By Kiarra Solomon
The recent (surprise) merger of KISS FM and WBLS FM in NYC was a huge hit to the state of Black radio in New York. Both stations were facing financial problems, so ultimately, the merger was the best way to prevent the failure of both. There were a large number of layoffs, mostly from the KISS FM station, which affected both on air and administrative employees. As a result, two major voices in syndicated Black radio: Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden were silenced. Neither of these radio shows made the cut for programming for the new combined station.
And while the situation is very sad for all involved, the worst part is that this may be a trend in Black radio. The end of WBLS was not just about the layoffs, but more about the loss of community programs, outreach, and unfortunately, critical voices that the station brought to the African American community.
There are several factors that have contributed to this trend. One major factor has been the corporatization of radio in general and Black radio in partitular. This trend has created a cookie cutter sound, created by corporations and forced on listeners. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 act lifted limits on ownership and ultimately created the environment for big corporate radio to thrive. This move had a very negative affect on African American radio stations across the nation. Over time, the sound of radio, especially Black radio drastically changed. At one time, radio was a local medium, acting as a sounding board for local issues and a stage for local artists. Today, the majority of Black radio programs are syndicated. In fact, African Americans are 75 times more likely to hear syndicated programming than their white counterparts.
Another major blow to African American radio was the 2009 Arbitron switch from journal tracking to PPM (Portable People Meter) tracking. (Arbitron is a research company that tracks listeners’ habits and compiles the data into ratings for radio corporations, advertisers, etc.). Although the switch was proposed as a better way of tracking listeners’ habits, it has in fact had a negative effect on Black radio stations’ ratings nationwide. And when ratings drop, advertising drops. This loss in revenue has unfortunately, caused the scaling back of even some of the major urban radio companies, such as Radio One, whose stock dropped so low in 2010, they were briefly removed from the Nasdaq stock listing.
All of these factors have impacted Black radio over the past decade, not to mention the technological advances that have changed the way society consumes media in general. The invention of the iPod, YouTube, and Pandora Radio have all greatly increased our source for music options. These advances combined with the Millennial Generation’s need for “instant gratification” has caused those media companies, especially radio, who haven’t evolved the way their media is distributed to be left behind.
Black radio is definitely not what it was 20 years ago. No longer locally driven, playlists are created by executives, with music selected based on corporate deals. Of the music that is played, it is repeated generally hour after hour. It has become virtually impossible for local artists to get airplay, and even radio contests have gone “nationwide”. Only 9 percent of African Americans use the radio as their news source, in comparison to nearly 18 percent of whites.
The cutbacks are affecting everyone in nearly every market. In 2010, Upfront with Tony Cox, a daily news and talk show that aired in 17 markets was taken off the air due to lack of funding. Jimmy Myers, one of the few black radio hosts in Boston, lost his Sunday show in 2010 when the station changed its weekend format. As Black Radio continues to suffer, studies show that mainstream media still only minimally covers issues facing African Americans, especially local issues. All while the platforms we have to discuss our issues are quickly disappearing.
After Michael Baisden was taken off of the new WBLS, he started a petition to get his show back on air in NYC. As our options continue to shrink, it is evident that we must continue to support the few we have left. We must rely on our syndicated radio hosts to ensure that the issues of the African American community are heard. We must sign petitions to keep our African American radio hosts on air. And we must hold each of them responsible for raising issues, uplifting, empowering and informing the African American community. If we don’t Black radio may soon completely disappear.
You can find and sign the Michael Baisden petition at www.change.org, just search ‘WBLS Michael Baisden’.