Monday, April 30, 2012

The Demise of 'Black' Radio?

A meme lamenting the demise of 'Black' radio is presently circulating through the Afrosphere with the announcement Disney is switching the format of WRKS-FM (a.k.a., "98.7 KISS" to New Yorkers) from urban contemporary to sports talk.  In what some are billing as a "merger", 98.7 KISS' long-time UC rival, WBLS-FM, is hiring some of the former's announcers to fill time slots presumably occupied at the present time by WBLS employees.  One notable casualty of the format switch is Tom Joyner's syndicated morning show

The reaction I've seen from African-American media pundits has been predictably apocalyptic, if not a bit melodramatic.  Paul Porter, a radio industry veteran who maintains the blogs RapRehab and Industry Ears,  suggested on Facebook WRKS' format switch as another log added to 'Black' radio's funeral pyre.  My initial response was ambivalence: 98.7 KISS isn't owned by African-Americans, therefore "we" aren't losing anything of substance.  I wanted to say if by 'Black' radio we're describing a station, regardless of its ownership, that features content aimed at a predominantly Af-Am audience, then 'Black' gets reduced to a fashion statement subject to change on a whim.

Several people weighed in on Porter's thread attributing this development to several factors, including syndication, commercialism, and deregulation.  While all those factors (and others) collectively explain the current, non-competitive state of radio today -- including 'Black' radio -- I question whether a given station's format change by itself is a reliable reference point for measuring the presence of Af-Ams in the radio industry.  It's no exaggeration to state Af-Ams are underrepresented in every aspect of the radio industry.  However, relative to 1980 (to pick a year) and earlier, there are more Af-Ams working as talent, clerical staff, and managers; more Af-Ams are owners of radio stations and network groups than at any point in American history.  Af-Am professionals are dispersed throughout the industry with companies of various sizes.  Additionally, Af-Am-themed content and content created by Af-Am artists is being increasingly assimilated into the programming of other radio formats, i.e.; adult contemporary, Top 40, CHR, etc.  These facts suggest something contrary to 'Black' radio's demise is underway. 

I submit this slow assimilation of Af-Ams and Af-Am culture into so-called 'mainstream' radio is a net positive and represents not only the class' expansion into the industry, but an opportunity for Af-Am entrepreneurs and investors to make the leap beyond ethnocapitalism.  Perhaps the conventional model for what Porter and others call 'Black' radio has become an anachronism, and therefore requires a new, more accurate definition by which the state of the industry can be judged.  It should be noted that WBLS' ownership has transferred from the Af-Am-owned Inner City Broadcasting to a group including Magic Johnson -- who, the last time I checked, is African-American.  Even Radio One has taken steps to diversify its outlets' programming to offer rock and all-news formats.  I expect as Johnson's group adds to its portfolio of radio stations and other media properties, his participation alone will come to represent the archetype for 'Black' radio moving forward in time.  I'd like to see industry professionals like Porter lend their talents and expertise to this evolution by actively participating in organizational efforts that can become the basis for a new, proper 'Black' radio vanguard.

I'm skeptical whether this type of activism is forthcoming from the armchair pundits and those others protesting the loudest.  However... hope springs eternal.