Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Avant Garde Broadcasting

Much has been written about Clarence Avant. Much like Barry Gordy (another Motown alum) there's more than a little dirt on his shoes. The documentary Searching For Sugar Man all but accuses him of stealing all the royalties from a Sixto Rodrigez's gold record. More here. But that's the record biz. It has a certain reputation, and it has had that reputation for a long time. If you expect a sausage factory to make something other than sausage that my friend is an error in judgement.

I bring up Mr. Avant because he also dabbled in radio. In 1971, (shortly after Rodrigez's flopped in the US) Avant founded Avant Garde Broadcasting. Two years later, his company bought 103.9 KTYM-FM in Inglewood, CA from Trans America Broadcasting. The license cost $321k which in today's dollars is more like1.6 million.  Avant renamed that station KAGB. It was the first African-American owned FM radio station in the Los Angeles metro.  But Avant Garde never turned a profit...

But the money situation looked dubious from the start. Avant started with a 200k promissory note from the Urban National Corporation of Boston.  Even though it too was founded in 1971 that company seems to have been on the up and up. It was capitalized to 10 million dollars via investments from Yale and Harvard Universities, insurance giants like John Hancock, Aetna and Prudential Insurance Co., J.P. Morgan & Co., and both Mobil and Gulf Oil. Even Bill Cosby invested in Avant. Avant hired Del Shields to run his company.

None of the press on Avent's move mentioned that KYFM was already the first black music station in LA. It had been playing black music programming since 1961. The OM Charles (Chuck) Johnson and the PD  Lonnie Cook were also black so they had the first black programming staff as well. Chuck and Lonnie were form KPRS in Kansas City. The station had one lone white DJ: Ron Johnson.

But in 1975 the curtain came down. Urban National pushed Avant into bankruptcy proceedings.  Avant owned Urban around 400k, and another 600k to Clarence Avant. His own independent record label Sussex lost  another $13k in private loans to Avant Garde. Bill Cosby was burned for 200k. Ouch. Football player Willie Davis bought the station and renamed it KACE. The urban format remained as did those calls for another 30 years. Willie flipped the station to Urban Oldies in 1993 and the calls to KAEV. Shortly afterward he sold out to Cox.

The KTYM calls today still live on 1460 AM which with some irony I note is still owned by  Trans America Broadcasting. Johnson and Cook remained a team after the sale to Avant and moved on to KAPP-FM and had more success with an early Top 40 format.


  1. Do not leave it to me to provide a full dissertation of who was right and who's wrong regarding activities associated with Clarence Avant and the Sixto Rodriquez record sales or his involvement in radio. However, your conclusions based on a less than adequate investigation and remarks from people subjected to extreme informational censorship in South Africa in the documentary SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN seam paltry at best and borders of defaming the Sussex Records owner. It inadvertently and/or intentionally masks a racial deception at a time that white supremacy played a major role in controlling all levels of communicative activity including commerce in both the US and South Africa. Other than a figurehead as label chief exec, Avant had little to no authority regarding the distribution matrix for selling records. Sussex Music if paid, does not reflect that it belonged to Clarence Avant. His publishing arm was Interior Music. There were and still are simply too many hands in that pot entitled record distribution and if your hand is not up in front, and I doubt either Berry Gordy with Motown or Clarence Avant at Sussex was, any thing beyond that is merely speculative assumption. Sussex never had the promotional department or budget to promote anyone other than possibly Bill Withers. The money lost in the Radio venture was chump change and only drew attention to Avant's lack of interest in actually being a true broadcast owner, and the liability of being a control freak in something you know little about.
    He was not the head of Motown Records at a pinnacle of its prestigious era but at arguably it. However, it all helps the South Africans tell a good Rodriguez story, which itself was plagued by the fact that in the late 60s and 70s you had no one that had an interest in white controlled racist broadcasting to align themselves with a Mexican-Native American named Rodriguez. As far as the US he was before his time, and as far as South Africa was concerned, no one outside was paying attention to what the young (white) Afrikaners thought about their apartheid government's practices. They unfortunately were seen as being a part of the 4 million represented by their government oppressors out of the 31 million population of mostly black South Africans. No one outside knew that they did not endorse the government's brutal conduct and restrictions placed on the majority. Nor do the photos indicate that Rodrigueze's music was popular among the blacks, which was another problem in keeping his popularity and whatever financial success local and insulated to South Africa.

  2. I am Lonnie Cook, the one that was PD at 103.9 FM in 1962. Some of the info above is incorrect. I discuss some of it on my Facebook page: and on The Doo Wop Hall of fame page: