Who Killed Black Radio News?
by BAR Executive Editor Glen Ford
This item was originally published in Black Commentator on May 29, 2003
There are more than one million Black radio listeners apiece in metro Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore-DC, Houston, Philadelphia, and twice that many in the tri-state metro area centered by New York. But not one of these major markets has a single full time black news reporter reporting on and packaging news for a black audience. Not one.
It wasn't always this way. What changed and why? What does the absence of news reporting mean to our communities, our futures, to the public space for black on black dialog?
On the streets and at press conferences, Black radio journalists jostled with white and African American reporters from "general market" radio stations, to form a local press corps that competed for the Black public's attention and respect. Movements sprouted, thrived - or self-destructed - in a marketplace of contentious community and media voices. Black radio news had been called forth by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the previous decade. The news staffs at WOL (five reporters), WOOK (four-person news staff) and WHUR (12 reporters and producers) were local radio's answer to Black people's demands.
In scores of large, medium and even small cities across the nation, the early to mid-Seventies saw a flowering of Black radio news, a response to the voices of an awakened people. Black ownership had relatively little to do with the phenomenon. According to the National Association of Black-owned Broadcasters (NABOB), there were only 30 African-American owned broadcast facilities in the United States in 1976. Today, NABOB boasts 220 member stations - and local Black radio news is near extinction.
The guilty parties
With some notable exceptions, Black owners are as culpable as white corporations in the demise of Black radio news. In Washington, DC, the culprit is obvious.
Black-oriented radio journalism in the nation's capitol has plummeted from 21 reporters at three stations, 30 years ago, to four reporters at two stations, today. WPGC-FM (Infinity-Viacom) fields one reporter, and Howard University's commercially operated WHUR-FM employs three. Black Washington's dominant radio influence is Radio One, the 66-station chain founded by Cathy Liggins Hughes, valued at $2 billion. Hughes employs not a single newsperson at her four Washington stations - a corporate policy reflected in most of the 22 cities in which Radio One operates. The chain is the dominant influence in at least 13 of these markets. (Radio One also programs 5 channels of XM Satellite Radio, and has launched a Black-oriented television venture with Comcast, the cable giant.)
"Radio One's Augusta promotions person says the chain fulfills its news obligations by rebroadcasting the audio of a local TV station's newscast."
While 1,200-station Clear Channel deserves every lash of the whip as the Great Homogenizer of American radio, the chain operates only 49 stations programmed to Blacks, and is dominant in no large African American market. The Queen of Black broadcasting is Radio One, and her dictum is, Let Them Eat Talk.
Radio One's operations are roughly as devoid of news as Clear Channel's Black-programmed stations. That certainly is the case in Detroit, where the two chains dominate the Black airwaves: Clear Channel owns two stations, WJLB-FM (urban contemporary) and WMXD-FM (urban adult contemporary), while Radio One operates WDTJ-FM ("mainstream" urban), WDMK-FM (urban adult contemporary) and WCHB-AM (talk-gospel). At all five stations, it's the same story: no news.
Executives at both Clear Channel and Radio One used nearly identical language to inform that morning radio personalities - people we used to call disc jockeys - are responsible for "doing the news," which consists of items that were once called "public service announcements" back in the days when reporters did real news. Black Detroit has been turned into a news wasteland through the combined operations of Clear Channel and Radio One.
In Augusta, Georgia, Clear Channel is a very junior partner to Radio One in the news-eradication business. The Black chain owns five outlets to Clear Channel's single Black station. Clear Channel admits to having no local news department at any of its Augusta properties. Radio One's Augusta promotions person says the chain fulfills its news obligations by re-broadcasting the audio of a local television station's newscasts.
In 1970, a two-person news operation at James Brown's Augusta radio station played a central role in bringing the city into the post-Jim Crow era. Under the slogan/logo "Truth and Soul," WRDW-AM News provided crucial coverage of the movement to integrate the downtown retail workforce, a campaign that led to general transformations in local race relations. Today, Radio One's near-monopoly has created a profitable, one-stop advertising shop for every merchant with something to sell to Black Augusta. In return, Radio One gives its audience music, talk, and regurgitated television news. Black Augustans can now choose between six stations, rather than the two Black formats available three decades ago. But they will get no local Black news. In that, Black Augusta is in the same boat as their brothers and sisters in similarly sized Macon, 150 miles to the West, where Clear Channel owns four Black stations with no local news programming.
"It is scandalous that Viacom, with one newsperson, serves Black Washington better than the nation's richest Black radio chain."
African Americans in Augusta and Macon, Georgia can thank Radio One and Clear Channel, equally, for withholding local news, without which community organizing is just a bunch of "talk." Black Detroit has access to many more radio signals than 30 years ago, but hears far less information that is politically useful. The once proud Black radio press corps of Washington, DC is now shriveled to four people at two stations, while the corporate, four-station Radio One powerhouse dispenses cheap talk and jive. It is scandalous that Viacom, with one newsperson, serves Black Washington better than the nation's richest Black radio chain.
No news is bad news
We have provided these snapshots of the state of Black radio news to illustrate a larger picture. As the FCC under Colin Powell's totally corrupted son, Michael, conspires to complete the mega-consolidation of the nation's airwaves - possibly this Monday - Black America surveys a broadcast landscape in which serious political struggle has already become problematic, if not impossible. As with all things in America, the Black road to consolidated media mush has been different from that of white America: Blacks supported the business ventures of many of the very people who now electronically starve and abuse them.
African Americans were caught between two valid sets of demands - Black community access to the airwaves, and Black ownership of broadcast properties. With the enthusiastic support of the entire Black body politic, the entrepreneurs won great victories, increasing their properties seven-fold in the space of a generation, and their net worths by far more than that. They were empowered to join the game of consolidation that began in the Eighties and reached fever pitch after passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Radio One emerged as the pre-eminent Black market presence, with stations in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Dayton, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, Richmond, St. Louis, as well as Washington, DC, Detroit, and Augusta.
In the process, Black "stand-alone" stations, typically operated by businesspeople with longstanding roots in the community, have been forced out - or have cashed out. News has most often been jettisoned in favor of "talk" - the seductive format that ranges from quality syndications that do have value to a national audience but provide little to sustain local struggles, to vapid, "barber shop"-type offerings, eclectic blocks of time filled with chatter, signifying nothing.
Dumbing down Black people
"So insidiously have disk jockey patter and the talk show format been substituted for news that large segments of the Black public may no longer know the difference."
There need not have been a contradiction between Black ownership and community access, including the maintenance of quality news operations. In a betrayal that, we believe, has been a major factor in the relentless decline of Black political power, many Black radio owners have adopted business plans identical to their white corporate peers.
Such is certainly the case with Radio One. "The company's voraciousness mirrored the consolidation throughout the radio industry after rules limiting the number of stations one company could own nationally were lifted in 1996," wrote the Washington Post, in a February 5, 2003 showcase article. Radio One boasts a 60-person research department that "randomly calls thousands of people and conducts 20-minute surveys of those who tune in to its radio stations." Do the people want news? The subject isn't broached by either Post reporter Krissah Williams or her main interlocutor, Radio One Chief Operating Officer Mary Catherine Sneed. Instead, the conversation is all about the sales value of entertainment programming. "If you're not [at parties, clubs and grass-roots events], you'll never be a big personality in the community," Sneed said. "Those are the things that separate stations from one another."
News isn't even on the radar screen. Indeed, so insidiously have disc jockey patter and the talk show format been substituted for news that large segments of the Black public may no longer know the difference.
James E. Clingman is a serious man, an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati's African-American Studies department, former editor of the Cincinnati Herald Newspaper, and a founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce. Yet Professor Clingman, who is also a veteran talk show host, manages to write a lengthy commentary on Black radio without once mentioning the dearth of local Black news.
"As far as Black talk radio is concerned, we do get a variety of opinions," said Clingman in a piece posted on BlackPressUSA.com. "But unlike the rallying cries I hear on those other' [white] stations, calls to action against events or persons that rub the host the wrong way, or calls for collective political action against an 'enemy,' much of our Black radio talk is just talk - without action. I don't mean to use a broad brush with that statement; I only want to sound the alarm." Clingman continues, "Airtime is precious, and the capability of speaking to thousands of our people via a Black talk radio program should, at every opportunity, call for and move our people to responsive action."
Professor Clingman seems not to realize that Black talk radio is uninformed radio, conversations not grounded in a steady stream of information of the kind that can only be provided by Black news operations. Thirty years ago, Black talk shows were forums to discuss the news that listeners learned about largely through the efforts of the stations' own journalists. In many cases, radio reporters hosted these shows, turning them into larger windows on the political ferment within and beyond the community. Today, much of Black talk radio operates in an informational vacuum, simulating activism through the ritual flapping of lips.
Professor Clingman clings to the notion that Black ownership will provide salvation, and worries that "The next round of deregulation could mean an even further decline in Black ownership of radio outlets and, more importantly, a decline in Black talk radio." His priorities are misplaced. As we have learned to our despair and horror, Black ownership guarantees nothing and, in the case of Radio One, ensures that entertainment, disc jockey chatter and syndication become standard fare. Most importantly, the absence of news operations at Black radio stations results in atrophy of existing Black political groupings and the stillbirth of new organizations. Talk shows do not empower communities, vibrant grassroots organizations do. And these organizations can only flourish when their activities are given proper coverage in the media that their constituencies listen to - Black radio.
African Americans applauded the media acquisitions of "our" entrepreneurs, trusting that the community at large would benefit. Instead, many owners moved quickly to become corporate citizens, first, last and always - or until the next crisis threatens their holdings.
It is impossible to measure what Black America has lost through misplaced loyalty to owners who themselves feel no such sentiment. Many of the gains made by African Americans during the heyday of Black radio cannot be duplicated today, due to the duplicity of those entrepreneurs who cashed in the people's collective chips for their own benefit.
A Chicagoan who was part of the small group of activists that laid the groundwork for Harold Washington's successful 1983 mayoral campaign remembers how critical Black radio was to the process. "Back in those days, the first thing we would do was print out the leaflets. The next was to call Black radio to get coverage," he says. "If we were going to mount a campaign to elect a Harold Washington Mayor of Chicago, today, I don't know if we could pull it off," given the current state of Black radio.
In our May 1 commentary, "Treat Corporate Media Like the Enemy," we wrote:
The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were mass activities whose fortunes were closely tied to the behavior of mass media. The frenzy of Black newsroom hiring three decades ago occurred in response to Black activism. African Americans demanded that media provide coverage of Black struggles, or be considered "part of the problem." The FCC and corporate media temporarily accommodated these demands, allowing a brief expansion of the social space in which the Black political drama was acted out. That door is now virtually closed, and will remain so, no matter how the FCC rules in June, unless Black organizations retool their strategies to force a media response
"It is the job os serious activists to make the price of a no-news radio regime higher than the cost of a newsroom through direct action against the offending outlets and their advertisers.
African American radio audiences are the most loyal demographic in the nation, far more likely to listen to Black radio than Hispanics are to patronize Spanish-language outlets, and much less segmented than the white population. Consequently, Black radio is extremely profitable. For much the same reason, the near-extinction of local Black radio news has crippled Black community organizing. One can only imagine the kind of city Washington, DC might have become had Black radio news kept pace with the doubling of Black-formatted outlets. Rather than dwindling to four radio reporters from 21 in 1973, 30 or more electronic journalists might be covering community concerns for Black-oriented stations, cultivating an organized and aware population in the process.
A healthy, three- or four-person local newsroom can be staffed for considerably less than $200,000 per year. Radio One dominates the Washington market, and must bear a large measure of responsibility for the disempowerment of the Black people of the city and region. It is the job of serious activists to make the price of a no-news radio regime higher than the cost of a newsroom, through direct action against the offending outlets and their advertisers.
To review Clear Channel's Black-programmed stations, click here:
Then, go to "station search" and enter "urban"
This item was originally published in Black Commentator on May 29, 2003
Glen Ford can be reached at glen.ford(at)blackagendareport.com.