ST. PETERSBURG — In 1963, a former chef named Gene Danzey took a sales job at WTMP radio, at the time the only major broadcaster in the Tampa Bay area aimed at a black audience. Though he did not possess a resonant radio voice and was more conservative in his style than gregarious, Mr. Danzey outperformed all other sales staffers in a six-station chain.
WTMP promoted him to general manager in 1970. But Mr. Danzey did not just want to run a radio station — he wanted to own one.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, performers like James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson often topped the charts in an industry almost completely controlled by white people. In the mid 1960s, by Mr. Danzey's count, only about 10 black-owned radio stations were broadcasting in the country.
WTMP of Tampa, long considered the voice of the black community, was also white-owned.
So in 1975, Mr. Danzey launched WRXB 1590-AM, licensed for St. Pete Beach. The station broadcast gospel and R&B from Sarasota to Tampa, including popular musicians who had not cracked the mainstream charts.
It also gave the Tampa Bay area its first black-owned radio station.
After a decade on the air, WRXB expanded to a 24-hour format with at least 80 percent of St. Petersburg's black residents tuning in at least once a week, according to some estimates.
Mr. Danzey himself, meanwhile, helped create business opportunities for minorities, becoming the first official chair of the Pinellas County Urban League and president of the St. Petersburg Economic Development Corp.
Mr. Danzey, a groundbreaking entrepreneur who owned WRXB for 23 years, died May 29 of respiratory failure. He was 78.
"Now it's good we can sit at the front of the bus," he told the Times in 1984. "But I want to own the damn bus. It's good we've been to the mountaintop, but I want to own that mountain."
Mr. Danzey dressed for work in three-piece suits with monogrammed French cuffs, always with a handkerchief to complement the tie.
Born in Alford, Fla., and reared in Tampa, Mr. Danzey graduated from Middleton High School and attended Gibbs Junior College.
He hired his son, Michael, and daughter, Valorie, to work at WRXB along with nearly a dozen former co-workers from WTMP.
"Daddy was very proud of the fact that he had given the St. Pete community a voice," said Valorie Danzey Garner, 58, the former station manager. "He believed it was important to be active in the political arena and in the community."
A marriage to the former Dorothy Davis lasted about 30 years before ending in divorce. He met businesswoman P.J. Benton in the 1980s, in a jousting session over the price of advertising. (He lost.)
"I go, 'Wow, that's a handsome man!' " said P.J. Benton-Danzey, a part-owner of the Tampa Bay Rays and Mr. Danzey's wife since 1992.
He donated airtime to nonprofit groups and to help the St. Petersburg police hire more black officers.
"His generosity with radio time went a long way toward changing our recruiting and hiring efforts," said Goliath Davis, former police chief and former deputy mayor.
When violent disturbances broke out in 1996 following a fatal police shooting, radio stations issued "calls for peace and calm," Davis said. "(Mr. Danzey) was very instrumental in that, as well."
The station also magnetized politicians, said Watson Haynes, president and chief executive officer of the Pinellas County Urban League and a longtime activist.
When candidates sought his advice, Haynes said, "All I ever asked them to do was to advertise with the Weekly Challenger and WRXB.
"A lot of them who did ended up getting elected."
Mr. Danzey sold the radio station in 1998.
He contended with Alzheimer's disease the last 10 years of his life. WRXB remains on the air as a 24-hour gospel station.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.