Saturday, August 24, 2013

'Black' Radio: Revisited

Several months ago, I wrote an op-ed countering the so-called demise of 'Black' radio in America.  Premiere Networks' (Clear Channel) cancellation of Michael Baisden's syndicated radio show, and longtime New York City Urban Contemporary outlet WRKS-FM's format switch to sports talk triggered the customary round of reactionary handwringing and conspiracy theories from industry insiders, activists, and critics predicting Black radio's iminent extinction.  I responded by first pointing out the number of radio stations -- broadcast and Internet -- owned or operated by African-Americans is higher today than at any point in history, even as growth among Af-Am owners of broadcast properties has roughly stagnated since the mid-90s.  Second, the number of Af-Ams currently working in the U.S. radio industry is higher today than at any point in history (racial/ethnic demographics of ownership notwithstanding).  Third, the cumulative total of radio programming inclusive of Af-Am themes and/or aimed at predominantly Af-Am audiences is also greater today than at any point in history.  It should be noted, however, that Af-Ams remain disproportionately underrepresented in all areas of the U.S. radio industry and underserved as a market.

I'm now following up on the first op-ed with a deeper analysis of the milieu as IMO the State of Black Radio sucks.  This time my observations are largely anecdotal and mainly concerned with aesthetics, especially the areas of marketing and programming.  Assuming Black radio to be programming principally representative of Af-Am culture, it does a terrible job putting the full range of Af-Am-oriented content on exhibit.  Black stations seem to come only in one of three flavors: R&B/Hip-Hop (more frequently marketed as 'Urban Contemporary' or 'UC'), 'Adult-oriented' R&B ('Urban Adult Contempory' or 'UAC' -- R&B for late Boomers and Gen Xers), and Gospel.  There are a handful of Af-Am news/talk stations, including WURD-AM in Philadelphia and Radio One's WOL-AM (Washington, D.C.) and WOLB-AM (Baltimore) scattered about the country, but in many cities where Af-Am represent > 10% the metropolitan area population Af-Am-oriented news/talk is practically nonexistent.  To be fair, there is a growing number of Af-Ams launching radio talk shows online, but the economics of Internet radio are such that it's doubtful many webcasters are building the audience needed for their stations to achieve financial viability.

I realize that business considerations influence radio stations' programming decisions, even for Black/Urban radio stations.  Yet, managers of these stations regularly complain they receive few ad buys relative to their ratings performance.  Urban radio's executives accuse advertisers and media buyers of redlining: fixing a percentage of the total ad dollars that are to be spent among all Af-Am-themed media.  Media buyers and ad agencies fire back by citing many of the listeners of Urban stations are young adults, < 25 years old, who aren't yet decision makers shopping for durable goods; i.e., cars, appliances, etc..  Therefore, the sponsors of Urban stations tend to be fast food restaurants, beverages, and toiletries/personal grooming items, along with other impulse buys (including entertainment media and lottery tickets) and special events. 

Many Af-Am-themed stations have chosen to brand themselves as 'Urban' rather than 'R&B', 'Hip Hop', or even 'Black' outlets to escape redlining, but the strategy has failed on two fronts: 1) programming remains narrowly focused on contemporary R&B content from a limited number of Af-Am content producers promoted and distributed by an even smaller number of non-Af-Am-owned media conglomerates, 2) stations' marketing efforts aren't in sync with their branding.  It stands to reason a generic UC station would feature programming with a greater mix of non-Af-Am artists across a similarly wide cross-section of music genres matching its local demographics.

It appears today's Black radio management simply lacks the imagination and fortitude for their stations to avoid appearing as anything but dull.  It's no surprise that so many critics regard Black radio as moribund.  Still, the potential for growth with Af-Am themed radio programming is vast and mostly underdeveloped.  It can and should be redefined in a way that results in more diversified programming and greater revenue streams for both individual stations and across the industry.

A good first step would be to distinguish 'Black' (or, 'African-American', 'Afrocentric', etc.) stations from UC, R&B, Gospel, and similar formats.  The hypothetical Af-Am station would feature content reflective of the African diaspora; a cross-section of several music genres; i.e., R&B, Jazz, Rock, International, etc., blended with local and regional news and public affairs relevant to Af-Am listeners.  Af-Am stations could further differentiate themselves from their UC counterparts by exhibiting content produced over a wider time period.  To counter tepid ad sales revenues, listener membership campaigns could be implemented as auxiliary (or even primary) revenue streams.  The added value from listeners having an interest in the station would also be a boon for its branding.  Many radio consultants recommend social media and digital content sales -- especially of metadata -- as revenue sources, but I believe event planning and production hold more potential as revenue sources for broadcasters and webcasters.

Ownership remains the biggest challenge facing Af-Am radio.  While Af-Am ownership of radio stations has exploded since the 90's, nearly all of the growth is in Internet radio with its relatively low barriers to entry.  Despite the growth, few online-only radio stations of any genre ever break even, let alone become competitive with their broadcast counterparts.  However, an individual webcaster's financial viability -- and their station's ability to compete with AM and FM stations -- is perhaps less important to the big picture of Af-Ams empowering the voices of our communities through the use of Internet radio technologies.  Considering also the standing opportunities for Af-Ams to launch or acquire AM and FM stations and networks through syndication, leasing, and investing to operate as low-power, full-power, commercial, or non-commercial entities, the conventional narrative describing Black radio's downfall is in dire need of a rewrite.