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There are few things that rankle persons of a certain age more than to suspect that the great events of their youth have been devalued to mere nostalgia. Therefore, it was with mixed emotions that we read journalist Todd Burroughs' response to our May 29 commentary, "Who Killed Black Radio News?"
We noted that African American radio ownership increased from just 30 stations in 1976, to over 220, today, in a process that devastated small owners and vastly increased the holdings of successful Black and white consolidators. singled out 66-station, Black-owned Radio One, the seventh-largest radio chain, as the most egregious perpetrator in the near-extinction of local news. For example, Radio One dominates the Black radio market in Washington, DC, with four stations, yet employs no local newspersons. Thirty years ago, when 's publishers were radio newsmen in DC, three Black-oriented stations fielded 21 reporters.
"Many of the gains made by African Americans during the heyday of Black radio cannot be duplicated today," we wrote, "due to the duplicity of those entrepreneurs who cashed in the people's collective chips for their own benefit." called for direct action to compel radio owners - of whatever race - to serve the news needs of the Black community.
In a poignant and beautifully written June 5 letter, 35-year-old journalist Todd Burroughs recalled the Black radio of his childhood in Newark, New Jersey. Burroughs later became a scholar on the subject, documenting the rise and decline of Black news/talk formats. "An active journalist for nearly 20 years, I haven't seen a Black commercial radio newscaster at a press conference since 1986," said Burroughs, who lives in Washington. He continued:
Dr. Burroughs, we realized, was not consigning local Black radio news to the mists of times gone by, but he does question whether there is a popular or organizational demand for radio journalism that serves the Black community on a regularly scheduled basis. It is a valid question - one that we believe is, however, largely irrelevant.
News has never been a ratings winner on anybody's radio. Thirty years ago, Black grassroots organizations did demand that their struggles and achievements receive news coverage on Black-oriented radio. A more public-friendly Federal Communications Commission sought to accommodate the opinions of vocal elements of the community, although never to the point of denying license renewal to a station on the basis of poor community relations. These two factors - with grassroots activism by far the more crucial - created a climate in which stations competed with one another to do the best news job they could, while wishing for the day when they could dispense with it, altogether.
Consolidation erodes competition, and the FCC became a non-factor - a servant of the owners. In many large markets, those owners were Black. Chains like Radio One gradually eliminated news from the mix, passing off syndicated or local talk, instead, and pretending that morning disc jockeys could double as news people. In the process, the local Washington Black radio press corps plummeted from 21 in 1973 to just four newspersons at two stations, today. Black radio across America is mostly a local news wasteland.
Burroughs is partly right, in that the broad listening public has been conditioned to expect what they presently get out of Black radio. Those of us with backgrounds in marketing find that totally unsurprising - we rely on Pavlovian responses as a matter of course. Burroughs' assessment of "national and local Black organizations and Black leaders" also holds up, if he means the household names and comfortable organizations that have " developed their own communication networks and forums." Many of these organizations were also around during the times of turbulence, however, and played little or no role in pressuring Black radio to provide adequate news coverage. Their concerns were always focused on the cosmetics aspects of television and the prestige jobs at major daily newspapers. Not being mass organizations or popular leaders, they had only occasional uses for media that reached masses of Black people - Black radio.
Grassroots activists, on the other hand, wanted to fire up their neighbors and change the political complexion of the community. They confronted social disparities and injustice, and engaged in community-building. Their political consciousness evolved along the same arc as Black radio, itself, and they could never have achieved their many small and large victories, without it. It did not matter whether or not the ratings showed that most people would prefer the flow of music on the radio not be interrupted for a few minutes once an hour. The people needed local Black news, whether they wanted it or not, and activists - locked in a symbiotic relationship with Black radio reporters - made sure that they got it. Black politics and reporting thrived, until the monopolists of both races severed the radio connection, with the complicity of the corporate-dominated FCC.
firmly believes that the near-death of Black radio news has been a major factor in the erosion of Black political organization, nationwide. All struggles have local beginnings, and effective activism requires a learned set of skills as well as replicable models of work. A professional-oriented NAACP chapter is most likely quite capable of sending out social/networking invitations to a select list of upwardly mobile folks without the assistance of Black radio. In any event, that's not news (although it might be suited to some afternoon talk radio chatter.) But police brutality, garbage in the streets, unaccountable local politicians, double-dealing power brokers, hyper-active drug markets, local labor grievances and racial discrimination in all its forms - these are matters that can only be addressed and organized around with the active cooperation of news organizations.
Therefore, if there is to be a return to the days of vibrant activism, those organizations that seek change must empower themselves by compelling local Black radio to methodically cover community actions, grievances, celebrations, and whatever else is fit for public consumption. Popular preferences are both irrelevant and grotesquely uninformed. Remember, Burroughs hasn't "seen a Black commercial radio newscaster at a press conference since 1986." That is testimony to an ongoing crime against Black people.
Martin Luther King didn't hold a referendum before every march. Malcolm didn't wait for a poll to tell him when to speak like a man. Harriett Tubman didn't survey the slaves on their attitude towards runaways.
It is understandable that the long slide to Black non-news radio has left many younger activists and potential leaders without a guide to reaching masses of people through the airwaves. They no longer have a model from which to learn and, consequently, they work unnecessarily hard performing organizing tasks that regular news coverage would easily facilitate, setting the stage for new and even more productive areas of struggle. Yet consolidated radio is in many ways more vulnerable to community pressure than yesterday's "stand-alone" stations. There are many ways to make a non-news regime more costly to the owner than providing the coverage that is necessary for the political health of the community.
This discussion is not about nostalgia and mourning things that have been lost. It is about what we are losing every day that we do not act to take back Black radio.
Eddgra Fallin is a quintessential community activist who often finds her political projects boycotted by local radio. She responded to Burroughs.
Larry Piltz is a wry writer from Austin, Texas who cuts the opposition long, deep and unexpectedly. Piltz places the FCC media giveaway in generational context, then doubles up with a non-sexual entendre.
Laying down with dogs
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a pure corporate bribery machine that has embedded itself deep in the bowels of the Democratic Party (see this week's Cover Story), advises members to curb their comments on "divisive" subjects like affirmative action. Nevertheless, the DLC has mounted an aggressive Black recruitment drive, luring ambitious office seekers into its ranks with offers of campaign financing. Politicians with previously respectable progressive credentials are winding up on the DLC/New Democrats membership list. One of these, Illinois Black State Senator Barack Obama, is currently vying for a U.S. Senate seat.
associate editor Bruce A. Dixon's concerns were encapsulated in the title of his June 5 commentary, "In Search of the Real Barack Obama: Can a Black Senate candidate resist the DLC?"
Dixon knew Obama during the law professor's days as a top notch, progressive political organizer. So did fellow Chicagoan Brian Banks, who sent a letter that only folks from the Windy City can fully appreciate.
Dixon took as a very bad omen the deletion of a rousing, October anti-war speech from Obama's campaign website. Here's a sample:
Dixon concluded that the speech "vanished" from the website at the advice of DLC-commissioned consultants. A few days after publication of Dixon's piece, he heard from an irate Cheryl Matlock.
Bruce Dixon was surprised - yet pleased to respond.
Dr. Ron Gerughty, a lifelong activist and educator, believes the Democratic Party has become hopeless corrupted by the DLC.
We suspect that political cartoonist Khalil Bendib has become insufferable, showered as he is by praise for his artistry in these pages. Fortunately, the publishers of are a safe distance and several mountain ranges removed from Bendib's all-consuming aura. We fear that well-intentioned readers like Evelyn risk inflating beyond human proportion the man we once knew simply as Khalil.
Mr. Bendib worked for many years in corporate media. He was far too good for them.
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