Black Community Radio Fights for a Voice

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Although big names such as Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden and Steve Harvey enjoy large audiences and thriving careers in radio, African-American voices in community radio are declining. U-Savior Washington and Bob Law talk about the disparity as highlighted in their new documentary, Disappearing Voices.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. If you are searching for black voices on the radio you can easily find them. Often they will be the same voices heard in major cities around the country through syndication.

(Soundbite of radio shows)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, it's the time for the morning show. Oh, oh, oh.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Keeping it real.

REVERAND AL SHARPTON: Keeping it real. Keeping it real. I'm your host, Reverend Al Sharpton. I'm live today in Chicago, Tuesday.

MR. MICHAEL BAISDEN: The party's in full tilt. Close your office doors and turn up your radios. This is the Michael Baisden Show. Let's get this party started.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) More real. More laughs. More love. Monique in the afternoon.

Unidentified Anouncer: It's the Monique Show.

MARTIN: Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden and Reverend Al Sharpton, Monique. They are all on for hours each day around the country, but if what you really want to hear is a voice that emphasizes issues in your local community, that might be harder if not impossible to find. The documentary, "Disappearing Voices," explores the history of black radio and what has lead to its decline.

Here to tell us more are U-Savior Washington, who directed "Disappearing Voices," and Bob Law, a former radio host in New York City who wrote and narrated the documentary. Welcome to you both.

Mr. BOB LAW (Former Radio Host; Writer and Narrator, "Disappearing Voices"): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Bob, this film was your idea, as I understand it. What gave you the idea for it?

Mr. LAW: Well, my years in radio and the experiences that I had, because I came into radio, really, in the glory days of black radio, in particular. During the 1970s there was a music industry. There was an entertainment industry that was fueled primarily by black radio. And as that began to disappear, I began to make note of how that was happening.

And so the idea with the film was to kind of clear the air, to take people from - the early days of the film talks about how commercial radio began, which is one of the reasons we make the argument about it being a racial monopoly. Then it moves into how black radio really began to develop, personality radio began to develop that really became very much a black entertainment idea. And then it looks at the glory days of radio and then begins to examine why it is that radio began to decline.

MARTIN: You make the argument, Bob, in the film, that broadcasting - and that's not - that shouldn't shock anybody, that African-Americans had so little ownership stake in any of the significant institutions in this society, you know, for so long. Black radio really started out on the margins and became a true cultural force by the '60s. How did that happen?

Mr. LAW: Because black radio did indeed start on the margins. It was geared to the black community. It was not black owned. It was a giant supermarket making - kind of creating a platform that people could sell products through and reach this black consumer audience. However, the people who go into radio in those early days, some of the original pioneers, they brought their own powerful personalities into it and related very well and very specifically to the community that they were surviving and therefore gave black radio a rather unique personality.

MARTIN: U-Savior, can you just describe what is the role that black radio played in these communities in the '60s and '70s?

Mr. U-Savior Washington (Director, "Disappearing Voices"): Well, it was a way that people were able to plug into issues that were very, very important to them. I know in the '60s, when I was growing up, music literally saved my life in many instances, in hearing certain voices. It was a way that you felt connected. It was a gathering place. It was like going to a meeting and not having to physically be there. Sweep, clean up on Saturday but still listen to personalities and music, and the personalities would provide context.

MARTIN: Bob Law, I don't think I'd be a legitimate New Yorker if I didn't say, respect yourself!

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Say it for me. I can't do it like you do it.

Mr. LAW: That would get you back into New York, indeed.

MARTIN: Come on. Say it for me.

Mr. LAW: Say it. It was a whole chant. We must respect each other. We must protect each other. And you know, the radio station where I was in the '70s was where we launched the Respect Yourself Campaign.

MARTIN: Yeah, where did that come from? Tell me about that. I mean, if you lived in New York when you were on the air, you just knew it. There were just some names that were just giant, like Frankie Crocker, Vi Higgens(ph). I still - I can't imitate it, but "Frankie Crocker," I've got to get that...

Mr. LAW: Both Frankie Crocker and Vi Higgens are in the film, and some of Frankie's games. "I'm going to put more cut in your strut, more glide in your slide. More dip in your hip. Push girl."

MARTN: But talk to me about that Respect Yourself idea, specifically,because you talked earlier in our conversation about aggressively serving the black community. What did you mean by that and how did the Respect Yourself come into that?

Mr. LAW: In the very, very early days, black radio just did music. As we moved and evolved and a black consciousness movement began to develop around the country, black radio stations all over the country began to include news and public affairs. When I came into radio, I came in as a public affairs director doing a talk show on Sunday afternoons. The radio stations were very much in touch with the community. We were ascertaining community needs with an actual ascertainment form going out into the street on a monthly basis.

I was very active before I got into radio. I was already working with young people with Wingate Prep Street Academy(ph) in Brooklyn, and so we had already begun to develop this Respect Yourself Campaign. Now that I was in radio I was able to give the Respect Yourself Campaign real life because now we could talk about it on the air.

MARTIN: How were you able to do that? I mean, was it a kind of thing where the ownership of the station was totally on board with it or was it that the hosts, the talent or the staff there just had a lot more autonomy than they seem to do now? How were you able to do all that? Was it just assumed that that was part of your job?

Mr. LAW: Yeah. It was both of those. The host and the people at the station had a great deal more autonomy and also a great deal more willingness to relate to the community than what we seem to here now. But at that time, because of the need to really become endeared by the community, black radio stations all over the country were aggressive. They were doing - before I did the Respect Yourself Campaign at WWRL, Bernie McCain, who was public affairs director prior to my coming, did a major campaign called Help a Junkie Bust a Pusher, and things like that were happening at KGLW in Los Angeles with the radio program called "Front Page." WCHB in Detroit with John Day, who used the radio station to organize men and to help deal with the Halloween violence that took place traditionally in Detroit. So radio stations were the logical avenue for reaching the community with community service as one of the things that Al Sharpton points out in the film.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with U-Savior Washington and Bob Law about their documentary, "Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio."

The film makes the point that black talk radio is very much on the decline. A lot of people, I think, would argue with you on that because they know a lot of national figures like Michael Baisden, Tom Joyner, Al Sharpton, Whoopi Goldberg has a radio program and they argue - they say, gee, I can hear these voices all over the country. What is it that you think is missing? Is it the local flavor?

Mr. LAW: No. No. Not the local flavor. It is the content. And when we say disappearing voices, we don't really mean just the voices of the host, but with the producers that I had and the kind of talk radio we were doing then, there were a number of other people who were on the air whose voices had begun to disappear as the talk that is on now is not quite the same in terms of content and commitment to critical issues in the black community. So Mylana Karinga(ph) was on the air with us regularly. So was Jawanza Kunjufu. So was Hakim Adabudi(ph), so was Sonya Sanchez, and any number of people. Those are all of the voices that have begun to disappear. Not just the voice of the host. The host should not assume that they alone bring so much to the table by themselves.

MARTIN: U-Savior, what do you think?

Mr. WASHINGTON: It's not just the voices but it is the ideas because we're in the battle for the hearts and minds of our people, and when you talk about ideas, when you talk about certain people who can speak to certain issues like Alombe Brad(ph), when you talk about history, when you talk about reparations, it's gone off the radio. Issues like police brutality, I mean, Sean Bell case, you hardly hear about on commercial radio.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people would argue with you about that because how else then were these issues continually surfaced? They were. There was tremendous activism around these issues and you see what I'm saying, I think a lot of people would argue with that.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah. Except that their argument would not necessarily be sound. There was coverage of those issues when it was a front-page story. What we did with talk radio was continue to talk about these issues and a number of other issues that are not being talked about. Even as we began to talk about Sean Bell, for instance, we stopped talking about Katrina victims. At the same time that we were mobilizing in Louisiana around Sean Bell, Chokwe Lemumbu(ph), who is not being interviewed on the radio regularly anymore, is still organizing around Katrina victims. There's not very much coverage given to the people's tribunal that was held in New Orleans, so...

MARTIN: I think maybe the argument might be that maybe the issue is that you just don't agree with the politics of the people who are on the air. The issue isn't that they're not on the air, that black people aren't on the air, but you just don't like their politics. Could that be it?

Mr. WASHINGTON: No. That's not really it. The people that I've named are not on the air. Chokwe Lemumbu is not on the air regularly at all. Kwama Kenyatta, councilman from Detroit, leading the struggle, challenging the mayor of Detroit, he's not on the air regularly. So no, it's not that people disagree with their - with the politic. What I'm saying is that the voices, not the point of view, but unquestionably, the voices have begun to disappear.

MARTIN: But the criticism that radio is too homogenous all around the country, too much of the same stuff...

Mr. WASHINGTON: Right.

MARTIN: Too controlled by, kind of, central managers, not enough involvement in local concerns, is not unique to black radio. I mean, people complain about the consolidation of the industry and how that has changed the tenor of what one hears around the country. You know what I mean, it's like it's sort of a fast food radio. It's the same - you could drive though wherever you get and it's the same thing. You're going to hear the same songs, the same kinds of stuff. It's not unique to black radio. Is it your argument that black radio is uniquely affected?

Mr. LAW: It is a situation that is prevalent throughout radio in terms of the consolidation. However, it is the black community who suffers the most as a result of that. Not that the white community doesn't suffer as well, but let me just - this is Bob, let me be clear, I am unapologetically concerned about black community and black people first. Unapologetically concerned about the ideas which flow into the black community. There are a number of people who struggle on large - on all the issues, including myself with the Coalition for Artists and Activists. We raised the question about consolidation and censorship and all of the homogenizing of everything, and we're joined in that struggle by prominent white performers, as well, but I'm very much concerned about what happens in the black community.

MARTIN: So, U-Savior, how do you envision this film? Is it kind of a crie de coeur? This is sort of to let people know what they're missing? Is it a call to arms to let people know what they should be doing? How do you envision it?

Mr. WASHINGTON: It's a little bit of all of that that you just mentioned. Although it is not an in-depth history of black radio, we would probably need to do several volumes to talk about the history of black radio, it was such a prominent and unique force in America. But we gave an overview just so that we can contextualize our argument that these organizations like Madison Avenue - I mean and Arbitron, you know, deliberately undercount, discount, black listenership so that black radio stations remain poor.

MARTIN: What do you think should happen now? What do you want to happen?

Mr. LAW: This is Bob Law. We would like to see the industry make some fundamental adjustments. For instance, one of the things that they can do is to more adequately survey the black community. Black radio has been saying since the middle '60s that Arbitron does not fairly count black listeners. Arbitron argues that it does. There have even been attempts on the part of some black owners, one of who is in the film, to sue Arbitron to force them to change.

We also, and this is where the audience does come into play, we also are going to have to challenge corporate America to respond to black consumer dollars more effectively. Right now the black consumer dollar is absolutely taken for granted, so black people are losing formats of radio stations that they love while they continue to shop in supermarkets, buy automobiles, buy products, buy coffee, buy any number of things that they never hear advertised on in any black media.

So the message we take to the audience is one around economic sanctions, which may have to be employed in order to make the point that if you want to continue to get black consumer dollars, you're going to have to support black media.

MARTIN: I understand where you're coming from. I've asked you this a couple of times. I feel like I have to press the point. Is it possible that the era has passed? That people are just not as interested in this particular style of talk?

Mr. LAW: Right. OK.

MARTIN: Is that possible?

Mr. LAW: All right. OK. I did - I did hear you say that a couple of times and no, I don't think...

MARTIN: That they just want something else?

Mr. LAW: No. I don't think the era has passed at all because nobody said that we don't want this, what we want now is a kind of buffoonery or gossip. Nobody ever said that that's what we wanted, and so no, I reject that notion. Let's give them an opportunity - let's give them a choice and see. See, one of the reasons that a certain kind of talk is so popular is because it's the only kind of talk.

MARTIN: OK. U-Savior, what do you think?

Mr. WASHINGTON: The idea that, you know, some of the garbage that we're hearing right now on the radio is something that we want is not really something that I think, you know, we should really be talking about. We're in a critical situation in terms of our people in terms of, you know, police brutality, in terms of housing, AIDS, Katrina is still very relevant. There are groups of people who are still homeless and this is like going on three years now and no one's talking about this. You know, everyone's talking about what celebrity is doing this and that and no one knows how to even plug into their own (unintelligible).

It's a critical situation and that's why I think this movie was so important to make because we need to start having the right types of conversations in our community and we need people like Gary Burton, even Bob Law, who could provide that kind of context for us.

MARTIN: But, U-Savior, when you use words like the right kind of conversation and stuff that you consider to be garbage, I mean, for some people it raises the question of just because you don't like it doesn't mean it's not worthy. Do you see my point? It - I think for some it raises the question of...

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, I think garbage is garbage. I mean, I think, you know - I mean, just because, you know, you put a suit and tie on garbage, you don't greet it in the morning and say, good morning, sir. It's still garbage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And, you know, calling women, you know, B's and H's and, you know, the kind of silly things, the smack fest, which I, you know, point out in the movie, just - it just speaks to the lowest common denominator of, you know, of the black community, and I think that that should stop.

MARTIN: Final thought from you, Bob?

Mr. LAW: Well, no, just to what U-Savior said, amen. You know, New York City radio stations or black music stations all around the country don't do any news whatsoever. Whoever said that there was absolutely no reason for news at all, that there's no value in having any news whatsoever? Well, of course, there is value in that and we do know the difference between right and wrong and we will argue for what we believe is right.

Other people have the right to argue for what they believe is right, but what we're dealing with is a kind of censorship . See, we're not saying, take all of that stuff off the air. We're saying put the rest of what happens in the black community on the air, as well. There's a total black experience.

MARTIN: Bob Law is the writer and narrator of "Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio." U-Savior Washington is the director. They both joined us from our New York bureau. Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LAW: All right, now. Thank you.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More for NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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