By Simeon Gant
When radio pioneer Hal Jackson died this past May at age 96, he took with him the critical element of delivering news, information and music to the Black community, in his own unique way, about the Black community and for the Black community. Jackson began his radio career in the 1930’s, in Washington D.C. During the 1950’s he became the first Black radio host on a national broadcast network and now, there are more than 165 stations that offer programming for and about African American culture, but Mr. Jackson’scontribution as an African American radio pioneer is quickly diminishing inmarkets across America.
The recent sale of KBLX –FM 102.9 Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area deals another blow to the once dominating Inner City Broadcasting Company and begs the questions; is Black radio dying? Recently, Inner City Media Corporation’s creditors filed for involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy against it. New York based Inner City Media Corporation is the holding company of Inner City Broadcasting, one of the nation’s leading Black-owned broadcasters and owner of WBLS-FM/WLIB-AM in New York City. Inner City’s creditors claim that it owes some $254 million. This spring, media giant Entercom Broadcasting Company acquired KBLX from Inner City, downsizing its operations and ousting beloved radio host “Cousin” Kevin Brown. The move leaves Radio One as the sole dominate Black owned and operated broadcast company in the nation, with a handful of others either struggling to survive or looking to take advantage of recent Obama Administration policy changes to bolster low-powered community radio. Radio One owns 53 stations in 15 urban markets.
Many radio stations in urban markets continue on without backing form major broadcast stations. KJLH-FM 102.3 in Los Angeles, is owned by legendary musician Stevie Wonder and is highly successful. Unfortunately, their success is rare in such an advertise-heavy competitive market. Low-powered stations, such as KDEE-FM 97.5/KDEEFM.org in Sacramento exist throughout the country with minimal advertising, yet continue to broadcast vital news to the African American community and offer the distinctive musical genre of Gospel, Soul/Neo-Soul, R&B, Jazz and Hip Hop. In 2009 Sheridan Broadcasting in Pittsburgh sold WAMO, one of the city’s largest radio stations catering to a vibrant cultural taste and critical discussion of education, healthcare, business and social activity in Black communities that mainstream radio stations never broadcast. In 2005, newspaper headlines inked, “CHAPTER 11 FACING MOUNTING DEBTS OF $23M, Percy Squire Files for Bankruptcy.” Squire, owner of radio stations exclusively broadcasting music, news and information about the Black community in Florida and Ohio continues to fight back, suing the FCC for business practices contributing to the loss of his stations.
Inner City Broadcasting is rooted in the civil rights movement. The late Percy Sutton, attorney to Malcolm X and a Manhattan Borough President; and Clarence Jones, former publisher of The New York Amsterdam News, one of the oldest Black-owned newspapers in the United States, founded Inner City in 1970 and led the way for local programming in Black communities across the country. Native New Yorker, and CEO of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, Aubry Stone says he purchased radio station KDEE-FM 97.5 because, “I couldn’t understand why Sacramento didn’t have a place to listen to Gospel music through the week, unbiased sports news, critical information about healthcare disparities for Blacks, even news about the growing green economy from a Black perspective. But most importantly, I like the fact that our station plays the Temptations, with Boys To Men, with Whitney Houston and Sade and an occasional Slick Rick and Queen Latifah. Where else can you find such smooth and rocking combination with soul, rhythm and blues?”
In 2010 Sacramento experienced a similar demise as KBLX when the city’s only “Old School” R&B formatted station KHYL-FM v101.1fired popular radio hosts Lee Perkins and Andrea Gomez due to station changes brought on by broadcast giant Clear Channel.
Lee Michaels a longtime radio programmer in Detroit and Washington D.C. currently works for U.S. Talk Network.com. He started broadcasting in 1965 when he was just 15 years old. “I’m pretty upset about all of this,” Michael’s concern evident at the recent decline of programming aimed at African Americans, “Since I started, it has improved but then it declined in the Reagan years. Smaller stations were squeezed out. Independents could nolonger survive.” Syndicated shows became popular, masking the need for local programming with the nationwide audience appeal of Tom Joyner, Doug Banks and now Steve Harvey. These moves push out local hosts and staff that once provided vital community appeal and critical employment opportunities. Media observers partly blame the Arbitron ratings system for bigger companies to come in and reduce programming designed specifically for African Americans and worse, reduce advertising rates, undermining the value of Black audiences.
Sacramento radio DJ Tristen Mayes at KDEE says the most recent weapon against Black radio is Arbitron’s Portable People Meters (PPM). Arbitron uses this system to monitor and count audiences. The count determines if broadcasters should continue specific programming and how much to charge advertisers for it. “These PPM’s are expensive,” Mayes says, “So you know many Blacks won’t have them in their house. This, of course, means we will be undercounted.” There is a fight to preserve such programming. California Attorney General Kamala Harris alleged the PPM violated the state’s Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law and the Unruh Civil Rights Act by dramatically undercounting minority audiences. Harris won the settlement and declared California’s diverse audience shall be fully counted by Arbitron’s rating system and require broadcasters to compete fairly in in the marketplace for all communities they serve. Mayes also points out President Barack Obama’s declaration to support low-powered stations, with community ties, such as Mayes’ KDEE operated by Stone and the California Black Chamber of Commerce. According to Mayes “The President (Obama) really opened it up. Now the FCC removed the translator application allowing for low-powered, community stations run by non-profits, schools, emergency responders and other non-commercial groups to get into more open space between larger stations throughout the dial. Not just at one far end of the dial or the other. The new law repeals earlier restrictions that kept low power radio out of urban areas.” Clear Channel, Entercom and other well-heeled broadcasting stations seek to acquire as many smaller stations possible to increase their bottom line value. In the process, the programming becomes homogenized.
As larger broadcast companies purchase smaller radio stations and change its formatting, internet radio and low-powered stationsspur some hope for new radio voices. We are in the midst of significant change and without proactive development of new voices; the expression of Blacks becomes the endangered victim.
Without that expression and without Black radio, a critical element of all humans becomes at risk; the critical need to communicate.
Simeon Gant is a writer based in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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