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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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).