By branding its programming appeal as urban, independent and family-owned WADL-TV has made it a channel to watch on several levels
By Jim McFarlin
In the beginning was The Word. No, wait, that’s not completely accurate. Long before The Word — The Word Network, that is, the Southfield-based urban ministry and gospel music satellite and cable channel seen worldwide by more than 55 million viewers weekly — there was WADL-TV, southeast Michigan’s long moribund Channel 38, home of … well, nothing much, actually.
Both the UHF station and the global network are owned by Detroit’s Adell Broadcasting, one of the last of the true video independents. While the station, officially licensed to Mount Clemens, has been on the air since May 1989 and boasts a 5 million-watt signal that’s the most powerful in the state, even owner Kevin Adell admits, “as recently as a year ago, most people in Detroit didn’t know what WADL was.” That anonymity is rapidly disappearing, however, in part because The Word helped inspire an almost Lazarus-like resurrection in WADL’s programming profile.
The new direction is such a seeming no-brainer that it’s surprising the option was still available to Adell and his company president and general manager, longtime Channel 7 (WXYZ-TV) executive Lewis Gibbs. According to Nielsen research, Detroit’s nearly 400,000 African-American households make it the nation’s seventh-largest market in that demographic. Studies show that African-Americans watch proportionately more television than any other group. So last fall, WADL reinvented itself as “Detroit’s Urban TV Station,” offering a wildly diverse mix of programs ranging from Word Network Christian evangelists during the day to reruns of cable’s bawdy Chappelle’s Show on weekends.
There’s a daily 4 p.m. local dance show, D-Party, that’s reminiscent of Detroit’s ’80s TV soul-shaker, The Scene. The prime-time lineup features such classic black sitcoms as The Jeffersons, Good Times, Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Joe Dumars’ favorite show, Sanford and Son. WADL is adding more contemporary series next fall, MTV’s Cribs and Pimp My Ride among them, and developing original talk shows with such local personalities as Frankie Darcell and Mildred Gaddis and NAACP Detroit branch president Rev. Wendell Anthony. They’ve even got a regular segment called Two Minutes With the Mayor showcasing Mayor Kilpatrick, a spot that could be must-see TV in months to come.
“Isn’t this exciting?” gushes Adell, a youthful, ebullient 41-year-old who helped lay the foundation for the family-owned station his late father, Frank Adell, created. “There’s only seven stations in the market and six of them are basically public companies. They wouldn’t do a station that’s urban because they all have network affiliations and they have to allow so many hours for network programming. There are 1,600 [UHF] stations in the country, and if you go into any market and close your eyes, they’re basically all the same. There’s an NBC affiliate, ABC, CBS. We’re unique because we’re an urban station in an urban market. This wouldn’t fit well in Nebraska. It wouldn’t fit in Chicago, because it’s too diverse, or L.A., but it fits well in Detroit.
“You’ve got to find a niche, find something that the other stations aren’t going to want to compete with, and then you’ve got to be the best in your niche,” Adell says. “We got the chance to re-brand ourselves, which is very unusual in television these days.”
Market analysts are taking a wait-and-see approach as to how much of Detroit’s $374 million annual advertising pool WADL can capture, but few can argue with the logic of its concept. “For this market, a station taking a targeted approach like this, it’s brilliant,” says Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts vice president of Industry Relations Dick Kernen. “I can see them becoming very successful.”
Yet it nearly didn’t happen. Adell was prepared to relocate permanently to his vacation home in Florida with his wife, former Detroit TV reporter Joelle Lukasiewicz, and their 2-year-old daughter, when Joelle encouraged him not to abandon his birthright. “It’s hard to walk away from a business that has your family name attached to it,” he says. “This is a lot of history, a lot of heritage. And you know, I love it here.”