1690/WMLB-AM 'Voice of the Arts' shutting down after 21 years

Posted Friday, May 4, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Joe Weber has decided to shut down his sublimely eclectic AM music station WMLB before the end of the month after 21 years on the air.

The lease for his Midtown studios is up later this month so he decided this was a good time to close the doors on the station he dubbed "The Voice of the Arts." He didn't cite a specific shut-down date but on-air personalities said the final hosted shows will air Sunday May 13.

WMLB started at 1190 in 1997 before moving up the dial in 2006 to 1690, a signal which he purchased for $12 million. Weber, 73, who was a successful bakery supply company owner in his younger days, said the media world shifted around him and made it impossible for him to make any money on the AM dial with two stations.

"The stations," he said in an interview today, "were never profitable. My timing was akin to a man who bought two state-of-the-art buggy whip manufacturing facilities in 1914... Once the iPod and the iPhone were out, people had so many other ways to get music and entertainment."

On Weber's shows, he would infuse bird calls, poetry and famous speeches between Bob Dylan and Ella Fitzgerald songs. "I was most proud of the readings I did," he said, like excerpts from books by Flannery O'Connor. The station's current jocks including Larry Larson, Stephen Key and John Lemley to this day are free to create their own music shows as if it were a college radio station. But in recent years, it became a dinosaur in a Spotify/Pandora world where hardly anybody listens to low-fidelity AM.

"It was never about appealing to a certain demographic or target audience," said Mike Rose, who worked for a time with Weber in its first iteration at 1190. "This was just stuff he liked and his friends liked. He wanted a venue for it. He didn't want to lose money but money wasn't the primary motivator."

Larson, the morning host, worked with Weber for 15 years. "I was given the freedom to combine music from various genres including the rock-n-roll classics I loved... combined with the theater pieces and original comedy sketches that Joe and I did together," he wrote via Facebook Messenger, noting it made it a "natural extension to my work as an actor and playwright. I will miss putting the shows together and enjoyed doing them as much as the audience enjoyed listening."

Brandon Bush, who has done a weekly Tuesday evening show for the station for years, said he just taped his final two WMLB shows today from the road touring with Sugarland in Oklahoma. "It's very sad news," he said in a phone interview today. "The station was such a gem. I've done entire Beatles albums but just covers. I did Grammy showcases focused on lesser-known nominations. I followed my whims. It's been a blast. The biggest part of radio is personality, something you can't get off Spotify."

Weber recently sold a second news/talk station 1160/WCFO-AM for $750,000 to a religious broadcaster but is holding onto 1690. He still owns the tower (which has two other tenants) and will keep the radio license for now though the station will effectively go dark the studios are closed.

"I went in with my eyes wide open," Weber said frankly, "but I didn't expect to take such a beating. I knew I could afford to lose whatever I invested. But it was not a good feeling to take such a bath financially. I really felt stupid."

"We all pay for our hubris," he added. "Just because you did great in one business doesn't mean you can repeat it in another. I went in fairly deeply with very little understanding of the significance of how AM worked and how the world was changing. If I was maybe 30 years younger, I wouldn't have made the move."

Weber left Atlanta for Beverly Hills three years ago after his wife passed. "After she died," he said, "I didn't have much appetite to do a show anymore or invest emotion or energy into the station."

Explore RELATED: Our 2008 profile of WMLB by Drew Jubera

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