When the Tom Joyner Morning Show was pulled first from Chicago, and then from other markets early this month, Joyner counseled listeners that “…black radio will never be what it once was, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.”
Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Tavis Smiley, and the Impoverishment of Black Media
Submitted by Bruce A. Dixon on Wed, 04/15/2009 – 11:46
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
When the Tom Joyner Morning Show was pulled first from Chicago, and then from other markets early this month, Joyner counseled listeners that “…black radio will never be what it once was, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.” This message of powerlessness and permanent defeat, of resignation to someone else owning and controlling the black conversation may be all we can expect from Joyner and the rest of the black elite. But is it the real answer? Does it even address the crucial question of how we might have and own our own black civic conversation?
Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Tavis Smiley, and the Impoverishment of Black Media
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
“The cancellation provoked outrage among fans because the Tom Joyner Morning Show is about as good as commercial black radio is allowed to get nowadays.”
‘The bottom line,” radio fly-jock Tom Joyner told fans in his blog, “is that black radio will never be what it once was, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.” Joyner tried to put the yanking of his show by Clear Channel into perspective for fans, who deluged his blog and email with expressions of support, and even talk of consumer boycotts. Joyner discouraged boycott chatter, and like Steve Harvey, who seems likely to replace him on many Clear Channel outlets, declared it was all “just business.”
The cancellation provoked outrage among fans because the Tom Joyner Morning Show is about as good as commercial black radio is allowed to get nowadays. Despite the show’s limited playlist of corporate-approved music and periodic descents into minstrelsy, Joyner regularly sets aside a small amount of time for commentary, issues and appeals addressed to African Americans as a community. It was never much time, and the issues, the commentary were relatively safe stuff on the whole. But to the news-starved audience of black commercial radio, Tom Joyner, like his colleague Tavis Smiley, stand out like rare gulps of fresh air.
But sustaining the life of a community takes more than an occasional breath. Community and democracy demand a steady diet of news to fuel civic engagement and public conversation in the public interest.
As BAR’s Glen Ford pointed out all of six years ago in ‘Who Killed Black Radio News,” the owners of commercial black media have for a generation enforced a no-news policy, justifying it with the unsupportable claim that all black people want is to be entertained.” The fact is that news is less profitable than 100% entertainment. PR firms and the celebrity industries provide their own “news” releases complete with commercial tie-ins, and already segmented to the age and income divided groups that marketers love. Black radio owners decided not to do news because corporate media has consciously decided not to recognize African Americans as a people or a polity with our own set of collective experience and political will. In a media regime that lives and dies by advertising alone, black commercial radio will only recognize black communities as marketing contraptions, as audience segments whose ears and eyeballs it can deliver to sponsors. The owners and managers of commercial black radio and TV are not the least concerned about our past or future, our housing or health care crises, the black imprisonment rate or the digital divide or the education of our young or the dignified security of our elderly. To them we are just a market, passive consumers to be sliced and diced according to marketing industry guidelines. A hip hop station, an oldies station, an easy listening urban station, a gospel station, all under the same ownership with no news on any of them, forever and ever, amen. If this is what Joyner meant, and we think it was, when he described the current state of black commercial radio, he was right. Except the “forever’ part. Except when he told fans ‘…there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.”
Commercial black radio and TV have not always been hostile to and incompatible with journalism. There was a brief period, back in the early and mid 1970s when journalism flourished on commercial black radio. Local teams of African American journalists competed with each other to report and package non-entertainment news directed at black communities. News gathering and reporting operations on commercial black radio played a key role in the black conversation, enabling African American communities to define themselves as more than passive masses of consumers and voters. They heyday of black broadcast journalism didn’t last long. News was never as profitable as entertainment, and as limits on how many stations one owner could have were removed, owners borrowed heavily to get more stations, and cut costs to reward themselves and repay the loans. News was the first casualty, reported Glen Ford six years ago.
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.
“Reclaiming commercial black radio would mean rediscovering the Freedom Movement’s traditions of disrespect for illegitimate authority.”
It may be that way now, but it doesn’t have to be. Contrary to Joyner’s wisdom, there’s plenty that African American communities can do to influence the behavior of commercial black radio. But seeing the way forward, much less actually organizing it, requires thinking well outside the boxes that the black misleadership class, of which Joyner and Tavis are a part, are used to drawing for themselves and for us. Today’s black notables are too respectful of illegitimate authority, too preoccupied with their own careers, too deferential to corporate power to acknowledge the true dimensions of the crisis, or help us solve it.
Reclaiming commercial black radio would mean rediscovering the Freedom Movement’s traditions of disrespect for illegitimate authority. It would mean confronting the white and black absentee owners of corporate black radio and TV, like Clear Channel and Radio One at their own public events, like live remotes, and demanding news for the people. It would mean mobilizing people from black journalism schools and black communities to demand the reanimation of black journalism. It would mean insisting on the establishment of local news gathering operations at black radio and TV stations as a condition of the continued good will of audiences toward their owners and advertisers. That is a tall order, well outside the vision of a Tom Joyner or even of a Tavis Smiley, who sometimes pretends to be a journalist.
Leadership is seeing a way where the wise and informed tell you there is no way, and organizing people to take that way. Neither of these guys is in the leadership business. Joyner and Smiley are in the business of marketing, assembling ears and eyeballs for delivery to sponsors. In Tavis’s case, those sponsors include Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, two of the nation’s biggest and most notoriously low-wage employers, along with payday loan and housing bubble profiteers Wells Fargo and Bank of America. This seriously limits the problems one can mention on the air, let alone the solutions.
Media are the circulatory systems of modern societies. Mass media can empower us. They can enable us to carry on our conversation about what we expect from society and from each other. Or mass media can distort our public conversations and our private lives, instilling anti-cooperative and antisocial values in young and old alike. Look at BET.
African American communities are not the only ones that suffer from the slow death of journalism. Civic engagement in the larger American polity is withering too, and for the same reason. Newspapers are folding not because they are unprofitable, but because even after cutting actual journalism to the bone, they don’t bring in the fifteen and twenty percent returns that the bubble economy has accustomed investors to. A well-run newspaper can consistently bring in a seven to nine percent annual return on investment, which in pre-bubble days was considered just fine. The very few newspaper corporations that remained family owned, or that went nonprofit are doing journalism as well as ever.
Forty-some years ago, Dr. Martin Luther wondered aloud that all his life’s work might have been the integration of African Americans into a burning house. King answered his own question by declaring that if that was the case, we would have to be the firefighters, not just for ourselves, but for the whole American polity. If the demand for news, news for the people, is ever to be raised inside corporate boardrooms and in the street at live remotes, it will happen first in African American communities. Or maybe not at all. There is no legal road to this. It can only be done by confronting owners of commercial black media and making the price of a no-news regime too costly for them.
We can be firefighters, struggling for a democratic, responsible media, trying to reanimate old and configure new models of journalism for our own and the larger American community. We can disregard Joyner’s advice, and struggle to free the black conversation from corporate gatekeepers who would monetize, militarize and privatize it. Or we can burn with the rest. And watch Black Evil Television.
One need only to look at the recent booting of John Salley of “The John Salley Block Party” on Radio One’s KKBT-FM (100.3) The Beat and the chosen replacement of Dallas based personality Tom Joyner, to see the crisis in black radio in Los Angeles.
In the nations second largest media market that is home to almost one million blacks, there is only one daily talk show that focuses on issues relevant to blacks in Los Angeles and unless youre up at 4:30 a.m., you miss it. And this is not a plug for the Front Page on KJLH, but it is what it is.
Please tell me that I am not the only black person in Los Angeles to notice the gradual yet progressive downward spiral of black radio into meaningless banter by obsolete personalities who are solely focused on their own lives and use four hours during morning drive time to tell you about it. And if its not the Chatty Kathy personalities then its the celebrity who has a new movie, television show, album, video, ring tone, sneaker, or whatever that just wont shut up.
Then theres the issue of community news, you know news about issues relevant to you and me. Well, thats just about disappeared too. If radio stations read news, its usually Associated Press or City News copy that wasnt written by us and usually doesnt pertain to us. How many black radio news reporters do you know of? Off the top of my head I can only come up with one, Jacquie Stephens.
Lets be clear here. There are only two black owned radio stations in Los Angeles, Stevie WondersKJLH and Radio Ones KKBT.
KJLH gets a pass simply because they are home to the only daily black talk show in Los Angeles and they actually have a black reporter that goes out into the community to report our news. However, KJLH would do better by moving the Front Page into the Home Teams time slot and vice versa.
Radio Ones KKBT has been a constant disappointment for years. I didnt think they could go much lower after hiring Steve Harvey but then they hired John Salley and made a fool of me. It was a bad move to nix then KKBT personality Dominique DiPrima, but Da Poetess has been trying to hold it down over there for the community.
Consider this. Spanish language radio disc jockeys were the moving force behind the mass numbers of people in attendance at the pro immigration rallies and marches. They told their people where to go, when to be there, what to bring with them, and the people came.
When was the last time John Salley, Big Boy, or Cliff Winston told you to attend a rally in support of an issue that was important to blacks? My point exactly.
Illegal immigration is all everybody is talking about these days, everybody except you know who.
So imagine my own surprise when I found myself tuning in to KFI 640 AM of all stations to get briefed on the latest immigration news. Notoriously known for being Los Angeles conservative talk station, KFI has been the only station in Los Angeles to really address immigration in a language that I can understand, English. And even though I dont always agree with their points of view, I can appreciate a station that is actually willing to at least talk about the issue. It was KFI not a black radio station that first asked blacks how they felt about illegal immigration and had blacks call in to the station to voice their opinions. Go figure?
Someone reading this article is going say, Well, these stations play music. Their focus is not news. That may be true, but if its a black station, we should also be able get our news from them as well. I dont expect KFWB News 980 or KPCC 89.9 FM to do a special broadcast on community news specific to blacks, although it would be nice. I do however expect stations that cater to this community to address the issues that are important to us and provide us with comprehensive news that we can use to educate ourselves.
Who was voted off of American Idol the night before is irrelevant when we are in danger of losing a community like Leimert Park.
Somehow I just dont think a Dallas based radio personality who has no connection to the community is who we need on the airwaves in Los Angeles. Its just a hunch.
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Kennedy Johnson is a black writer who lives somewhere in Los Angeles. Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The State of Black Radio
An instrumental part of the immigrant rights supporters mobilization was the cooperation from Spanish language media. What is black and urban radio doing in Los Angeles to educate and mobilize blacks on the issues? Or should they be educating the community?
Confirmed panelists include radio pioneer Lee Bailey of eurweb.com, KJLH Public Affairs Director Jacquie Stephens, and 100.3 The Beat Community News Director Poetess. Invited guests include Eddie “El Piolin” Sotelo of Radio la Nueva.
Join the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable for a candid discussion on the state of black radio in Los Angeles Saturday, May 6, 2006 at 10 a.m. at the Lucy Florence Coffee House located at 3351 West 43rd Street in Leimert Park. For more information, please call (310) 672-2542.
Saturday, May 6 at 10:00 AM at the Lucy Florence Coffee House.
3351 West 43rd Street in Leimert Park Los Angeles
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information, please call (310) 672-2542 or visit www.laurbanroundtable.org.