Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey zinged KMOJ on-air personality Freddie Bell with a joke earlier this year when he asked, “What do Freddie Bell, Magic Johnson and Moses Malone all have in common?” Bell was at a loss until the mayor answered his own question. “They’re all in the Hall of Fame,” says Frey.
Bell had just received notice that he had been named to the 2022 class of the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He enters with KFAN’s Dan Barreiro, Linder Farm Network’s Lynn Ketelsen, ex-WCCO morning show host Dave Lee and MPR’s Cathy Wurzer. A Hall of Fame induction ceremony is scheduled to take place on September 17 at the Pavek Museum in St. Louis Park.
How Frey knew about Bell’s honor so soon hasn’t cost Bell any sleep, but it does make him wonder. “He does do his homework,” says Bell, who is the first Black man inducted and the second person of color to be honored as Hall of Famers in the Hall’s 20-year history. (Robyne Robinson was inducted in 2018.)
While the honor goes to radio greats with at least 20 years of Minnesota radio experience, Bell has 20-plus years in Minnesota, then some more in Omaha, Nebraska, lots more actually.
He started his career at KOCU, a campus radio station at Creighton University. He then splintered, becoming the rarest of journalists by simultaneously working in both TV and radio.
Interestingly, it’s when Gerald Evans became Freddie Bell, while staying Gerald Evans. Huh?
“To protect my integrity as a journalist, I thought it was important to separate what I was doing in my TV journalism job at KETV television [ABC affiliate] from my part-time entertainment role at the urban radio station, KOWH-FM,” says Bell. “The radio program director said my on-air name could be anything and tried to help by giving me a couple of options including Bob B. Good. In my hometown, Kansas City, Missouri, I grew up listening to a few radio broadcasters. Among my many favorites was Freddie Bell. With the program director’s blessing, I decided to adopt his name. From that time on, I was Freddie Bell, when I did radio or club DJ work, and Gerald Evans for everything else.”
Bell and his wife, Francine, moved to Stillwater in 1990. Francine was the impetus to move as she worked for the United States Federal Government as a special agent in charge, IRS Criminal Investigation Division. Minnesota was one of the states she covered.
Bell and his family then lived in Woodbury, made a move to Tampa, Florida, and Washington, D.C., and landed back in Woodbury in 2006.
During their first stint in Minnesota, Bell volunteered for KMOJ as a morning show host. And, if this were literature, that early connection to KMOJ would be called foreshadowing.
Currently, Bell hosts three radio programs: KMOJ’s Morning Show with Freddie Bell and Chantel Sings, the talk show New Beginnings and the music-based Freddie Bell Show, with the latter two heard on stations around the country. The shows’ beginnings date back to Bell’s return to Minnesota in 2006.
In 2016, Bell was asked to take over as KMOJ’s general manager. “I accepted because I wanted the station to have some consistency,” says Bell. That being said, Bell didn’t go to journalism school to work as a general manager. “I was brought into preserve, as well as change the culture,” he says. “It’s been six years, and it’s a work in progress.”
KMOJ, aka “The People’s Station,” is a community radio station based in North Minneapolis with a format that’s best described as “adult urban contemporary.”
While Arbitron and Nielson numbers are important, they don’t drive the bus.
“Eighty-eight percent of all African-Americans within the 11-county Metro area have tuned in,” says Bell. “It’s elementary kids, high school kids and lots of moms and dads. While the music is the hook, what we talk about is lifesaving, if not life changing.”
“What happens in the community is our responsibility,” he says.
Important events that have led to equally important discussions include reactions to the fatal police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.
“Following the George Floyd murder and the U.S. capital uprising, I expressed my desire to share important information like this from a BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] journalistic perspective,” says Bell. “Our listeners made it clear to me this is something that was needed. Our team raised money to create the Racial Reckoning Project: The Arc of Justice.”
When asked about accomplishments, Bell talks about KMOJ’s voice. The discussion turns to interviews, impactful interviews in particular, Bell mentions the three interviews he had with the late Maya Angelou, writer and activist.
“I still hear that voice on the phone, ‘Freddie Bell, this is Maya Angelou,’” says Bell. “I thanked her for calling and said that I’m sure she’s busy. She stopped me mid-sentence and said, ‘Nothing else matters, Freddie. I’m here with you.’”
Bell has carried that philosophy with him throughout his career. “I’ve tried to be completely present in all my interviews,” he says.
Years later, Bell met Angelou. He was the emcee at a NAACP banquet and Angelou was the guest speaker.
“When I went to introduce myself, she said that she knew who I was and that we had spoken three times,” says Bell. “She autographed a copy of her book and gave it to me. When I stepped away, she stopped me and told me to read what she had written.” Yes, Maya Angelou wrote to Freddie Bell.
Bell counts interviews with the mayor, civic leaders and presidential candidates among his favorites. While not an interview, his wife serves as his biggest advocate. “She’s the reason I do this,” he says. “She’s with me in the best of times and in the worst of times. She’ll tell me when I’m all wet, and she’ll tell me when I’m spot on.”
The one take where Bell doesn’t know which side to fall on is society’s connectedness. “Social media has made the world smaller, but I still wonder if that’s a good thing,” he says. The “good thing” he doesn’t question is his relationship with KMOJ, schedule be darned.
As the station’s full-time general manager, Bell limits his on-air time because, well, “Sleep is paramount,” he says. The typical day has Bell waking to an alarm at 2 a.m. He’s at the studio before 3:30 a.m. He’ll prep and then co-host KMOJ’s Morning Show from 6–9 a.m. He does that Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
After the show, he’ll sit behind his general manager’s desk and take calls and make calls. “I don’t want to be that guy who goes to news conferences or reads news releases,” says Bell. “I want to develop relationships.”
Hall of Fame relationship? “I have to give a nod to the audience,” says Bell.