Black Radio
Black radio on the decline. (File photo)

A group of black media organizations on Monday will deliver a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, 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.