Exclusive: John Lemley moves City Cafe to 1690/WMLB-AM from 90.1/WABE-FM

By RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com, originally filed January 21, 2015

John Lemley, who hosted City Cafe on 90.1/WABE-FM for six years, is moving his show to eclectic AM station 1690/WMLB "Voice of the Arts."

The show will be expanded to two hours from noon to 2 p.m. starting Feb. 2.

Lemley effectively lost his hosting job when WABE decided to go to news/talk during mid days. That format shift began January 12.

Longtime AM 1690 WMLB midday host Stephen Key will be moving from his current noon to 2

p.m. timeslot to 10 a.m. to noon, a time period that has been going without a jock.

Lemley spent 18 years at WABE, hosting a variety of shows. His City Cafe, which began in 2009, featured a mix of classical music and features stories and interviews with the likes of Joan Rivers, Richard Chamberlain and Barry Manilow.

The new show on WMLB will enable Lemley to broaden his music mix to go beyond traditional  classical. (Lemley was able to arrange a modest licensing agreement with WABE to keep using the City Cafe name.)

"It's not every day someone of his caliber comes along," said Jeff Davis, general manager for Voice of the Arts. "He's going to bring substantial audience. He's going to be a real magnet for advertisers. His eclectic music tastes will fit in with our audience. It's win-win for everyone."

Davis said Lemley will have license to play anything he wants. "We're not that tightly formatted and that's what people enjoy," he said.

Lemley, 47,  said he will expand his musical palate on his show a bit though this doesn't mean acid jazz or One Direction will suddenly pop up on his playlist.

"It will continue to be excerpts, movements,' he said, "but a little lighter. " Citing Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," he will use the quote " If music be the food of love, play on," as inspiration.

"Overall, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I hope it will be relaxed elegance," he said.

WMLB, which started in 2004 at AM 1160 but moved to 1690 in 2006, is known for playing a wide variety of music in a way that isn't quite comparable to anything else on the AM or FM airways though it tends to skew a bit on the older side. In the last hour, the station played Elvis Presley, the Mighty Sparrow, Tony Bennett, Merle Haggard, Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong. Other acts heard earlier today: Wilco, Neko Case, Loudon Wainwright III, Patsy Cline, Duane Allman, B.B. King, My Morning Jacket and Gene Autry. Comedy clips, famous speeches, even bird calls are interspersed throughout, cementing the station's quirky reputation.

It's owned by a single person Joe Weber, not a major media corporation. Years ago, I said the station was kind of like Weber's personal iPod writ large.

WMLB has a much smaller audience than WABE and is at an automatic disadvantage as a music station on the increasingly marginalized AM dial. The station often doesn't even show up in the Nielsen Audio ratings while WABE can draw upwards of 500,000 listeners a week. But you can listen to Voice of the Arts on its own app, the TuneIn app or off its website.  And its small but dedicated crew of fans really love the station.

Lemley acknowledges WMLB's disadvantages but given how people consume radio now, "a weaker signal doesn't matter as much in 2015 as it did even ten years ago."

He also said marketing is easier now than it was 10 years ago thanks to social media. He even got to keep the City Cafe Facebook page, which has 1,638 likes.

Lemley will be working with them on a contract basis for a relatively modest wage, he said. "When they set out their fiscal year, they weren't planning with me in mind."

He will also continue to sub in for Rob Stadler as the news guy on Star 94.

His partner Mike is a regional food manager for various local country clubs so he will be okay for now. "We're not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination but we have a buffer,' he said. "He's committed to me following my passion as far as I can."

And despite the sadness of losing his job at WABE and having to leave Lois Reitzes, his mentor and hero, he is happy to have found a new home. "At first, my heart dropped and there was a moment of panic," he said. "Very quickly, there was a voice in my head that said this might be a good opportunity for a change of pace."

He thought of new potential homes for City Cafe and thought WMLB would be a good place. Davis at the station agreed and they were able to hammer out an agreement.

List of Atlanta radio stations

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.