Kan Jones and DJ Ambush run a playlist curation workshop at the Portland Art Museum

Anthony Deloney and Jefferson Smith have known each other for more than 30 years. They’re Northeast Portland natives, Grant High grads, and typical old friends: they talk about basketball and politics; they share verbal shorthand and elaborate handshakes.

They also run the Numberz, the city’s only all-black radio station, which broadcasts at 96.7 and TheNumberz.fm. The idea for the station started with Smith, who helped launch the progressive talk/music station XRAY.fm in 2014, following two terms as a state rep and a scandal-ridden 2012 mayoral campaign. Smith is white, and he describes himself as a silent partner in the Numberz—he provides the radio signal and the equipment, and Deloney, a radio novice and youth program coordinator, handles the rest.

“At one point [Jeff] hit me up and said, ‘Hey, man, we should do a hip-hop radio station.’ And it probably took me 35 seconds to say, ‘Yeah, no,’” Deloney says. They were middle aged, hardly tastemakers, and plenty of bona fide hip-hop heads were already covering that beat.

The idea lingered, though. Deloney recalls being on North Williams “in a place just like this” (Coffeehouse-Five, the LA-lite spot at N Albina and Killingsworth where we met) and feeling pointedly out of place in the historically black neighborhood. “The literal eyes that would stop what they were doing to look up at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’ You know what I’m saying? This is my hood!”

So he picked up the phone and came back to Smith with a revised idea. “I’m not interested in doing a hip-hop station,” he remembers saying. “What I am interested in is doing a black music experience station.” Hip-hop would be a part of it, sure. But so would jazz and R&B and straight-up soul—all the stuff Elvis had pillaged half a century ago. They started broadcasting in mid-2018, highlighting local artists and featuring hourlong mixes curated by prominent black Portlanders. The station’s name comes from an epithet for the triple-digit streets east of 100th Avenue, where many black Portlanders now live after being pushed out of neighborhoods closer to the Willamette.

Deloney grew up attending Self Enhancement Inc, a wide-reaching nonprofit focused on empowering black youth—it provides classes, after-school programs, case management services, and general social support for thousands of families every year. When Deloney was coming up through the program, it was packaged as a basketball camp, but even then a day on the courts included a few hours in SAT prep. Founder Tony Hopson Sr. had a pithy saying: “It’s not basketball for basketball’s sake.” Deloney didn’t want the Numberz to be music for music’s sake.

“Never in the history of gentrification has somebody said, ‘You guys are right, we were wrong. Here’s some land, here’s your homes back,’” Deloney says. “In the meantime, how do we still talk to our people? How do we still give them things that we think build a community and fill a void?”

All ad revenue comes from local sponsors, many of them black-owned. (The shaved-ice cart Hana’s Snowballs on MLK was an early supporter.) At the top of every hour, they run messages from organizations that connect people with health care and home ownership resources. Recently, they’ve dedicated a Sunday block to talk shows and podcasts from community leaders, including an upcoming project with Portland State’s Black Student Union.

To help assemble mixes, Deloney has tapped local musicians like DJ Ambush, a Philadelphia transplant who’s been DJing for 27 years and lived in Portland for three.

“There are so many black radio stations in Philly. It’s ridiculous. Everyone starts their own internet radio station,” Ambush says. “So to come here and realize the history of Portland, it’s like, ‘Oh, shit. You never really had a true expression of the entire gamut of black music.’”

The response has been positive. At press time, the Numberz was only beginning to track listener metrics, but even before the station had launched any word-of-mouth campaigns, listeners were flocking to Radio Lineup (a site that bills itself as “your guide to local radio stations across the United States”) to leave enthusiastic notes of support. “Best thing going on the radio, hands down,” one fan wrote. “I just heard an old Maniac Lok song and almost fell outa my chair!” On a visit to David Douglas High School, Deloney remembers a middle-aged white guy named Dan telling him he listens every day. “I was like, ‘Shit, Dan, that’s what’s up!’”

Deloney’s understandably excited about the Numberz, which Smith says has only just started to find its footing. But its uniqueness isn’t lost on him.

“I almost feel like we tricked somebody,” Deloney says. “Like, who the hell let me get this mic? And I don’t know when it ends, but while I got this mic, I gotta tell you some real shit. I gotta tell you the truth.”

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