and the neighborhoods. We want to be the Motown of television."Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]