Al Butler, 900 AM WURD radio host
By Michael Alan Goldberg
“I tend to see the glass as half-full and someone’s coming to fill it up real soon,” says Al Butler, host of the “Al B! in the Afternoon” show on 900 AM WURD, before letting out a wry laugh. “Philadelphia challenges that sometimes.”
Smack in the middle of the AM dial—brash sports talk to the left and right-wing attack dogs to the right—the 39-year-old South Philly resident has been a fixture at the “urban talk” station for nearly five years. “The concept of what we do on the show is vital,” says Butler in a resonant voice made for the airwaves.
Butler’s lively, freewheeling call-in show (weekdays from 4-7 p.m.) swings from local and national politics to issues of social justice to entertainment news to relationship advice, depending on his particular mood that day and the stories making headlines in the city. “In this country, there’s a historical sense of being silenced, that people are not listening to us. So to be a person of color and feel like you have a place where not only can you say what you want to say, but people of influence are gonna hear what you have to say, that’s very important,” he says.
Sometimes the topics are bleak: police brutality, street violence and the city’s flailing school district. But the charismatic Butler, a self-described “screaming liberal progressive that doesn’t scream at people” who looks for solutions to problems even while acknowledging difficult realities, has a knack for fostering compelling dialogue with his primarily black audience, and a reputation for maintaining an open mind even while delivering pointed opinions. It’s an approach that’s made him a rising star in Philly talk radio, although he wonders if his relative affability, compared with the legion of rhetorical bomb-throwers elsewhere on the dial, has worked against him. “I’m not someone who says, ‘This is the way it is, this is how I think about it, and you call in and tell me otherwise you’re going to be wrong,” says Butler. “I’m against that. I don’t know whether that’s held me back, but fair thinking is a better place to operate from.”
Born in North Carolina, Butler, an only child, moved with his family to Mt. Airy when he was 5. He says that as a kid he mostly kept to himself in his bedroom, where he’d have long conversations with his G.I. Joes—“I was in my own weird world”—and where radio was his best friend. The KYW ticker tape was his after-school soundtrack, and he was addicted to NPR and broadcasts of Eagles, Sixers and Phillies games.
After graduating from Penn Charter and interested in pursuing a career as a sportscaster, he majored in broadcast journalism at Hampton University, where he called football and basketball games. During one summer in the early ’90s, he interned at Philly AM station WHAT, watching broadcasting legends like Georgie Woods and Johnny Sample do their thing. After college, he worked in Hampton’s sports information department, then got a similar job at the University of Connecticut, “mostly because I was hoping to make contacts over at ESPN,” whose headquarters were based nearby. He also thought about eventually parlaying his sports knowledge and communications skills into a front office job with one of Philly’s sports teams.
But UConn was a disaster. The school reassigned him from the football to the volleyball program, the ESPN thing wasn’t happening, and after 10 months, he lost both his job and his girlfriend of eight years in the span of a week. “If I’d had a dog, it probably would have died,” he laughs.
Butler came back to Philly in the summer of ’99 broke and despondent. But he managed to score a board-op job at WHAT. Eventually, he moved up to full-time producer for Mary Mason and co-hosted shows with Dave Warren, where they’d mix discussions of social and political issues with studio visits from porn stars. Butler finally got his own show in 2005, where he honed his ability to deliver provocative monologues when the phone lines were dead. “I compared the war in Iraq to Vietnam for some time,” he recalls, “and I really took exception to [1210 AM yakker] Michael Smerconish when he went at Ossie Davis pretty hard for his support of Mumia [Abu Jamal].”
But not long into his gig, WHAT was bought and the entire staff let go. Butler thought his radio career was over. He started applying for PR jobs at state government departments in Harrisburg, “but I didn’t want to put on a suit and take the train out there every day,” he says. Just as his unemployment benefits had run out, he says WURD “pulled me off the trash heap” in 2007.
Since then, Butler hasn’t been shy about charging into some of Philly’s most controversial, hot-button issues. “Whenever I talk about the school district, and whenever I brought up Arlene Ackerman, the phone lines were full for a week,” he says. Butler told his listeners he thought the ex-superintendent was the victim of vicious city politics, but that the bottom line was, “We’ve had five superintendents in 10 years, and now they’re gonna have to implement a new plan and you got a whole ’nother graduating class of kids who didn’t have what they needed from their schools.”
He became aggressive in spotlighting issues of police brutality because “until good police stand up and say, ‘We will not tolerate these kinds of police officers in our ranks,’ then I can’t defend them when these terrible incidents happen.” He’s railed against black-on-black violence, but stops short of endorsing the city’s call for people to step up as witnesses to violent crime. “Police always say the African-American community needs to come forward but they really don’t protect you when it counts,” says Butler.
Over the past several months, he’s also been an ardent supporter of the Occupy movement, often devoting his show to exploring why blacks have been hesitant to support the cause. “There was a lot of resentment of not being invited to participate,” Butler says of his callers, “and people saying, ‘White people are just on this now? We’ve been fighting these same battles for decades and now because it’s impacting you, now you care?’ I partially agree with the point, but what I don’t understand is, how is that productive for you going forward? And since when do you need white people’s permission to do anything?”
Occasionally, the show proves disheartening, like when people call in to rail against gay rights, or when “I have a conversation with a caller about some issue in Philly—crime or violence or political BS—and I’ll think, ‘I heard the exact same thing in the room with Georgie Woods in ’92. Nothing changes.’
Most days the work is enlightening and fulfilling, Butler says, but regardless of good or bad calls, he tries to decompress and not think about the show immediately after getting off the air. Ever the sports nut, he watches the NFL Network religiously to clear his head. “I really need the Eagles to get it together, I can’t take another season like last year.”
On the way home most evenings, though, he gets feedback courtesy of the people at the laundromat on his block. “They’re always yelling out, ‘I heard you talkin’ about blah, blah, blah’, ‘That was great!’ or ‘I can’t believe you said that!’” he says. “It’s good to see how the show translates out in the neighborhoods.”
Butler says that most of his callers are 45 and older, but his show is slowly attracting the attention of the coveted 18-35 demographic. He’s tried to appeal to younger audiences by regularly booking upstart thinkers and audacious pundits, like firebrand activist commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who’s 31, or 30-something African studies professors Imani Perry (of Princeton) and Salamishah Tillet (of Penn), who put a fresh face on familiar issues. “They’re brilliant people who can speak to the same issues that some of the older folks have spoken about for decades, and it’s important for people to hear these younger voices and see that they’re people who they would probably hang out with,” says Butler.
Looking ahead, Butler would love to see “Al B! in the Afternoon” get syndicated nationally, but for now he’s happy the show continues to build a following here. “I really like Philly,” he says, “and there’s definitely no shortage of things to talk about.”
Dinner with Luke Palladino