Jamaica-born, New York resident Robert “Bobby” Clarke, president and CEO of Queens-based Irie Jam Radio, was honored by the Jamaican government on Sunday with the prestigious Order of Distinction “for over 20 years of dedicated media services to Jamaican nationals of the New York Tri-state area.”
Every year, the third Monday in October is observed as Heroes Day in Jamaica, which includes an elaborate morning ceremony on the grounds of King’s House (the governor general’s residence) where national honors are conferred on Jamaicans from various walks of life. The Order of Distinction, instituted by an Act of Parliament in 1968, is the sixth-highest honor in the island’s Orders of Societies of Honor.
“When I first saw the email saying I was receiving the award, I thought maybe I read it wrong,” laughed Clarke in an interview with Billboard at a Manhattan restaurant. “But after reading it over five times I thought, this is big because it’s the country of my birth recognizing what I’ve done. I’m honored and it means a lot to our team and the Irie Jam listeners that one of us has been recognized for our work.”
Clarke’s first step into media began with a chance encounter at Bronx Travel, a travel agency he co-owned in the 1990s. Milford Edwards, a former broadcaster with Jamaica’s JBC Radio, visited Bronx Travel specifically to discuss an idea for a radio program. “At that time, Milford was an engineer at a satellite broadcast center in New York City and he said he had a way to pipe Jamaica’s radio stations into the U.S. and asked if I was interested,” recalled Clarke. “ISBN lines had just come on the market, the technology hadn’t been tried before, but Milford was sure it could work. I was really intrigued by Milford’s concept so I said let’s do it.”
Clarke flew to Jamaica shortly thereafter to meet with the late Karl Young, the owner of Jamaica’s IRIE FM (107.5 FM), which debuted on Aug. 1, 1990, with an unprecedented all-reggae format. Although Clarke was kept waiting for two days, when the meeting finally took place Young expressed great interest in broadcasting IRIE FM on New York airwaves.
“I did a really good sales job: I brought Milford down to sell the technology and within weeks we had a contract,” said Clarke. “IRIE FM’s then general manager and program director Clyde McKenzie (also a 2017 Order of Distinction recipient) alongside my partners in New York, Milford Edwards and Deon Gordon, put a program together and we approached WRTN FM (now WVIP) 93.5 FM, New Rochelle, New York, and negotiated a time slot.” (WVIP FM has a brokered station format, meaning producers are responsible for securing their own advertisers to pay for airtime.)
Clarke and the team arranged time for their show within Jawara Blake’s Culture Jam program, which aired Saturdays at midnight. The Jamaica/New York IRIE FM/WRTN FM simulcast, christened Irie Jam Radio, premiered as a two-hour broadcast on Oct. 16, 1993, to enthusiastic responses from listeners in Jamaica and the New York tri-state area. It was the first time the city’s airwaves connected Jamaicans in the Diaspora to their island birthplace, predating the widespread availability of internet radio or digital broadcasts of terrestrial stations.
“On air in New York we had Milford Edwards and Pat McKay (now the director of programming, reggae and gospel at Sirius/XM) and in Jamaica it was Ainsworth ‘Big A’ Higgins,” recalled Clarke. “We spent hours finding and listening to music, trying to figure out how to make this the best show in the world. It was surreal how good that simulcast connection was and the experience changed my life. I was supposed to be studying to become a lawyer but after that first broadcast, I decided radio is what I wanted to do, so I had to find the money to do it.”
Irie Jam Radio reached an even wider audience with their move to a Saturday afternoon slot on WRTN, this time partnering with Jamaica’s RJR Radio (94 FM) because the slot conflicted with IRIE FM’s program schedule. Increased advertising from local businesses followed, allowing Irie Jam to expand its format to include more music, news, talk and entertainment segments.
Irie Jam Radio now broadcasts 47 hours per week, 7 days a week on WVIP — its dancehall, roots reggae and soca playlist supplemented by extended infomercial styled interviews with mortgage brokers, herbal healers, lawyers and other businesses targeting the vast purchasing power of the station’s Caribbean-American listenership.
Irie Jam’s popular lineup of radio personalities includes Calvin “Cali B” Barrett, Chris “Dubbmaster” McDonald, Jabba (of Bobby Konders’ Massive B sound, heard on New York City’s WQHT FM Hot 97), Marcus Wanted (of Platinum Kids sound), Roy “DJ Roy” Walters (of Road International sound) and Irwine Clare, who helms Irie Jam’s talk programs addressing issues and interests of the Caribbean community. The IRIE Jam executive team today consists of Louis Grant, Michael Williams and Syntyché Clarke (Bobby’s wife).
Clarke describes Irie Jam as a station within a station. Nielsen tracks WVIP FM but not Irie Jam Radio, which renders the latter’s exact audience size unknown. However, their consistently well-supported events are indicative of a widespread listenership. Their inaugural 10th anniversary Irie Jamboree, held in 2003 at Roy Wilkins Park, Queens and headlined by Sean Paul, had an attendance of 3,000 people, and swelled to 24,000 in 2007 when Beres Hammond and Buju Bantonperformed.
In 2013, Irie Jam partnered with promoters Dahved Levy and Steven Williams for the three-night Caribbean Fever Irie Jamboree Music Fest at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, headlined by Shabba Ranks and Damian Marley and attracting nearly 15,000 attendees. The fest’s most memorable moment occurred when the music stopped: Clarke interrupted Marley’s performance of “Affairs of The Heart” to deliver an onstage proposal to his then-girlfriend Syntyché.
The Irie Jam brand also encompasses the annual all-inclusive Memorial Day party Oracabessa Bliss; Irie Fashion Rave, spotlighting Caribbean designers; the upcoming Portland Paradise Weekend, taking place in Portland, Jamaica, from Dec. 1-3; and the nonprofit Irie Butterfly Foundation, which provides summercamp opportunities and other programs for children.
In celebration of their 25th anniversary next year, Irie Jam will stage at least four events per month, beginning in February 2018; according to Clarke, a major reggae/Caribbean concert is scheduled for later this month at a Manhattan venue. Just as they introduced cutting edge simulcasts to the New York market in 1993, the team will soon launch another technological breakthrough: Irie Jam 360, an audio/visual interactive app, powered by Radio Vue technology.
“Through Irie Jam 360 you can watch Irie Jam radio live from our studios across social media platforms,” said Clarke. “Listeners can call via Skype and talk to our DJs, post messages onscreen and we can split the screen and pull artists into the conversation. Basically it turns a radio station into a TV station. It’s going to change New York’s Caribbean market quickly and, I think, the entire radio landscape. We’ve kept our listeners for this long because we continue to grow. By presenting new platforms like this, we are now attracting our original audiences’ kids, even their grandkids.”