Juan Castillo

Tuned In

Halfway through “What’s Happening Brother” off his 1971 album What’s Going On?, Marvin Gaye takes a break from his mellow crooning to ask in surprisingly conversational tones, “What’s happening, my man?” It sounds as if he’s passing you on the street, offering a neighborly greeting. What’s Going On? is Juan Castillo’s favorite album, which is fitting considering that he spends most of his days talking to neighbors and fellow New Haveners.

He does it as the operations manager and program director for 94.3 WYBC-FM: The Rhythm of the City, where he also co-hosts the popular, near-daily program The Work Force. “We’re New Haven’s heritage radio station,” Castillo says. “We’ve been around longer than anyone else.” Now focused on R&B, the station was born on Yale’s campus 50 years ago as a closed circuit program. Eventually, its managers purchased an FM signal and moved off campus because, as Castillo says, “we started making money.”

Since then, Castillo says that Rhythm has become one of the highest-rated urban adult contemporary radio stations in the nation, ranked as “number one in our market for nine out of the last 10 years,” as well as a local touchstone. “Everyone talks about ‘local.’ That’s the key word in advertising today,” he says. “Well, we’re local on steroids.”

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Castillo and his fellow Rhythm staffers are community members themselves, but the station also prioritizes outreach, especially among New Haven’s black citizens. Castillo says he’s proudest of the station’s partnerships with local healthcare providers to offer free or subsidized breast and colon cancer screenings and dental care. He says such programs led him to join Rhythm in the first place, along with the station’s focus on social justice. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “I came to this radio station because after I worked in parole, I saw the very bad part of our community. I saw some of the bad things people were doing. And I understood that those people were victims themselves. And they were predisposed to become what they became because of their environment and because of their family history.”

Castillo, born in Panama, started learning English at age 10, when he and his parents moved to Brooklyn, New York. Charismatic and intelligent, he learned the language quickly. He also became involved with the notorious Latin Kings gang, eventually becoming the leader of the Brooklyn faction before being arrested. “While I was in jail, I realized I had to change,” Castillo says. It was Gaye’s album that he credits with seeing him through his incarceration. “I didn’t listen to anything else. It spoke to me,” he says. “I embraced the change in my life, and I was released after five years.”

Later, Castillo’s work with Phoenix House, a rehabilitation organization, brought him to New Haven, where he worked as a parole officer for 20 years before he heard about Rhythm’s communitarian side. “I found out about this program down here and I said, ‘Maybe I could do radio’—like everybody,” he says with a laugh. “Everybody thinks they can do radio.”

But in Castillo’s case, it was true. For starters, his voice has depth and sparkle, the qualities you hope to hear coming out of your car stereo. “People like me because I’ve got a lot of bass in my voice,” he says, before lowering his register to emphasize his next point: “The ladies like the bass.” And then there’s the medium itself, which Castillo loves. “There’s something to be said about radio. It’s company. When I’m talking with you, when you’re driving in the car headed home, I’m having a conversation with you.” Castillo often thinks of the early days of radio, when classic serials like The Lone Ranger were nationwide entertainment. “Good radio is theater of the mind,” he says. “You’ve got to put a scene in people’s mind… That’s how you win.”

And then, of course, there’s the music. Castillo’s favorite Marvin Gaye songs still get a lot of play on Rhythm, whose unique sound Castillo describes as “smooth R&B, uptempo. Late ’70s, ’80s, heavy ’90s with a taste of new.” In 2016, some of that “new” was provided by Waterbury R&B artist Lamone, whose single “Rearview Mirror,” off his album Smooth, was the first song by a local artist to be voted Rhythm’s Song of the Year.

It’s no accident that the song found its way onto the air. “No song gets played on this station unless it goes through research. We ask our audience what they want to hear,” Castillo says. “When was tested against artists like Mary J. Blige and Bruno Mars, he won. Because the song was better. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Castillo points out that Lamone, for all the star power New Haveners sensed, is not getting a lot of play on other radio stations. “Because that’s not how they operate,” he says. “They try to go for the hits—what they think are the hits—and they don’t open up the door for new artists.”

At Rhythm of the City, the doors are open, to artists both new and old, and often enough, there’s someone on the other side waiting to talk to you.

94.3 WYBC: The Rhythm of the City
142 Temple St Ste 203, New Haven (map)
Office Hours: Mon-Fri 8:30am-5:30pm
(203) 783-8200

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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