Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Struggle to Save Black Radio

The struggle to save Black radio

By Betsey Piette
Published Mar 21, 2010 9:00 PM

A spirited program addressing the tactics used by corporate media to undermine Black radio was held in Philadelphia March 9. It was attended by activists already involved in efforts to stem this tide and others concerned over how to keep peoples’ news and culture alive and thriving.

The program, hosted by the Philadelphia International Action Center and the Prometheus Radio Project, featured Iyanna “Nana Soul” Jones and U-Savior Washington from Black Waxx Multimedia. It was also the Philadelphia premier of an exciting documentary produced in 2008 by Washington entitled, “Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio.”

Following the movie screening, Jones and Washington were joined on a panel by Cody Anderson, station manager of WURD and former owner of WHAT radio; Andalusia Knoll from the Prometheus Radio Project; Berta Joubert-Ceci of the People’s Video Network; and Jasper Jones with West Philadelphia community radio WPEB. Anderson and Jones both appear in the film.

“Disappearing Voices” makes the point that those who control radio and other media can control what people think and what culture they want. In the Black community, radio is very important. The lack of access to this medium impacts struggles against racism, police brutality and other forms of injustice, and for jobs, affordable housing and education.

In Philadelphia activists have struggled for years to get out the truth about Mumia Abu-Jamal, unjustly imprisoned on Pennsylvania’s death row for over 25 years. In 1997, when an interview with Abu-Jamal with Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman was scheduled to run on Temple University radio station WRTI, then-Gov. Tom Ridge effectively stopped the broadcast by threatening to cut state funding to the station unless it discontinued its contract with Pacifica radio.

Black-owned talk radio station WHAT, which frequently provided news of Abu-Jamal’s case along with other community events, is now hosted by mainly white DJs. WDAS, a station previously known for playing Black artists, has switched its format to “urban contemporary.”

“Disappearing Voices” traces the history of Black radio from the early 1940s when Black stations or white-owned stations with all-Black staff began to spring up across the South. As this phenomenon grew, more stations opened in urban areas from Boston to Los Angeles and played a major role in promoting the Black music industry. As these stations gained popularity, some white radio personalities began to adopt Black persona on the air.

Black radio stations took up key issues that other media would not touch, including the alleged rape of 15-year-old African-American Tawana Brawley by a group of white police officers in 1987, and the 1984 presidential campaign of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. What set Black radio apart from all other media was the promotion of serious Black talk and personality programming.

Profits, racism and the FCC

In the 1980s the drive for profits began to undermine Black radio, opening the way as well for the whitewashing of Black culture. MTV, for example, would play white artists singing R&B, but excluded Black artists. Stations that played “urban contemporary” music began to compete with those whose format focused more on traditional grassroots Black culture.

The biggest changes, however, were changes in Federal Communications Commission regulations. When radio program licenses were first given out, Black stations were excluded.

Jones noted that, “The FCC is supposed to protect the interests of the public by seeing that station owners operate with some level of responsibility to the public, which includes offering programming that serves the community as well as protecting station owners from being forced out of business by monopolies.”

Yet in 2004 the FCC opened the door for conglomerates like Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting to buy up competing stations within the same listening area. The owners of WDAS, a popular Black-owned station in Philadelphia, were forced to sell the station. It was eventually purchased by Clear Channel for a sum considerably more than the original owners received. Clear Channel’s use of syndicated DJs and canned music made programming into a McDonald’s-like product — as uniform as possible — while creating a barrier between programmers and the communities they serve.

A further attack came with the growth of Arbitron Inc., a major supplier of radio-ratings information to advertisers that many say works to keep Black radio impoverished. Arbitron’s rating system for the stations most listened to claims to include all population sectors, but in his film Washington interviews people of all ages in the Black community who have never been contacted by the company.

“Disappearing Voices” ends on the upbeat note that struggle by the people to hold the FCC accountable and to demand radio that speaks for and by the community can turn the situation around. This message resonated with members of the panel and audience, many of whom are already engaged in doing just that.

Prometheus Radio Project has been challenging FCC regulations while providing assistance for communities to develop their own radio using low-watt frequencies. Members of one such project, WPEB radio in West Philadelphia, spoke on the panel and from the audience. Crystle Smith described her efforts to provide a voice for Black youth with a program she directs on Change Radio.

Berta Joubert-Ceci spoke on the role that radio has played in the struggle to advance economic and social justice in Venezuela, where much of the media is still owned by major corporations opposed to the development of a socialist economy. She noted that all over this Latin American country, workers and poor people are broadcasting their own media to challenge the corporate control.
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