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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Ride with Ardell Wright, the radio voice of East Gainesville

Gainesville native aims to empower his hometown with Hip Hop and R&B

Ardell Wright speaks to a caller as he records the conversation on the computer in the 98.9 Jamz Studio on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Wright edited the audio and then played it on the air. (Lauren Witte/Alligator Staff)
Ardell Wright speaks to a caller as he records the conversation on the computer in the 98.9 Jamz Studio on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Wright edited the audio and then played it on the air. (Lauren Witte/Alligator Staff)
The Afternoon Drive

Every afternoon, Ardell Wright unveils East Gainesville’s hidden gems on 98.9 Jamz. 

Wright’s voice echoes from car stereos across the city as he hosts its only Hip Hop and R&B radio station. Before 98.9 Jamz, there was a vacuum for the genre. Jazz used to fill the airwaves instead of Wright’s throwback mixes. 

Before Wright, no one spoke to the communities of East Gainesville that grew up on Hip Hop and R&B. Now, he makes sure to give his childhood neighborhoods shout-outs during his show called The Afternoon Drive. Anytime between noon and 6 p.m., listeners tune in to stay informed on local events, Black businesses and station giveaways. 

Twice an hour, Wright’s voice interjects. In the car, he sounds charismatic, like a longtime friend. At the studio, he leans into the microphone with a chest full of air and speaks off-script with a confident cadence.

Wright has the quintessential radio voice. His mentors and friends say so. Either you have it or you don’t. And he does. 

His voice is recognized at the grocery store. Customers approach Wright to say hello, though he’s unrecognizable wearing a face mask and snapback hat. Having only started in February, Wright is pleased to know that people are listening.

He loves connecting with people from his hometown, especially when they call the station to request songs — either to relive old memories or dedicate them to someone special. He’s usually the one to pick up the phone. “Give me some James Brown,” one caller says. 

Which song? Anything.

With 30 James Brown jams to choose from, Wright queues his favorite. 

Sterling Jewell, the station’s media consultant, laughs as he remembers Wright’s start at 98.9 Jamz. There were many buttons and tools that Wright didn’t quite understand. Despite the hiccups, Jewell knew his childhood friend was the man for the job.  

“One thing that I liked about him is that he's coachable,” Jewell said. “He realizes he doesn’t know everything but is ready to listen and learn. Not a lot of people are like that.”

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Wright arrived at 98.9 Jamz with limited knowledge of the station’s equipment. Though he worked for 98.7 Kiss FM in New York, this would be his first time single-handedly programming and hosting an entire show. 

He found his new workspace in disarray and felt overwhelmed before he made the space his own. Within months, he built a rapport with listeners.

If Wright sneezes on-air, someone always calls to ask if he’s okay.

A picture of Ardell Wright at the 98.9 Jamz studio
Ardell Wright sits in the 98.9 Jamz studio during his shift on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla.
From Smart Mouth to Media Visionary

Wright was used to getting kicked out of class. He liked the attention. If he could make people laugh, he felt good. 

Sterling and Wright went to school together at PK Yonge, a K-12 public school located at University Heights in Southeast Gainesville. They were fierce teammates on the football field, yet fought after school.

Sterling and Wright bumped shoulders in the hallways. Today, they continue to push each other in different ways.  

“This guy likes to compete,” Sterling said. “He was a solid athlete, and fast forward to adulthood, I realized he was pretty hungry and ready to entertain.”  

Wright chuckles as he describes himself as the hip-hop loving kid with a smart mouth. He admits he gave his teachers a hard time. He liked to be liked. After school, Wright listened to his favorite hip hop moguls on his CD player. Biggie Smalls’ crude, baritone bars weren’t approved by Wright's grandmother, so he hid in his room and bobbed his head in private. 

“I was always known as the music guy,” he said. “But now everybody knows me now as a news guy because I'm always mentioning the original version of a modern song.”  

Wright has his grandmother to thank for that.  

Soul music, from Al Green to Lauryn Hill, was the soundtrack to his grandmother’s household. The clash between music styles defines Wright’s taste in music and equips him with the talent to mix music seamlessly from one genre to the other.  

Even before joining 98.9 Jamz, Wright sought to become an entertainment industry titan by founding UpSouth Collective, a lifestyle brand based in Gainesville that continues to oversee his media endeavors. Through it, he hosts a podcast called The ADhd Show, where he discusses news, music and culture alongside other Black content creators.

Though he loves working in the studio, Wright longs to be in front of a cheering audience. The novelty still has sheen and he’s enjoying his new-found celebrity. Becoming a notable voice in the community has been eye-opening, but he craves more. 

Maybe he will host an award show some day. Or better, star in his own TV series. It gives him the energy he needs. It’s exhilarating. Fame would be nice, too. 

A picture of Ardell Wright adjusts settings on the soundboard in
Ardell Wright adjusts settings on the soundboard in the 98.9 Jamz studio on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla.
It takes a village

Like most dreamers, Wright is too focused on the grind to realize how far he has come. 

Residents know his name. They went to school with him and watched him grow into the man he is today. Wright explains how much it means for his community to see one of their own inch closer to success. 

Brett Douglas, program director and morning show host for Kiss 105.3, worked in the Gainesville studio for 16 years and commends Wright for his contribution to the station’s online and community presence.  

Gainesville didn’t have a radio station that tailored to its residents’ music taste. Up until a year ago, the station played solely jazz before Douglas decided to transform it into Hip Hop and R&B. He hoped it would garner more engagement. Shortly after, Wright was hired. 

Now, 15,000 people between the ages of 18 and 54 tune into the station every week. 

Wright added thousands of songs to its music library with the intention of bringing in more Florida artists like Rick Ross and Kodak Black.  He also sought to bring an East Coast rap influence, from LL Cool J to Busta Rhymes. 

More importantly, Wright uses his role as a radio host to give a voice to the eastside, the community that instilled in him the value of hard work.

At 11 years old, he moved in with his grandmother after his mother passed. He grew up moving from place to place, making pockets of friends in each neighborhood: from Lincoln Estates to the communities surrounding Eastside High School.   

Earnest Hill, 31, has known Wright since the third grade and witnessed him grow into a cool, funny and arrogant teenager. Now, his closest friend is a wise media professional who counsels him on his career moves. 

In hip hop for 10 years, Hill now goes by his artist name Blazel. Wright has supported Hill’s aspirations by helping Hill put together a tour and playing his songs on 98.9 Jamz 

“Turning on the radio and hearing my song is gold to me,” Hill said. “My friend is doing that regularly, always looking out for us.”  

Wright looks out for business owners, community leaders and artists like Blazel. He DJs local events that empower the Gainesville’s Black communities through natural hair expositions and church-led voter mobilization events.  

Sometimes, he takes listeners back in time with his nostalgic mixes. 

Juanita Miles-Hamilton, 70, tunes into 98.9 Jamz at least once a week while driving in her Buick. Wright’s throwbacks remind her of youth, particularly when residents of Duval, an East Gainesville neighborhood, knew each other on a first name basis and looked out for one another.

“In my younger years, I tried to associate what I was doing at the time, how old I was when a song came out,” she said. “You kinda go back down memory lane.” 

Now, she hums to Marvin Gaye on the way to volunteer at her church or visit her grandchildren.

Aside from playing throwbacks, Wright hopes to be a living testament to East Gainesville residents that they can achieve anything if they don’t give up their hustle. 

“I’ve seen guys who grew up with holes in the walls and sleeping on the floor,” he said. “Now, they have beautiful families and nice cars.”

It takes a village to empower one person, Wright said. And he hopes to use his platform to create an internship program for the radio station and encourage youth to seek mentorship through sports other than football and basketball.  

Wright has a great love for the eastside. After all, it’s where his passion for music began, vintage cars roam the streets, and the aroma of soul food unites families. Their star athletes shine and the women are fly. 

It’s where home is. 

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