The talk on the radio is about whether billboards plugging alcohol and liquor are bad influences on black kids:
"I was 13, back in '66, and saw billboards for Benson & Hedges. I had some money on me, so I thought I'd try that. I've been smoking ever since. Then, I heard John Wayne smoked. I smoked two or three a day, where I am now smoking a pack TC day," the caller says.
"God bless you," he adds.
"God bless you," host Nalonga Sayyed says.
Talk about shock radio. The man was allowed to make his point without interruption, and the man was blessed. Just where are we on the radio?
Nalonga Sayyed and Faraja Lewis are the hosts of "Sisters Circle," which airs Wednesdays at 6 p.m. on Morgan State University's WEAA-FM in Baltimore. An hour later, Richard Rowe and Eric El-Amin serve as hosts of "Dialogue with the African-American Male." The companion talk shows harmoniously hash out such subjects as racism and sexuality, while raising the occasional, boozy-billboard-like issue.
WEAA-FM (88.9) occupies Room 401 in the Banneker Communications Building on campus. The talk show booth is clean and lit. Black mod chairs and purple, sound-proofed walls jazz up the place. The public radio station has been around 17 years and was once the only black-owned and operated radio station in Baltimore. The Wednesday talk shows average about 24,000 listeners, who range in age from 18 to 54, station program director Lawrence Shorter says.
It's 30 minutes until the sisters circle on the last Wednesday in January. A bundled, motherly woman comes into the studio and takes her seat in front of the ENCOURAGE FIRST TIME CALLERS sign.
"I'm in my element. I get an hour to say 'Listen up' ", says Ms. Sayyed, who has been host of "Sisters Circle" for two years. She has worked on other talk shows on WEAA since 1988. The 41-year-old Baltimore native's day job is at Blue Cross & Blue Shield, where she's a customer service specialist.
The idea for "Sisters Circle" came to her in a dream, she says. Radio seems to be her spiritual outlet -- one of her life forces.
"I'm telling you -- we go," Ms. Sayyed says. "We are so strong. We are not just these mush-mush voices."
Ms. Sayyed's co-host is Faraja Lewis, a 34-year-old courthouse employee. She comes into the studio and hugs the host. "Oh, I've missed you, sister," Ms. Sayyed says. They saw each other last Wednesday.
Five minutes until air, the talk-show hosts need to find their "center." Both women close their eyes, say a prayer, and breathe deeply.
6 p.m. "It's a blessing to be here," Ms. Sayyed tells the audience. Her voice is like a pillow -- cushy and dreamy.
Tonight's radio guests are from a grass-roots group that wants companies to stop advertising liquor and cigarettes on billboards in Baltimore's low-income neighborhoods.
"We want to give African-Americans the chance to grow up not thinking they need alcohol or cigarettes for success," says Beverly Thomas of the Citywide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulations.
6:16 p.m. They take the first call. It's a man; most of their callers are men. "Women listen, but they are busy putting food on the table or mopping floors," Ms. Sayyed says, during a break.
Caller: "We no longer can continue these subliminal messages," he says, talking about the billboards. "They just reinforce the stereotypes: They always say we are animals -- we are always high. . . ."
"Sisters Circle" is rolling. Tonight reminds Ms. Sayyed of other shows she has liked, such as the hour spent last year asking listeners to share motherly sayings, such as "Be seen and not heard." That was a hoot, she says. They have also done many serious shows -- interviews with women in Bosnia, women in prison, abused women and black women who don't think black men like them.
In talk radio, one hour can seem like three hours when the subject, guest and host are dragging. But start talking about black men and black women and why they fuss and fight, and an hour can seem like 10 minutes, Ms. Sayyed says. Some men have criticized the show, she says, because relationships are a recurring subject.
"It doesn't mean we hate men. But most guys think that," she says.
6:37 p.m. Male caller: "I just called to salute you and your guests."
6:57 p.m. Three minutes left and time for the wind-up.
In their trademark sign-off, both women say together, "We're just a sister away!"
Richard Rowe, host of "Dialogue with the African-American Male," hustles into the studio and takes Ms. Sayyed's warm seat just minutes before air time. His co-host, Eric El-Amin joins him. By day the 39-year-old Baltimorean is a policy adviser with Baltimore's Health Department. Mr. Rowe, 42, is also director of Project RAISE, a mentoring program for young adults. They've been running this show for four years.
Two minutes before air, local authors Robert Selby and Avon Bellamy grab two studio seats and get acquainted. Mr. Selby has written a self-help book called "Dreams Are For . . .". Mr. Bellamy's "The Sweeter the Juice" is a book of poems in praise of black women.
7 p.m. Mr. Rowe opens the show by asking black men to consider a "blueprint plan" in the new year. "What should African-American men do this year different than last year?" he asks.
For starters, more of us should be mentors to young black men, Mr. Bellamy says.
"We should be asking, 'What is the state of our race?' Our personal dreams are dead," Mr. Selby says.
It's a good, quick start for Mr. Rowe's show. Like its female counterpart, "Dialogue" doesn't assault listeners, but gently explores issues such as racism, family responsibilities, empowerment and the perennial favorite -- male-female relationships. Both shows teamed last year for a two-hour special on the subject.
7:35 p.m. No calls yet. They take a break, and music by Miles Davis and Quincy Jones seeps into the studio.
7:40 p.m. Male caller: "Why take the whole program to talk about what the white man has done? Let's talk about our blueprint."
Another black male caller: "A lot of brothers are living by the wayside," he says. "The hippest thing we can do is to get a job." He mentions a button he has that reads, "The Blacker the College, the Sweeter the Knowledge." Smiles all around the studio.
Now, let's talk about family responsibility, Mr. Rowe says.
"For me, family was essential," says Mr. Bellamy. "If they don't have that family model, they are doomed."
7:50 p.m. Mr. El-Amin, ducks out a little early to get home to watch a PBS program on Malcolm X. Mr. Rowe gently drums on.
"The most revolutionary thing we can do as men is to form families," he says.
7:58 p.m. Two minutes left. More music from Miles plays underneath the wind-up.
"As always," Mr. Rowe says, "keep the faith."