At the intersection of Coxe and Patton avenues in downtown Asheville, a set of speakers broadcasts a healthy menu of music—from Motown to jazz to blues and gospel—while a DJ waves at passers-by from behind the glass.
The man behind the window is John Hayes, the head of WRES-FM, “The Urban Sounds of Asheville.” For three years, the station has been combining an unlikely mix of music with a push to educate the community about things like finances, health and housing.
Hayes, who wears many hats, has been doing radio for most of his life, and he manages to blend that passion with a mission to bring local people and nonprofits together. When he’s in the studio, he laughs often, cuts in on songs to sing along on the air and, of course, waves frequently to those on the sidewalk.
“Can I tell you? I really love what I’m doing,” he says. “When I’m on the air, it is not a task.” Here’s what else he has to say:
Mountain Xpress: What’s the idea behind the station?
John Hayes: What a public radio station is supposed to be about is information. There are services out there in the community that need a way to get their information out there about the service they provide. You ought to be able to start a business, buy a home, no matter what your income. There are programs out there that if you knew about them, you’d know what you needed to do to move up. First, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service [now OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling]. People don’t realize the value of credit until they go out there and try to get some and can’t get it. The access to wealth in America really begins with credit. At WRES, we’re about empowering people of low wealth, providing them the information they need in order to be successful. That was our intention, to get people from depending on somebody doing for you what you ought to be doing for yourself.
What about the music on the station?
Music is just a way of drawing people over, so they listen to WRES, and the reason for the music being what it is: Motown, etc. And very little contemporary music and hip-hop, because of the language. … We’re finding out there’s enough negatives out there.
You play a pretty big mix of eras and styles. Does that reflect your tastes?
The announcers here are young men that I worked with at WBMU-FM. We put together the mix and so forth. I would say 51 percent is my choice.
When we hear that 51 percent, what are we hearing?
You gonna hear the Eagles! (Laughs.) Who, to me, is the greatest group ever. I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t care what they think about the Beatles—it matters not. The greatest group. Like “Take It to the Limit.” We still want to take it to the limit, don’t we? Age has nothing to do with taking it to the limit. The other one is “Lyin’ Eyes.” And if you think women aren’t still looking for that person who can give them the most money, then ask that one of the Beatles whose wife just left him and said it wasn’t about the money: She’s telling a lie! She knows good and well! (Laughs.) Now see how relevant the Eagles’ songs are? Whether it’s “Hotel California,” whatever, it still has relevancy today.
What else do you play?
I love music. Because of my mother, I have a wide range of loves. And then there are messages from the Motown era that I try to keep throughout. There are songs today with messages that uplift you. They cross barriers and racial lines. I have a Latino mix, and I have a lot of Latino listeners, and they tell me, because they recognize my voice when I’m shopping. That’s why I don’t think we should all be locked into cookie-cutter music. Like at some big stations, the jocks don’t have any say-so about what they play: It’s already listed for them. My jocks can bring their own music in, and they do.
What reaction do you get from people while sitting in your window?
I love people. You can tell when they are listening. They get those wave-outs, they get those horns blowing. That’s the joy. There are people who say I’ve been having too much fun, but again, that’s the way I am.
Sometimes you take over the mic while songs are playing. Is that something you just decided to do one day?
That is a part of my personality—I’ve always done it. Before I was free to do it like I can do it now, the station managers used to be quite upset. But that’s just me.
How do you keep the station commercial-free?
The only thing we can have are underwriters, and we have a limited number, because we believe … we get entrepreneurs, most of the people that you hear underwriting are entrepreneurs, and they are starting off their business. They have a rate that is completely tax-deductible. That leaves us more time for the music and et cetera.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Birmingham originally, by way of Los Angeles. But Birmingham is where my love of radio started. I would hang around the radio stations in the area. But California is where I can say the technical side of it began to show. I was in a segregated school in Birmingham, and then when I got to California, I was at Fremont High School, and there you got audio/video courses. Little black schools don’t have anything like that.
Then, when I was in the service, I was also a radio operator, when I was in the 82nd. I was the commander’s driver. So that gave me some more expertise. Winston-Salem is where I had my first radio show. Well, would you know the first time I opened up a mic, I hit a high D? I was way up. Oh! That first time I opened up that mic, everybody’s rolling on the floor. But pretty soon you develop that personality.
Apart from your radio personality, what are your other roles in the community?
I’m president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP. I’m founder and director of the Hillcrest Enrichment Program. I’m also an associate elder at the Sycamore Temple Church of God and Christ. And a member of several boards, but I guess the one I cherish the most is the work that I do with Mountain Housing Opportunities. Scott Dedman is the director over there, and the fact is, he is my mentor.
Do you ever find yourself stuck when you’re trying to talk on the mic?
No. (Laughs.) Because if I mess up, I don’t find any reason not to laugh at myself. And I try to tell young people that. They are so serious. If I mess up, it’s already out there, so you just reach back and enjoy, and people will forgive you and forget it more quickly than if you try to dress it up and come back or whatever. Just go ahead and say, “Whoops, I messed that up, didn’t I?” And then go right ahead. Plus the fact I want people to know I am human. I will never make a million dollars or two million dollars to be in here. That’s not what public radio is about.
[WRES is at 100.7 on the FM dial. The station is currently in the middle of its annual fundraiser. To contribute, write to: WRES, P.O. Box 7495, Asheville NC 28802.]