Industry Ears

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A consortium of entertainment and broadcast industry professionals with more than 60 years of experience dedicated to revealing truth and promoting justice in media.

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A group of black media organizations on Monday will deliver a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman JuliusGenachowski, demanding that the FCC look into the demise of black radio in America, and the impact it has had on urban communities.

The letter, and the drive behind it, were sparked by the change in formatting of longtime urban radio station KISS-FM in New York, to sports talk. The change happened after Disney took over the station this spring, ending the decades-long rivalry between that station and WBLS for the adult urban market in New York by merging the stations, and handing the 30-year-old KISS frequency over to ESPN Radio. Similar changes have taken place in cities like Miami, where one of just three urban radio stations, The Beat FM, switched from urban “adult contemporary” to Spanish-language pop. And in many major cities, there are just two, or even one, urban-themed radio stations left. And the number of black-focused talk radio stations is even smaller, particularly after black-owned radio network Radio One essentially exited the black news-talk market in 2007 and 2008.

And while the format change at KISS-FM means New York listeners will no longer hear two of the most popular syndicated shows by black hosts: the Tom Joyner Morning Show and Michael Baisden Show, the letter states that, “what happened in New York City speaks to a much larger crisis plaguing black radio and the radio industry.”

“Black radio, ownership and voices have been spiraling backwards since the Telecomm Act of 1996,” Paul Porter, the co-founder of media watchdog Industry Ears told theGrio. “It’s time for the FCC to take a serious look and right the wrong of the muted mess we call Black radio today.”

“Regardless of media consolidation, whites have the entire political and social spectrum on their radio dial — from Pacifica to Rush, with NPR and all-news radio in the middle,” said Todd Steven Burroughs, a lecturer in the Communication Studies Department at Morgan State University, and a signatory to the FCC letter. “Historically, a black radio station had to fulfill all of the functions Black people needed — educator, motivator, activist, spiritual uplift. What we have now — a (mostly white) corporate abandonment of those ideas — is bad enough. But not to have it at all in the nation’s biggest, most powerful, and politically and culturally blackest market [New York] will show how black communities once again have been given symbolism instead of substance in the Obama era.”

According to the letter, the 1996 Telecommunications Act is much to blame for the state of black radio, not just in New York, but nationwide. That act “lifted the ban on the number of stations a company could own nationwide, allowing a few large companies to control the radio landscape. Companies like Clear Channel went from owning 40 stations to as many as 1,200 in just a few years,” the letter states. It continues:

The number of independent radio station owners declined by 39 percent in the decade following the passage of the Telecommunications Act. Greater consolidation in the radio industry created large radio conglomerates that are less responsive to the information and entertainment needs of the communities they serve. And perhaps no other community has been as negatively impacted by this growing media inequality as the African American community.

Many black radio stations have historically provided the community with a voice in the fight for greater equality. African American DJs not only provided the community with the latest news and information, but they played records by local black artists that served as the soundtrack for African American empowerment.

But today, with few exceptions, local radio has abandoned serving the needs of these communities — and at a time when many of them face enormous suffering. Unemployment among African Americans has often reached a figure twice as high as the national average. As of 2007, African Americans were six times more likely to be in prison than whites. And as of 2010, the median family income earned by black and Latino families was 57 cents to every dollar earned by a white family. These social and economic disparities are just one major reason why the African American community depends on local black radio stations now more than ever for news and entertainment.

The letter calls on the FCC to study the disparities in station ownership — noting that African-Americans own just 3 percent of full-power commercial radio stations in the U.S., and it criticizes those stations that do exist, for “profiting off the suffering of African-Americans,” including playing music that often denigrates blacks in much the way the “Amos ‘n Andy” show did as a radio sit-com on Chicago radio station WMAQ from the 1920s through the ’50s and as a syndicated TV show. The letter notes that government policy has played a role in “media inequality” by placing the public airwaves in the hands of “corporations that prioritize profit over their responsibility to the public interest.” And it notes that such inequality began with the nation’s first commercial radio licenses being distributed for free, to “almost exclusively white males.”

“This free, government-granted, exclusive use of the public airwaves enabled those early licensees to amass wealth and control practically all of our nation’s media outlets, leaving people of color with few broadcast ownership opportunities and virtually no say over how they are depicted in the media,” the letter states.

The letter is signed by Porter, on behalf of Industry Ears, along with Color of Change, which has been active in recent social media campaigns against former Fox News host Glenn Beck and conservative radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh; Joseph Torres of the media reform group Free Press; Brandy Doyle of the Prometheus Radio Project, Burroughs; and Morgan State professor and radio columnist Jared Ball.

“It is critical for the black community and all communities of color to be able to tell their own stories in their own words, but the troubling state of black radio has resulted in silencing so many voices of color that desperately need to be heard,” said Joseph Torres, senior external affairs director for Free Press.

“Ownership is a central part of our communities struggle to push back against stereotypes and misinformation. It is simply not enough to have access to the airwaves if we don’t also own the means of distribution.” said Steven Renderos, National Organizer with the Center for Media Justice.

The groups are calling on the FCC to “take proactive steps” to expand minority access to radio ownership, to adopt rules to hold local broadcasters accountable to the communities they are licensed to serve — including shortening the length of broadcast licenses, so that questions can be raised by communities as those licenses come up for renewal more often — and to conduct a “thorough study on the state of black radio that examines who owns urban-formatted radio stations.”

And the letter states the group also wants the FCC to examine whether payola — the illegal act of paying for airplay — continues to “play a major role in what airs on these outlets.”

Full text of the letter below.

Dear Chairman Genachowski:

There has been a great deal of discussion about the state of black radio following the format change of a top-rated New York City station that had long served the market’s black community.

For nearly three decades, adult urban radio stations WBLS (107.5) and WRKS (98.7, KISS-FM) were fierce competitors, battling for listeners in our nation’s largest media market. But that rivalry ended when Disney took over programming for KISS-FM several weeks ago and immediately changed the station’s format to sports talk.

This abrupt format change shocked New York City’s African-American community and its larger urban radio audience. The most populous city in the country is now left with just one urban adult contemporary FM station. And two of the nation’s most popular African-American radio talk show programs, the Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Michael Baisden Show, will no longer be broadcast in the New York City market due to the departure of KISS-FM.

While KISS-FM listeners lament the sudden loss of a popular station, we believe what happened in New York City speaks to a much larger crisis plaguing black radio and the radio industry.

We call on the FCC to study the state of black radio ownership and programming diversity, and to adopt rules that finally address our nation’s media inequality.

Like the rest of the radio industry, black radio has been devastated by media consolidation. The passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act lifted the ban on the number of stations a company could own nationwide, allowing a few large companies to control the radio landscape. Companies like Clear Channel went from owning 40 stations to as many as 1,200 in just a few years.

The number of independent radio station owners declined by 39 percent in the decade following the passage of the Telecommunications Act. Greater consolidation in the radio industry created large radio conglomerates that are less responsive to the information and entertainment needs of the communities they serve. And perhaps no other community has been as negatively impacted by this growing media inequality as the African American community.

Many black radio stations have historically provided the community with a voice in the fight for greater equality. African American DJs not only provided the community with the latest news and information, but they played records by local black artists that served as the soundtrack for African American empowerment.

But today, with few exceptions, local radio has abandoned serving the needs of these communities — and at a time when many of them face enormous suffering. Unemployment among African-Americans has often reached a figure twice as high as the national average. As of 2007, African-Americans were six times more likely to be in prison than whites. And as of 2010, the median family income earned by black and Latino families was 57 cents to every dollar earned by a white family. These social and economic disparities are just one major reason why the African-American community depends on local black radio stations now more than ever for news and entertainment.

But media consolidation has made it harder for people of color to own radio outlets. African -Americans own just 3 percent of all full power commercial radio stations. And many urban radio stations that purport to serve black audiences air little local programming and are seldom responsive to the needs of their communities.

Indeed, the advocacy group Industry Ears has often raised concerns about the amount of syndicated music programming targeting adult African Americans.

Media corporations have a long history of profiting off the suffering of African Americans, starting with the use of offensive stereotypes in radio programs like Amos ’n Andy during the early years of commercial radio. This shameful tradition continues.

Today many radio stations play music that too often denigrates African Americans. It is rare to hear records from independent black artists or musicians who use their music to uplift and inform.

As Industry Ears has long stated, the public remains largely unaware that major record labels and radio corporations too often control what music is played on local stations. We are concerned that payola could remain a major issue throughout the industry, including in black radio, despite an FCC payola investigation a few years ago.

Media inequality persists as a result of government policy that places control of media and the public airwaves in the hands of corporations that prioritize profit over their responsibility to serve the public interest.

This history of inequality began with the government distributing our country’s first commercial radio licenses almost exclusively to white males. This free, government-granted, exclusive use of the public airwaves enabled those early licensees to amass wealth and control practically all of our nation’s media outlets, leaving people of color with few broadcast ownership opportunities and virtually no say over how they are depicted in the media.

The FCC must take proactive steps to expand ownership opportunities for people of color and other marginalized communities by examining fully the impact on diversity of any rule changes the FCC may propose.

We also call on the FCC to adopt rules ensuring that local broadcasters are held accountable to the communities they are licensed to serve. Such changes could include shortening the length of a broadcast license, a position that former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps often advocated.

Finally, we call on the FCC to do a thorough study of the state of black radio that examines who owns urban-formatted radio stations. This should occur as part of a much-needed effort to compile trustworthy data on broadcast ownership and the identity of broadcast license holders. And we also call on the FCC to investigate whether payola continues to play a major role in determining what airs on these outlets.

Sincerely,
Paul Porter, co-founder, Industry Ears
Joseph Torres, senior external affairs director, Free Press
Rashad Robinson, executive director, ColorofChange.org
Steven Renderos, national organizer, Center for Media Justice
Brandy Doyle, policy director, Prometheus Radio Project
Maxie C Jackson III, president, National Federation of Community Broadcasters
Casey Rae, deputy director, Future of Music Coalition
Paul Billings, general manager, WUVS Muskegon LPFM
Dr. Jared Ball, associate professor, Communication Studies, Morgan State University
Davey D Cook, San Francisco State and Pacifica Radio
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., author and lecturer, Communication Studies, Morgan State University