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Disappearing voices in Black radio

September 23, 2008
Veteran radio personality Bob Law denounces censorship in mainstream radio at a Troops Out Now press conference on March 17, 2005. - Photo: D. Lamb.
by Donna Lamb

No, it isn’t just your imagination. Black radio really is vanishing.

The new film “Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio” explains why. Written and narrated by veteran radio personality Bob Law and directed by independent filmmaker U-Savior, this documentary is an historical overview of a uniquely American media format that rose in the late 1940s and ‘50s, reached its peak in the 1960s and ‘70s and has gradually spiraled downward ever since.

At the time of filming, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that out of 10,315 commercial AM and FM radio stations in the United States, only 168 are Black-owned – and even that number is declining.

As the documentary explains, radio took on tremendous importance in the Black community because it spoke directly to its audience through Black radio “jocks” such as Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker, Hal Jackson, Eddie O’Jay, Jocko Henderson, Jack “The Rapper” Gibson, Gerry Bledsoe and “The Mad Lad” E. Rodney Jones, each of whom developed his own distinctive style and sound in their on-air – and sometimes on-top-of-the-record – patter.

They could set the tone and mood for their listeners’ whole day or evening, and they often became as important as the music they selected and played. During its glory days, Black radio advertised directly to local communities and featured local Black-owned businesses. For instance, it would be announced that the release by a hot new artist was available at the local record store, and a local promoter would book that artist to headline at a local venue.

What’s more, as Ron Daniels, who worked on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, and Rev. Al Sharpton point out, political and social activists could mobilize thousands of people by simply putting the word out over the radio about a protest or rally. It truly was radio by Black people for Black people.

However, in the late 1960s a shift began when Madison Avenue started realizing just how much influence Black radio had over its audience. White-owned stations featuring Black disc jockeys got scared that these jocks were becoming bigger than the station itself and therefore in the position to demand more money. Thus, in the 1970s something called “urban contemporary” came into being, co-opting Black music and phasing out Black radio in favor of a supposedly colorless society. Enter larger advertising dollars from huge corporations selling products like cigarettes, Coca Cola and beer.

Exit the music of artists like Percy Sledge, James Brown and Isaac Hayes, whose style and lyrics were deemed “too Black.” And, of course, with huge corporations like Clear Channel dominating the markets, there was scant room for community concerns to be discussed over the airwaves.

As we search up and down the dial today, sadly, we see Black-owned radio stations changing their formats first to one thing and then another as they scramble to find a niche where they can make a go of it financially. But, as “Disappearing Voices” makes clear, the problem isn’t the format or a lack of listeners, of which there have always been plenty.

The problem is the collaboration between Arbitron, which drastically undercounts Black listenership, and Madison Avenue, which insists that if their clients are to advertise on Black stations at all, they will only do so at discounted rates far below what they pay to advertise on “white” stations. After all, they figure, Blacks will buy their products anyway, so why pay to advertise on these stations?

So the long and the short of it is – contrary to normal business practices – even if a Black-owned station has a highly successful format that attracts a large number of listeners, the station is still denied the advertising dollars warranted by that number, making it almost impossible for the station to operate profitably. That is pivotal in the decline of Black radio.

All this and much more is laid out in Bob Law’s narration, which U-Savior and Black Waxx Multimedia Inc. have done a remarkable job of bringing to life through archival film footage. The documentary is also made richer by rare interviews with the likes of film icon Melvin Van Peebles, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and a variety of elected officials, journalists and current broadcasters such as Imhotep Gary Byrd, Sanford “The Cut Man” Moore and many other outstanding voices from the Black community.

As U-Savior stated in the Q&A at a recent standing-room-only screening of “Disappearing Voices” in Manhattan, “In this age of multimedia we have to look for more innovative ways to remain politically relevant. For me, cinema is the most impactful tool because it combines so many different art forms.

“My filmmaking is an extension of my commitment to the movement and to Black people. By being unafraid to tell the stories that Black people need to hear, being unafraid to jar people with the truth, I show them that there is not only hope, but certainty that we will prevail.”

Disappearing Voices: The Decline of Black Radio,” which was produced by Iyanna Jones and Shawna Glover with Bob Law and U-Savior, is being shown at various film festivals, including the Sixth Annual Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival and the Black International Cinema in Germany.

This story originally appeared in Black Star News, New York’s leading investigative newspaper, www.blackstarnews.com. Donna Lamb, a journalist and anti-racism activist, can be reached at dlamb@gis.net or (212) 696-6628. For the best in present-day Black radio, listen to Minister of Information JR at www.BlockReportRadio.com or on KPFA 94.1FM (www.kpfa.org) or KPOO 89.5FM (www.kpoo.com).

4 thoughts on “Disappearing voices in Black radio

  1. Black Waxx

    To my beautiful Black brothers and sisters,

    For the last couple of months Bob Law has been circulating lies about us stealing a movie.

    As filmmakers we’re baffled as to why we would steal a film from somebody who is not a filmmaker and does not have a studio or any filmmaking equipment. I’m just curious as to when the theft occurred. Was it before or after we promoted him at screenings and on radio shows, put his name on printed materials and on our website along with his bio and photo and gave him vanity credit as a producer even though he didn’t contribute evenly in the making of the film? In fact, his sole financial contribution consisted of half of the cost of a teleprompter that was only needed so that he could deliver his lines properly. What kinds of thieves run around making their victims look good?

    It’s interesting that the claim that we “hijacked” this film from Bob Law happened when the public began to take notice of Disappearing Voices and showed tremendous enthusiasm and anticipation for it. This at the same time that the NY State Attorney General hauled Arbitron into court over the Personal People Meters mentioned in our film.

    The claim of thievery is confusing, especially since the film hasn’t been distributed yet. In fact, I suspect that it may all be a ruse to cover up a far more sinister agenda.

    My suspicion stems mainly from the ridiculousness of Bob’s assertions. They’re just plain dumb. Before all this, I would have sworn up and down that Bob Law is far from dumb. Well, my father always told me that when smart people do dumb things be careful. Something else is going on.

    When I first heard that Bob was saying these things I ignored and dismissed it because I thought someone was just trying to throw stuff in the mix.

    But when we got a letter from his attorney the day before the film was supposed to be screened (perfectly timed it would seem) demanding that we stop showing the film, that we had infringed upon copyrighted material, we were thrown for a loop.

    So why did he do it? Well, we need to ask ourselves who would benefit by the failure of this film. Who would have an interest in this film not being seen or distributed? Arbitron? Clear Channel? Mainstream media? All of the above? And they all certainly have the means to persuade weak-minded individuals to go along with them in exchange for promises.

    Signs indicate that Bob has been compromised. No other explanation makes sense.

    The idea that we stole something from him is preposterous and everyone knows it. And even if they don’t know, they should know better.

    So, in light of all the drama we nipped it in the bud.

    Bob Law has been dropped from the final version of Disappearing Voices – the Decline of Black Radio. The film will no longer feature narration written or performed by Bob Law. We are pleased and proud to announce the upcoming release of Disappearing Voices – The Decline of Black Radio – Directed by U-Savior, narrated by radio legend Wayne Gillman (WBLS, Air America), with narration written by Iyanna Jones (The Ghetto Chronicles, Eyes of Xhosa) and additional interviews with:

    Bernard White – Program Director at WBAI Community Radio

    Jonathan Adelstein – FCC Commissioner

    Alec Foege – Rolling Stone Magazine contributor and author of Right of the Dial – The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio

    Dr. Kristal Brent Zook – Author of I See Black People – The Rise and Fall of African American Owned Television and Radio

    Marcus Reeves – Author of Somebody Scream – Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power

    Ralph Poynter – Activist and P.I. for the infamous Larry Davis case

    Sonny B. Southerland – Legendary 91.5 WNYE Community Radio DJ.

    So there you have it. These are the facts as to why he’s not in the film. Straight from the director’s mouth.

    My final observations are that it’s a shame when people take kindness for weakness. It’s even more of a shame when these things happen in the movement, as if we don’t have real problems we should be addressing.

    And for all of Bob’s friends who think he’s right and beyond reproach or who simply feel compelled to show loyalty because they’ve known him so long, here’s a quote from Octavia Butler:

    Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought

    To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears

    To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool

    To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen

    To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to

    To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

    And for people who wondered why we took so long to respond: we were hard at work and we were still hoping in the back of our minds that he would come to his senses and eventually apologize for besmirching our name.

    I guess he has so much invested in his ridiculous lies that he thinks there’s no turning back. It’s never too late to do the right thing, Bob.

    Thanks to all who knew about this and called us to extend and declare their support.

    Thanks to certain folks who didn’t say I told you so when you had every right to.

    Thanks to the film festivals that didn’t buckle when they received bogus phone calls from Bob accusing us of stealing.

    Wow. For Bob to stoop to this level, business must be really bad at the Seafood Café.

    Revolution then peace,

    U-Savior

    Reply
  2. Sanford(The Cutman)Moore

    U Savior,

    I was asked to participate in the film by Bob Law. I have respected Bob’s long time advocacy for Black Radio and the issues he sought to bring light and amplification to when others were not to be found or who were reluctant to challenge the powers-that-be.

    I truly believe that the inferences and comments about Bob, his motives, the genesis of the film are unworthy of the truth and content contained in the documentary. To edit him, his knowledge, his historical importance to the struggle is an insult and injustice to those of us who have manned the ramparts…who have put their professional and personal asses on the line to bring truth to power.

    If I had known that this kind of mendacity and shit was going to go down… I would not have agreed to be filmed and recorded. This is a violation of not only Bob but of those of us in Black radio who have sought to defend and educate our audiences and our people. It is a opportunistic disgrace and a stain on the legacy of Black radio and the men and women portrayed in the documentary.

    U Savior…you owe Bob and the rest of us an apology. I don’t give rat’s ass about the changes, new people in the new version. It is now a discredited property to the millions of listeners who know Bob and his work as a stand-up brother and icon of Black radio.

    Sanford(The Cutman)Moore

    Reply
  3. Jihan Michel

    It is unfortunate that you chose to reply to U-Savior’s thoughtful commentary about the situation surrounding Disappearing Voices without verifying what is actually going on. I want to be clear: just because someone has championed a cause for ten years does not mean that in the eleventh year he can conduct himself unbecomingly and lean on his past achievement and reputation.

    You forget that U-Savior has also put his ass, his career and his reputation on the line not only in doing this film but also in even dealing with Bob Law whose reputation outside his inner circle is questionable at best.

    You’re angry because you think U-Savior disrespected your friend by issuing a public statement. It is certainly more honorable than the sneaky slinking around and whispering that Bob is engaging in. I think if Black Waxx had known that Bob Law would resort to the sort of mendacity that you castigate U-Savoir for in your comments, they would never have put the money and time into this film that they did. Nobody wants to spend money on bullshit. What started out as a partnership of sorts ended in the graceless fiasco you see today because Bob Law, not U-Savior chose to fling accusations of stealing. Nobody stole shit from him. He’s using his reach and influence and status in his inner circle to con you into thinking he’s a victim.

    He chose to attempt to steal the film from Black Waxx. He is the one who is lying in his court papers, accusing them of stealing his master tapes. He is the one attempting to use the very system that is not designed to empower us against a stand up company and a stand up group of people. You yourself can attest to the fact that this claim of thievery is bogus, because you yourself were taped by Black Waxx. You witnessed them setting up their equipment, putting in their tapes, mic’ing you up.

    It is Bob -and now you by siding with him without doing your due diligence as a thinking human being- who has violated the community and the people, because by siding with him you are agreeing that the effort to silence this film and all of the people who participated in it, including yourself, is a just one and nothing could be further from the truth.

    CutMan, I am disappointed in you. You are one of the most eloquent and analytical minds that we showcased in the film. I am saddened that your ability to analyze does not extend beyond your friendship with a person whose actions are as far from honorable as you can get.

    I don’t give a rat’s ass about your misplaced loyalty to a man who sought to use the work and contributions of young people for his own gain and attempted to malign and destroy their reputation and relationships with other people when they would not allow ourselves to be raped by his ambitions. Black Waxx should move full steam ahead with this film come hell or high water, because no one’s ego, threats, LIES or ulterior motives should block them from being able to get this film out to the people.

    Bob’s own actions have discredited his participation in the film. It is a better film without him. It is he who is an opportunist and he does not deserve to garner any more spotlight or personal gain from this project.

    A final note: Black Waxx has been standup since it’s inception over fifteen years ago. They started as a record label with the intent of countering what is heard on the radio. They made choices in music and later film making that certainly won’t get them paid. They have no reason to steal anything from anyone, let alone Bob. And, if his contributions to the cause of free media are so relevant, why did he wait until he met them to make a film? Why were they able to gain so much more attention to this issue than he has with all of his status? AND THE FILM IS NOT EVEN OUT YET. As has always been the case, there are some people who are good at talking and some people who are good at doing. Neither Bob nor any other poser can lay claim to this story of radio; it belongs to the people.

    Reply
  4. Charles Seay

    I don't agree that "…, in the late 1960s a shift began when Madison Avenue started realizing just how much influence Black radio had over its audience. …Thus, in the 1970s something called “urban contemporary” came into being, co-opting Black music and phasing out Black radio in favor of a supposedly colorless society…." ____When "Negro's" wanted integration and demanded that we be included in the "American" way, we lost our connection with each other in pursuit of another man's identity. We wanted to go to school with them, not demanding that our failing and failed institutions be brought to a standard consistent with all others. Instead of looking for "Freedom, Justice and Equality" for the "American Negro", we stood on platforms like little SUPERAN"S demanding inclusion into the "American Way". That's exactly what we received. ____We claimed our struggle was for "all People", when all others are just plain seeking what is right for them and their people. __

    Reply

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