From “Throwaway Day” to Community Staple: WBRU360 in Providence

As WBRU features Black artists in the Revolutionary Roots series, read about the 50-year history of WBRU360 and its relationship with Providence's Black community.

Updated Aug. 17 at 5:56 p.m.

Sunday is, historically, the worst day in radio.

But when WBRU first began hosting “the 360° Black Experience in Sound” almost 50 years ago, on the day of the week with lowest listenership, the show beat radio at its own game by flourishing into a unique success and beloved local pillar in radio.

On Thanksgiving weekend in 1970, many students headed home to spend the holiday with their families. But Vincent Thomas ’73 had other ideas.

Thomas had just received clearance to oversee on the air programming on his own. And so, on Sunday, Nov. 29, from 3 to 7 p.m., he hosted the first semblance of the show which he would refer to as “Music for the People” — which he would officially name “the 360° Black Experience in Sound” two years later.

“I chose that weekend because I knew many people connected to WBRU would have gone home for Thanksgiving weekend and would not be around to make a fuss about discovering an all Black music program on the air in the daytime,” Thomas wrote in an email to WBRU.

He imagined Sunday would be a good time for himself as a student, and for his audience. But Thomas chose Sunday specifically “because I knew it was a throwaway day in many people’s minds.”

The freeform orientation of WBRU’s rock programming, which aimed to expose listeners to a wide variety of rock genres, allowed Thomas to almost camouflage the new show within the station’s existing format. His show, like others, subtly exposed listeners to many different forms of music through “the art of the segue” — but, unlike others, Thomas used this technique and style to spotlight Black music.

“The low-key presentation in the context of BRU’s rock format made the show work and made it somewhat unassailable to criticism,” he said. So instead of announcing that his show was different, he “kind of act(ed) like it was just part of the mix.”

Thomas’ format ploy meant that “if somebody said something about how I couldn’t play all this Black music … why aren’t you adhering to the format, I said, I am adhering to the format; that’s what BRU does. They just don’t play enough Black music.”

Transitioning between very different music types smoothly was both the challenge and the objective of the format: “How do you segue from a folk rock piece to the acid rock to … classical music?” Thomas’ show, while introducing and spotlighting Black music, was also “freeform; it was not an R&B show, it was not a jazz show, it was not a blues show,” but rather a combination and something more. The style struck a balance: “not jarring your audience musically, but really being wedded to the style of taking people on a musical journey, (where) normally if they just had their druthers, they wouldn’t go; that’s why they listen to you.”

And Thomas knew from the start that “they” did not only describe students — because listeners had so few options. “Your audience is not only going to be students, but it’s definitely gonna be anybody of African descent that lives within that signal range. They’re gonna hear about this show, and they have no other options but to tune into that.” Thomas, when he started the show, only knew of “one hour of Black music a week in Providence, Rhode Island,” on WICE from 9 to 10 p.m. Thomas scheduled his show in the afternoon instead, he added, because he was “not trying to have a show that’s so late at night, that it becomes untenable for people to remember to tune in every week.” So his show ran “not too early. And not too late.”

Thomas was right: His show gained listeners. “Having a four-hour Black music program on every week when you don’t have anything, you know, word of mouth happens very quickly,” he said. But, his show went further — as Thomas recalled, it also “developed a substantial white audience from the start.”

That community listenership guaranteed Thomas another viable defense against any internal detractors at WBRU.

Some began to raise questions about what his show was doing as early as March 1971, a few months after it first aired. Thomas could already defend his new show as technically adhering to WBRU’s musically varied program style. But since the Federal Communications Commission mandates that radio meet the needs of its audience as one of its requirements for renewing its license every three years, Thomas could make an additional argument: He could point out that his show served a portion of the public WBRU otherwise was not serving.

“You have the airwaves that belong to the public. And you have to tell … the FCC how you’re responding to the public,” Thomas explained.

At the time, Thomas’ defense was not unique within the context of Black media advocacy: “There was actually a Black advocacy movement that was specifically targeted toward the media,” Thomas said. In fact, in high school, Thomas had been active with a DC-based organization Black Efforts for Soul in Television (BEST). And much of BEST’s advocacy harnessed the FCC requirement that radio serve surrounding communities, Thomas explained.

In fact, even the eventual full name of 360 fit into the context of a broader movement. The name “the 360° Black Experience in Sound,” adopted in early 1972, was inspired by the name of Howard University’s WHUR station, where Thomas worked in December 1971.

Advocacy and activism paved the way for the foundation of the eventual 360 in another, more personal sense. Thomas noted that he was recruited to attend Brown at a time when the University had “a lot of recruitment going on” following the 1968 student walkout, when Black students at Brown demanded increased enrollment and financial support.

So, 360 “was born out of the civil rights movement; it was born out of the walkout — that’s why I was there in the first place,” Thomas said.

How early listeners perceived 360

Thomas was hardly the only person to observe how 360 coincided with the least profitable day in radio.

“Sundays, really, in radio was like a throwaway day,” echoed Terrell Osborne, the current community host of 360’s In the Spirit. “You want something? You can have Sunday.”

Osborne described his perception of 360 from his experience as a listener growing up, and later, as a host on Sunday mornings for the past 11 years. He said that while it started in a student radio context, 360 has always been and remains a station that the local community claims as their own. “Providence was like, well, that’s our station. The community just took ownership of it,” Osborne said.

360 “is the staple in Providence,” agreed DJ Franchise, a current DJ who has been involved on and off at 360 for 14 years.

Franchise has known about 360 as long as he can remember — in August 1992, his father, Lowell White, started In The Spirit. The program now hosted by Osborne is the most popular gospel show in southern New England.

Brown alum and Providence storyteller Valerie Tutson ’87 MA’90 remembered her sense of the special place 360 held in the campus conscience in the ’80s. She said she would often stay late at the office with a friend who worked on 360. The show was “the thing that everybody looked forward to on Sunday, when I was at Brown, as Black students,” she recalled of her time at Brown from 1983-1990.

From Tutson’s perspective, the show was born at a time when “there wasn’t as much separation between the Black students at Brown and the (local) Black community.” On an overwhelmingly white campus, “people were looking for Black … they got into the community because they needed a barber, they needed a hairdresser, they needed a church to go to, you know — that didn’t happen on the campus,” Tutson said.

It may have been precisely this community-student alignment of interests that allowed 360 to gain unique traction in Providence.

Starting with college parties at Brown, awareness of the station spread throughout the greater community. “It just was word of mouth,” Osborne explained. Once 360 first came on air, “everybody used to run home, put the radio on,” he remembered. “The whole community was just tuned in.”

And not just in Providence. Listeners from New Bedford, Newport and some parts of Boston tuned in as well – the original 95.5 FM WBRU signal had a wide reach.

“When 360 was created, it basically was serving the Black and brown communities of greater Rhode Island, like southern New England,” agreed 2018 360 Director Cristian Mendez.

Over time, 360’s hours on Sunday grew and grew, Osborne recalled. And as 360’s airtime increased, it became “a station that the whole community would listen to all day long.” Even if Providence locals listened to other stations during the rest of the week, Sundays were different. “People cook by it, clean by it, cookouts … every car you pass on a Sunday, especially in (one) neighborhood, we have that radio station on.”

360 offered “not just the genre but the depth of the genre” that was entirely unmatched, according to Osborne. DJs would not necessarily play hits, but personal favorites. “And that’s where they get the 360 from — because it was all different types of artists,” he added.

The content of 360 was and has always been “different,” Franchise contended.

Tutson also echoed Thomas in describing the uniqueness of what 360 had to offer at the time. “I know how important 360 was to the Black community here,” Tutson explained, “because there was no other Black radio around.”

A unique template in radio

Musical variety was not the only aspect of 360 that stood out. WBRU Board of Directors member Peter Litman stressed the uniqueness of 360 in the radio business landscape.

A commercial station targeted primarily at Black listeners would not generally develop in a radio market like Providence that is 6 percent Black, Litman said, noting that there are hardly any Providence-based media entities “that target (Black) audiences” specifically. Multiple Black-targeted stations would instead generally be found in radio “markets that are 30 or 40 percent Black” or higher, Litman added, citing examples such as Baltimore and Atlanta.

But 360’s roots were ideological, not commercial. And operating out of WBRU, it aimed to serve both its participating students and the surrounding community. This goal resulted in its distinctive profile.

“There was no other commercial alternative radio station of our scale that programmed the way that we did — having completely different music on Sunday,” Litman said. Rock programming was broadcast the other six days of the week on the same 95.5 FM as 360 on Sundays. Other stations would not typically adopt such a format because it would not serve their rock audience one day a week, and the different format opened WBRU up to competition for that audience on Sunday, Litman added.

Sunday-only programming made 360 a hard sell for advertisers, who wanted their messages to be heard by listeners multiple times, according to Litman. Despite the popularity of 360 and the appeal of its dedicated audience as potentially profitable, those advertisers — most of whom were national advertisers — who were targeting a Black audience “wouldn’t buy 360 because they couldn’t get the frequency they wanted.” So even though the show had a broad “reach,” listeners would not hear the commercial multiple times. Consequently, these advertisers would generally choose to advertise on outlets that could provide them with both reach and frequency for a Black audience, on stations in bigger cities than Providence.

Eventually, another aspect became a challenge in terms of both advertising and identity: the explicit inclusion of ‘Black’ in 360’s full name.

The 360 Bible (an internal handbook for the platform) quotes an email from the 360 assistant program director in 2008 describing concerns about 360’s right to claim to be the Black experience in sound. In the email, the APD noted that listeners weren’t just Black, the term might be “loaded,” and that “360 of 1972 is not 360 of 2008” in so far as Black “isn’t just niche culture anymore, it’s a fundamental part of American society.” The APD added that it was difficult for the sales team to define 360 and defend its authenticity to potential clients.

As a result, Black was removed from the 360 name in 2008-09, according to the 360 Bible. While an official trademark is technically still live for the original name “360° Black Experience in Sound,” other live trademarks include simply 360° and 360, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

There was a lot of people that was against that; like, half of the community was against it. But you know, they’re not voting members of the station,” Osborne recalled.

Having Black in the name was important, he added, because “little Black boys and girls (in Providence) have something to be proud of.”

Even after the name change, Sam Jones, who served as 360 APD in 2016, noted that “It’s unapologetically … about the Black experience,” Jones said. “Even if we weren’t called the Black experience, that was still what we were targeting.”

In 2017, co-APDs Kyle Tildon and Auriana Woods considered re-introducing ‘Black’ into the full 360 name.

But they ultimately decided against it, concluding similarly to the 2008 APD that “We can’t claim to be the Black experience in sound. You can’t just define what the Black experience in sound is; … there’s literally Black every type of music, and there’s no one Black experience,” Woods explained.

Still, beyond the name, “we were absolutely with the idea of claiming 360’s Blackness,” Woods added. “Absolutely. And that’s what we did in everything we did for 360.”

From 95.5 to 101.1

Since the release of the iPhone in 2007, “it all changed” for radio, Litman said, pinpointing this as the date the medium began to lose younger audiences to streaming precipitously.

Fewer and fewer people replace their radios when they break, or even buy them in the first place, Litman explained. “Even if you want to be in radio as a medium, whether you need to be in radio as a transmission technology seems less clear” — describing the dilemma that ultimately led WBRU to sell its signal for $5.63 million a decade after the 2007 inflection point, and transition to a largely digital platform.

Litman served as president of the board during the sale. While the move was deeply controversial for many WBRU alums, Litman said that selling the signal was the best way for WBRU to continue fulfilling its mission as a student media workshop. As he recalls one alum putting it: “If you had $5.63 million and you wanted to create a student media workshop, would you buy an FM station with it, or would you do other things?”

Woods and Tildon served as co-APDS on 360 during the year of the sale because “neither of us wanted to do it alone,” Woods explained.

The sale, she noted, had been a long time coming, but was tough for everyone involved. “No one wanted to do it; it was just an inevitable thing that had to happen.”

When 95.5 WBRU went off the air in late August — two months before the sale closed on Nov. 1 2017 — “we were all crying at the station,” Woods remembered.

But while Woods and Tildon were committed to the sale, they realized that 360 would need to move in a different direction than the rest of BRU. Because while most radio programming could technically, if push came to shove, be transferred online, one unique Sunday show broadcast on 360 would be physically unable to deliver to its audience digitally: The Gentle Touch.

The weekly show from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. provides sex- and love-themed music, as well as shoutouts from loved ones to people incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) — Rhode Island’s campus of prisons.

Current Gentle Touch DJ Mea Chiasson explained that the show is remarkable in that it provides a way for the loved ones of incarcerated people to directly communicate their support and affection.

Furthermore, on a practical level, calls are expensive and visiting can be difficult in prison. So “Gentle Touch is meant to be a free, consistent way that people can communicate,” Chiasson stressed.

“Having an internet-delivered radio station wasn’t really a huge compromise in terms of reaching young adults,” Litman noted. On the other hand, “It’s a big compromise reaching some other audiences, older people, and in the case of 360 … we have (one portion of the) audience that (is) incarcerated.”

The question, Litman said, was “how do we serve the incarcerated in Rhode Island” — who are “disproportionately Black and brown people,” reflecting the longstanding systemic bias endemic throughout the country.

Since people who are incarcerated in Rhode Island cannot access internet radio, traditional “radio was the only way to reach that audience,” Litman stated.

During the sale, everyone within WBRU knew that Gentle Touch had to continue on the air, rather than go digital. But the support for Gentle Touch started with the community, according to Mendez. “The audience happened first … that is why we (said) internally: We have to do this.”

Before serving as co-APD, Woods DJed for Gentle Touch herself. She described it as “definitely the cornerstone of our programming, and the thing we were most proud of, and the thing that felt the most important to maintain.”

Gentle Touch is the reason that 360 needs to be on air,” Chiasson confirmed. “It’s the only thing about 360 that, really, truly, can’t be online.”

Woods also stressed, however, that “every program has purpose” on 360’s Sunday. So even beyond Gentle Touch, to take 360 off the air on Sundays “felt against what 360 existed for.” But she agreed that Gentle Touch served as the “core rallying cry” — meaning that “if Gentle Touch wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have gotten back on the air; we wouldn’t have had the support.”

While everyone was united in transitioning Gentle Touch and 360 to a new signal, the question of how quickly it could be done weighed on Woods and Tildon. “It was so much to do, and we were really, like, fighting for it,” Woods explained.

Litman recalled exploring a myriad of possibilities — even setting up an old-school carrier-current AM signal within the Department of Corrections, which would have carried the signal the same way WBRU was once carried within Brown’s dorms. Unfortunately, “turns out this was not practical for the Rhode Island correctional department.”

Instead, the solution came in the form of a new, smaller signal — already licensed to another radio station on Brown’s campus.

Brown Student Radio (BSR) had long owned the license to 101.1 FM along with AS220 and Providence Community Radio, but lacked the funds to buy a transmitter to put the station on the air. BSR felt that carrying 360 was consistent with its mission, so Brown Broadcasting Service (BBS, WBRU’s parent corporation) and BSR struck a deal to put 101.1FM on the air. BBS bought the transmitter, and BSR has since chosen to air WBRU360 on Sunday through Tuesday.

Litman described the arrangement as analogous to “loan(ing) them our car”: BBS supplies the car, so to speak, while BSR operates under the license.

While the low-power, 100-watt signal does not reach as far as the 18,500-watt 95.5 did, it does reach inside the ACI in Warwick, which was the essential range.

“If the flip side of that coin is that, well, you know, the entirety of southern New England can no longer hear us, you know, if that’s the sacrifice for being able to put on a more community centered product for Providence — I mean, you take the good with the bad I guess,” Jones added.

“I could drive anywhere around Providence and hear (360 on 101.1), and that felt important,” Woods added.

But four months passed between when WBRU and WBRU360 went off 95.5 and when 360 came back on the air on 101.1 FM, in January 2018. In those months of negotiations, “Everyone was like, where is it?” We were promised it was going to continue.” This interim was “awful,” Litman recalled.

Osborne wasn’t informed that the sale had been finalized until after he had aired his last Sunday show on 95.5. While he managed to advertise the change via social media and bring most of his audience over to the new signal, he still lost some audience members.

And even once the new signal was established, Woods described some challenges, and a sense of instability. “It was like, we don’t even know how long we’re going to be able to be on this, or how many hours we’re going to be able to have; we technically don’t have any ownership in it,” Woods said.

“It was always definitely a kind of a fight to keep it alive,” she added.

Going digital, and moving forward

While 360 was able to stay on the radio for its older audience, especially for Gentle Touch, it also seized the sale as a chance to expand to a new, younger audience online.

Before the sale, “six days a week, the audience interested in hip hop and R&B didn’t have anything,” Litman said.

“I think the benefit of the sale for 360 was that 360 was able to reimagine itself in a way that it hadn’t necessarily been able to do prior,” Jones said.

Woods agreed. “360 had always kind of been siloed off from the rest of BRU in a lot of ways. People just never fully understood it,” she said.

But after the sale, “we were able to kind of grow our identity past BRU a little bit. We weren’t just a day of programming in rock scheduling; we were something that was expanding.” Woods added that the new signal “allowed us a lot of freedom, and it showed us how capable we were of being so much more than one day a week.”

360 was interested in building on the old, without sacrificing or altering its longstanding format. “We also wanted to introduce new music to that audience without interfering with the historic Sunday programming. So we instead put the programming on Monday and Tuesday,” Mendez said. “We were like okay, let’s make these days for the younger audience, which is college-age.”

Ultimately, the signal “was flourishing in a new home,” Woods said. “It was like repotting a plant and seeing it thrive.”

And within WBRU, she said that “it felt like 360 was being recognized as the star that it always was.”

Today, the station has many more community DJs on-air than it did immediately before the sale.

360 community DJs, over the years, have had to contend with the institutional challenge of a student organization’s turnover, according to Jones. “You had somebody who was in a position for one year, who would sort of come to terms with the position, begin to understand it and begin to put their sort of their fingerprints on it. And then they were done and they moved on, and then eventually they graduated.”

Woods added that community DJs are integral to 360’s Providence-rooted identity. “If we didn’t have community DJs on it, it would be nowhere near as authentic; it wouldn’t be 360,” she stressed. “We would just be a bunch of Brown students speaking over the air, thinking we were connected to the community.”

Instead, “360 as an entity doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to Brown. If anything, I am like, a passing factor. I’m coming in and out, I’ll be here for a year, but it’s always going to be in Providence — it’s always going to belong to the community.”

And as a consequence, “every decision we make …  we’re going to have to deal with it for the year that we’re in this position, but Providence is going to have to deal with it forever,” Woods added.

In some ways, 360 has not changed. “Physically, everything is still the same, down to the records on the wall,” Franchise said. He works all three days that 360 is on 101.1 FM today.

Digital “is kind of working” well, Osborne added, noting he has listeners “from Chicago from Florida from Texas from Atlanta from DC” now, thanks to the digital presence.

And “having multiple days is definitely a plus,” Franchise said, specifying that this expansion allows 360 to offer not just music, but “information.”

On the stream, “now we can actually tell people: Get out here and vote, or pay attention to this, or put your mask on,” he said.

But “the whole point of Sunday hasn’t been touched,” Franchise added.

Osborne’s work on Sundays has been and continues to be motivated by lifting up his audience. “Radio,” he said, “is a tool to try to raise somebody’s self-esteem and to inspire people to do what’s right.”

And in the future, 360 could expand even beyond where it has arrived today. As Franchise put it: “There’s still more growing we have to do.”

Note: This article was originally published July 31. Following internal concerns about accuracy and conflicting source accounts, the article was taken down Aug. 8 and updated Aug. 17 to include an additional source and clarifications.