Loud 102.3 FM Raises the Volume

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – At a time when most radio stations are relying more on pre-recorded programming, Loud 102.3-FM is taking the opposite approach.

The Youngstown-based hip-hop station fills most of its time slots with local personalities, and keeps boots on the ground with local appearances that make it a trusted friend to listeners.

As of last summer, its ownership team is also mostly local. The station is now headed by Charles Colvin, a.k.a DJ Chip Banks, whose role expanded when the other managing owner, Pat Cerullo of Reading, Pa., sold back his share.

Loud-FM went on the air in 2019, becoming the Mahoning Valley’s first hip-hop station. It has six employees, including program manager Gabe Carrillo. Its studio is located on the ground floor of Amedia Tower, downtown.

The team of local show hosts includes Vel, Justin Luvv, DJ Maze Faze and Colvin himself. There are also some syndicated shows, including DeDe in the Morning and DJ Grooves, who is actually Cerullo, the former co-owner.

Loud 102.3’s call letters are WLOA, which is licensed in Farrell, Pa. It’s airwave footprint encompasses the Youngstown, Warren and Sharon areas, spilling beyond the urban areas on both sides of the state line by another 20 miles or so. It also can be listened to online at Loud1023.com.

Colvin, a Youngstown native who started as a club DJ before becoming an on-air show host at another local radio station, is the lead sales executive for Loud, while Carrillo oversees programming and daily operations.

“When it comes to day-to-day management, I am here and Gabe is here, and we are tied at the hip when it comes what we do in this market,” Colvin says.

Loud has already carved out some signature annual events that it produces, including the annual Juneteenth celebration, backpack giveaways with school supplies, Halloween trunk or treating, and health information.

Hip-hop became an established radio format in just the past few years, and Loud now has several competitors in the market – including Real 95.9-FM which is owned by industry heavyweight iHeartMedia Inc.

Colvin enjoys the competition, smiling when he speaks of this rare opportunity to build a new station.

“This is one of my most exciting ventures,” he says. “I wanted to be able to sit at the table on an ownership level, and curate the plans for the future.”

Colvin and staff are developing several new community initiatives and events to drive home their live and local approach. The other side of their strategy is having local jocks who talk about issues that matter to listeners, be they urban or suburban.

“This is how we became the area’s favorite,” Covin says. “We are not flooding the airwaves with [pre-recorded] programming from Lord knows where. It’s hyper-local, and we are showing up in the community, doing giveaways, supporting families for the holidays. The community can feel our presence here. We’re not just broadcasting and grabbing dollars.”

Colvin adds that his staff builds similarly close ties with advertisers. “We know them personally and support their businesses,” he says.

While Loud seems to be bucking the industry trend, Colvin says it’s the only way for a startup to get entrenched in the market.

“Even those stations that [are now using off-site recorded programming] started with a local presence,” he says. “Think about car dealerships. To have local talent talking about you [on the air] goes a long way.”

In radio, the measure of success is in sales and the number of listeners is typically determined by the ratings services. But director Carrillo says results can be seen in other ways.

A California native who has been a program director in Milwaukee, upstate New York, Vermont, and most recently, Canton, Carrillo says the Youngstown-Warren-Sharon market is a unique opportunity.

“The challenges are the fun part,” he says. “Youngstown is not a flooded market. We have a small core of stations that are strong. Loud is uniquely positioned among them and has people with a great diversity of radio experience.”

He admits there are “growing pains” associated with competing against bigger stations that offer lower advertising rates. “But we have a great ability to connect with our audience in a way our competition can’t,” he said.

Carrillo doesn’t rely solely on the Nielsen books to prove his station’s commercial viability.

“I know that’s a default statement if your ratings aren’t good,” he says. “But the reality is that the ratings are also a business. You spend $15,000 a year to be told that you are the fifth- or sixth-best, or maybe the best station in the market… We do deal with [advertising sales] agencies and they love those numbers. But Chip has done a great job leading the charge, making sure everyone on the team is rooted in our advertisers.”

He likes Loud’s position in the market and sees an even better future.

“Going forward, small operators like us  will focus on the one station we have, instead of letting it feed into [a national radio chain], who is just using the syndication numbers to feed into New York and Chicago and LA … we see the success when we go to a sales client’s office and they have us on in their building. Or when we go from hosting a Juneteenth event that jumps from a dozen vendors in the first year to 50 in the second year. That is what a market like Youngstown needs in a radio station. More than just music.”

To drive home his point, Carrillo holds up his cell phone. “I have every song ever recorded on here,” he says. “So what is the difference between this and what we do? It’s people like Chip.”

Carrillo says agency advertisers also value Loud 102.3’s reach into the minority community. “We have local people who can do live reads [on the air] and have personalities connected to their products,” he says. “You reach more of your audience on a local show than on one that’s mass-syndicated.”

As an example, Colvin points out that when COVID-19 hit, his station was first in line to get and share public service announcements from the Centers for Disease Control.

“It was about ‘who is a local voice,’” he says. “It’s the brand we are building. We are a way to reach this market for people who are outside the market.”

Colvin says the fierce connection to the community helped his station weather the downturn caused by the pandemic.

“It helped us stay afloat where some other [radio station] clusters had furloughs,” he says. “We didn’t get the numbers we could have in a perfect year. But it wasn’t a bad year.”

For Colvin, owning and running a radio station is a natural extension of a lifetime of music.

The 2005 Wilson High School graduate says his house was the one on the block with the big stereo.

“My dad loved ’90s rap and my mom loved ’90s R&B, and that all shaped my childhood,” he says. “I played drums at church and was on the drum line at school. In seventh grade, I auditioned and joined the Warren Junior Military Band and we toured the country.”

After high school, Colvin began to translate his formal musical training into making hip-hop. He started producing and creating music and then became a DJ at live events and in clubs.

“I DJ’d everywhere in town and I am the official DJ of Youngstown State University athletics,” he says. Colvin has a degree in information technology from YSU. From DJing, Colvin made the natural jump to radio.

When Pat Cerullo of Reading, Pa., sought to expand his cluster of stations into Youngstown, he tracked down Colvin – whom he was told knew this market – to launch Loud 102.3-FM.

Colvin stipulated that he would only come aboard if he had equity in the company. Cerullo eventually agreed and Colvin’s managerial career began.

This summer, Cerullo sold his stake in the station so he could focus on his other stations in eastern Pennsylvania. Now Colvin runs Loud-102.3 FM. He’s also part of the station’s umbrella corporation, which includes other investors.

“It’s hard to start a business in Youngstown if you are not already inside the community,” he says. “My business relationships and my care for the community helped me to leverage my stake in this company.”

Pictured: Charles Colvin, owner of Loud 102.3-FM, broadcasts from the studio in the radio station’s downtown offices.