“Because you can’t see tits on the radio, I’ll give you five fingers for a one man show,” the Scissor Sisters belted out more than a decade ago. Well, some things have changed. For one, the industry that has typically been haunted by dusty faces that were, as they say, “made for radio,” have evolved into a different beast, for better and for worse.
On the one hand, the medium has been revitalized by the presence of satellite and internet stations. On the other, there are clouds from both sides now, wherein mainstream industry force presses up against a personality-driven culture, one perfectly suited for the huskiness of a DJ’s voice. More importantly, niche radio stations and mainstream ones alike have opened the door for LGBTQ culture to dance and be heard.
In Orlando, the recently launched Pride Radio Orlando network – a limb of the I Heart Radio tree – has thrown local luminaries like Orlando Venue Burlesque Queen Blue Star, XL 106.7’s Rae, and News Junkie (WTKS 104.1 FM) Sabrina Ambra into the daily mix; and in Tampa Bay, Miguel Fuller is out loud and proud for Cox radio. All of them converged in a Radio Gay-Gay mix for us to give us the story of pushing the envelope when that envelope is your ears – and the ears of the corporate honchos.
Watermark: So, you have a lot on your plate with the Venue and all of the Blue you can imagine. How did you get into Pride Radio?
Blue: Rae basically sent me a message saying, “Hey, can you come to the radio station? We’ve got something going on.” I thought it was going to be about GayDays, especially because I’ve been doing the radio broadcast [on XL 106.7 FM] for Tweeka since he passed. So I couldn’t do it last year, and I thought, “This is awesome. Can’t wait for it to come back.” Then I ended up in a meeting and they said this is Pride Radio, and I had no idea what was going on.
How much freedom were you given? Could you throw a track on your own terms, or did you have to toe the line?
When they asked me to be a host on this station, a face on this station, I said, “First of all, you know what I do primarily. You know what I’ve been doing. Is that going to be a problem?” Because of it being more digital media, we have a lot more leeway. “Penis” is not something we normally say. You can kind of get away with whatever you want, though. Of course, we have our bullet points we have to talk about, but for the most part, they’ve just kind of given us a little bit of freedom to be who we are and present our style.
Well, you’re known to push boundaries. Is it a struggle to pull off authenticity on commercial radio, even if it’s only online now?
I think it’s smart. Orlando is a perfect opportunity. In hindsight, how would we even know that we would have this major tragedy that would affect our community and give us an even bigger voice? We were already a place before this tragedy, and I think if there’s a town that can get through it, it’s Orlando. To me it doesn’t seem like a risk; it was just something that needed to be done. I think it was just meant to be.
OK, so how do you choose your songs?
On the interior side, as far as our show goes, I can take all of the Katy Perry out of my four hours that I want to. I can put music in that I want. If I feel like Flock of Seagulls today, then I’m going to play Flock of Seagulls. I take out all of the Katy Perry and Britney Spears – sorry, gays – and I put in songs that were important to me when I came out in ’94. I like to take it back to a little Duran Duran “Save a Prayer,” Cranberries “Linger.”
They opened for Duran Duran!
That was my first date! I have just been streaming along my gay journey and just remembering. Our music is a lot of dance mixes, and I try to take those out when I have time. I try to kick it off with a little Bill Withers’ “A Lovely Day.”
Watermark: So where does your story begin?
Rae: I started out when I was 18 years old as an intern. I interned at Real Radio 104.1 FM, where Sabrina works now. I started on the Buckethead show. Then I went downstairs and interned at XL 106.7 FM with Johnny and Jayde. And then a position opened for board operating on the weekends. I did overnights, weekends and then I worked my way up in to Johnny’s House.
Are you comfortable being an out woman on radio? It’s typically a difficult gig.
At first, I was kind of nervous, because being out and open on the air; you don’t know how people are going to react. You don’t want to hurt ratings. You don’t want to steer an audience in a different direction if they don’t approve. So I sat with Johnny. He said, “If that’s who you are, that’s fine. There are people who are going to reach out to you, you’re going to relate to people, you’re going to make people want to come out and be comfortable with themselves.” So it’s good. They’ve accepted me and it’s been great.
And then something extremely hurtful like the Pulse shooting happens.
When the incident happened, we rushed to the station and we broadcasted for 12 hours straight. Ever since that day, I feel like there are so many people in Central Florida, even people who listen to us on the podcast across the nation, that have opened up. I’ve received text messages from across the nation, emails, phone calls saying, “Ever since Pulse happened, ever since I heard you and what it meant to you on the air, I’ve opened up to it. There were people that were against [LGBTQs]; there were people that were just like, “No, no, no. Shame on you.” But they changed and said, “You love whomever you love, and it doesn’t matter.” So you have those text messages from people saying, “Thank you. I’m a die-hard Christian. I’m very religious. This is an eye-opener and it changed my mind.”
What song made you feel better?
Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Honestly, we were open up for everything, just because people react differently and everybody goes through different stages – the emotional stage, the confused stage, the angry stage – it was weird.
I think the hardest thing was, I screen all the phone calls. So that morning, because we were just an outlet to express their feelings, people were just wondering where their friends were, and who they could contact to try to get money. All these people confused and lost, I think that was the hardest part.
Watermark: It must come up now and then about the issue of your sexuality. Has it been difficult getting to this point, even given Real Radio 104.1’s typically gay-friendly voice?
Ambra: Yeah. It’s been a weird ride so far. When I interned, I had just come out, kind of – my parents had just found out – so I was very nervous about the whole thing. The guy that I interned for, he outed me. I played some song and he said something about me being a lesbian. I was just mortified, because I wasn’t ready. But I started my new show, and I told everybody what’s going on, and I got to do it at my own pace. In the beginning, it was strange, because, “Why doesn’t she talk about being gay all the time?” I mean, it’s talk radio.
Now, it’s lovely. I have support from everybody. And it’s strange, because when I started writing for Watermark, for example, when that was shared, people thought I was coming out again. I thought, no, I’ve been doing this for years, but I appreciate you’re concern. I’m still the same old Sabrina.
Now more than ever, I think that after Pulse was the first time that I said it out loud that I’m gay. I’m proud to be part of this community. I’m so moved and touched, and I feel strong with my brothers and my sisters in the LGBTQ community. It’s been an interesting ride.
Was there any pressure from the higher-ups on that level?
Never from higher up. I got more pressure from friends of mine, I’d say, or people whom I’ve known in circles who feel the need to say stuff about it. I’ve always thought, “Is this who I am?” And when you listen to my show and it comes time to say anything, I do it with no problem. And that’s the nice thing with being on talk radio. I get to be me. And being me means loving the same sex.
So it’s a service to this community, indeed. How does that feel?
It was nerve-wracking and, at first, and looking back to what it was then, it’s incredible. I feel smart and knowledgeable, and people are actually listening and learning things. Granted, you’ll always have your trolls, but beyond that, being in radio in Orlando – in this city, especially the gay community – everyone is so tight and warm, and I am with ease able to talk about people and talk to people and learn. And be weird and make awful jokes!
Watermark: OK, what’s your story?
Fuller: From the very beginning, I was always very interested in radio – even in middle school, when I was a stuttering little kid, and everyone thought this kid will never be able to do any entertainment and public speaking. But I just kept working on it, with a little low-power frequency in our middle school. I would read the lunch menu and stutter my way through it. I finally got better, and did a little bit of radio at our radio station. In college I was working part time at this classic rock station in south Georgia. I used to run the NASCAR races.
Then I went to Georgia Southern for my bachelor’s degree, and I started working at the college station there, doing the morning show and working the station in Savannah. Two months before graduation, I thought, “Oh my God, am I going to have to work at Publix?” There was a full-time radio position for me in Savannah. So I worked in Savannah for a year where I was the producer and traffic guy on a conservative news talk network. That was not fun, but it taught me a lot about researching your beliefs, because you’re hearing the opposite every day.
After a year of that, I was hired to do a morning show in Panama City. That’s where I met my current co-host Holly.
That’s a lot of southern comfort. Was it hard to be gay on the radio?
I think from the listeners’ perspective, in my career, it’s been fine. As long as you don’t present yourself as a caricature of a gay person – if you’re just a human being who happens to be gay, who happens to be black, who happens to deal with weight issues, all of these things that human beings deal with – I think that when you present yourself as a character, that’s when people are like, “I don’t understand you. Who are you?” To me the problem has come down to advertisers. As a gay black man, my life has always been, “Let me teach you that I am normal.”
When did you know you were making a difference?
To me, the moment we realized that was when Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” came out. How the bit was supposed to play – there was no talk – but we’d play the song and as soon as it was over, I would be asked, “Miguel, what do you think of this?” And I would be like, “Ooh, girl! Yes! I can’t wait to hear it out in the club” But I was like, “This is such a wonderful message for young kids in middle school or high school to let them know that it’s OK to be yourself.” We did this whole passionate thing, and right after the segment, the music started playing, the mics went off, and the host was like, “What was that? That’s not your character.” And I was like, “Ooh, girl, two snaps up.” But it’s more than that. And that’s when we started understanding that it’s more than that.