NEW YORK (FinalCall.com) – Activists and advocates recently failed to stop movement on a congressional bill related to the radio industry.
With Michigan Democrat John Conyers’ success bringing the legislation, “H.R. 848, The Performance Rights Act,” out of committee and a step closer to congressional vote, Black station owners and their defenders say the bill will help push the already struggling stations out of business.
The bill which will require all radio stations to pay royalties for playing music, combined with revenue losses in a bad economy, corporate takeovers, and skewed ratings used to snag dwindling advertising could mean the loss of an important source of information.
“This industry is already on the verge of bankruptcy, this tax will push us over the brink,” warned Alfred Liggins III, president and CEO of Radio One, the largest Black owned radio company in America with 59 stations. Radio One’s revenue dropped 10 percent in 2008 and was down 30 percent in the first quarter in 2009, said Mr. Liggins, whose mother, Cathy Hughes, started the company.
“We have been forced to reduce our payroll and if this bill passes we will be forced to cut costs further, and we will have to lay off more people,” he added.
The Conyers bill, which came out of committee May 13, grants performers compensation from traditional radio broadcasters. Stations that gross less than $1.25 million a year could pay a flat fee, instead of royalties based on song plays. Broadcasts of religious services would be exempt from payments.
In simple language, the bill, according to activists, creates a performance tax or royalty fee on radio stations for airing free music to listeners. The standard in the industry has been stations playing music for free, with artists and record companies benefitting as air time promoted record and CD sales.
The National Association of Broadcasters said that in 2008 annual music sales generated through free radio airplay grossed $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion. Radio airplay’s role in increasing ticket sales at concerts was reported to be $2.8 billion a year.
The Recording Industry Association of America, one of the driving forces behind the bill, says artists deserve to be paid for their performances–even if the performances are pre-recorded. Fifty percent of the tax would go directly to record labels and subsequently to artists, said RIAA.
The recording industry watchdog group in a February press release stated that FM stations earn $16 billion a year from advertising revenue without compensating artists and musicians. However, RIAA has yet to break down the actual percentage of the proposed tax to go to the artists, which is why Rep. Maxine Waters referred to the bill as a “runaway train” during the debate on May 13. Ms. Waters asked for more time to study the bill. “We do not have enough knowledge on the implications of this bill,” Ms. Waters said.
“John Conyers literally snatched the rug from under us today,” Radio One founder Cathy Hughes told nationally syndicated talk show host Michael Baisden on his May 13 radio show. According to insiders on Capitol Hill, the bill probably won’t go before the full House for vote anytime soon. That has not eased the concerns of Black radio station owners. Several calls and e-mails to Rep. Conyers’ office were not returned by Final Call press time.
The “impact of the tax would be forced upon marginally profitable formats such as African American news/talk and gospel,” radio executive Charles Warfield, president and chief operating officer of the New York-based Inner City Broadcasting Network told Radio and Record, an industry newsletter.
There are presently 240 Black owned stations in the country, according to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. The Federal Communications Commission states there are 13,476 radio stations in total.
“The Conyers’ bill is an ill-conceived idea,” Bob Law, a legendary broadcaster and radio activist told The Final Call. “The congressman does not understand the political and social dynamic of Black radio.”
“We are in a kind of a ‘perfect storm’ with the bad economy, the unfair competition we are facing from Clear Channel, owner of 1,200 radio stations, and VIACOM and the Arbitron listener rating system known as the Portable People Meter,” said Jerry Lopes, president of the American Urban Radio Network, which broadcasts news and information to 250 stations across the country.
Portable People Meters are electronic audience measuring devices that track what consumers listen to on the radio and television. The PPM can be worn as a pager as it detects hidden audio waves within a station or network’s audio stream, logging each time it finds such a signal.
Black stations say the devices don’t truly capture their audience share because the PPMs do not accurately count the listening habits of minorities. “The device does not measure listening–it measures exposure to a signal,” said Imotep Gary Byrd, radio activist and Black radio historian.
Critics of the new devices say another problem with the meter is that it picks up audio signals as the consumer moves around, which is not an accurate reading of the listener’s station preferences.
Mr. Lopes told The Final Call during a May 13 interview that within the next 30-days there would be a meeting between the major players in Black-owned radio. A presentation will focus on how to collectively meet challenges. “We now realize that we have to come together to combat this,” Mr. Lopes said.
Bruce Dixon, managing editor at BlackAgendaReport.com, feels the discussion has to turn on why these things are happening to Black owned radio, and the role of Black radio.
“We cannot count on the owners of commercial radio, Black or White, to do the right thing by the community,” he argued. “I don’t see how we can stop the bleeding in Black radio, because owners don’t acknowledge our people-hood. They only see us as a vessel to sell something to,” said Mr. Dixon.
Minister Paul Scott, a North Carolina-based community activist and blogger at NoWarningShotsFired.com, added, “This discussion of unity should have taken place 20 years ago between the grassroots and Black radio station owners.”
In an online commentary titled “Should We Save Black Radio?” Min. Scott wrote:
“Black radio must make a commitment to truly be the voice of the people. We must make Cathy Hughes and the rest of them sign a contract with Black America that will put the needs of the community first and foremost.”
“Sure Cathy and the rest of us get criticized–not enough news, not enough information. We are committed to the community that we serve, but the bottom line is we are in business to make money,” countered Mr. Lopes.
The decline of Black-owned radio has become a hot-button issue in New York City. In April, the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People (CEMOTAP) held a forum on this issue in Harlem. Two of the participants were Bob Law and Imotep Gary Byrd.
“The decline of Black radio is the result of rating company Arbitron’s estimates of listenership, with the company saying nobody listens to Black radio,” Mr. Law explained to The Final Call. “Black owners have been reluctant to stand up and fight for a just system because they don’t want to raise the issue of racism. So, then I ask what was the N.Y. attorney general’s lawsuit about?”
In 2008, N.Y. state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo filed a lawsuit against Arbitron, the second largest media rating system, charging the firm undercounted minority listeners.
A landmark agreement was reached in March between the attorney general and Arbitron, with the company admitting it failed to disclose important flaws in the Portable People Meter’s methodology that contributed to the system’s failure to adequately chart Black and Latino listeners’ habits. Arbitron was forced to pay $260,000 to settle the attorney general’s claim, and $100,000 went to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB) and the Spanish Radio Association.
Now, on the other hand, said Mr. Law, corporate conglomerates Clear Channel and VIACOM are forcing small owners out of business. Former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 radio deregulation bill opened the door for the big corporations, “and they took advantage of the new regulations right off the bat.” Mr. Law said.
Advocates say Black ownership is not the only thing threatened in the current environment. Popular broadcaster Tom Joyner, whose show runs in 115 markets, had to purchase his own airtime in Chicago on Black-owned Crawford Broadcasting. Mr. Joyner had been removed from a Clear Channel station despite his popularity. The corporation tried to cut costs by dumping the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” and broadcasting the “Steve Harvey Show” on two of its “Black-oriented” stations in the city. Clear Channel owns six stations in the Chicago market.
These shows are syndicated, which means they reach Black audiences and may run on White-owned stations but still ring with the community and tackle serious issues.
“TJMS” is known for jokes, old school music and serious social and political analysis and commentary.
But it also helped to inspire 200,000 voters to register for the 2008 election that put Barack Obama in office. The show reportedly reaches approximately eight million people everyday.
Syndicated hosts such Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden and the Rev. Al Sharpton also helped in the mobilizing of national support for the “Jena 6,” Black youths in a small Louisiana town that faced jail time after a fight with White students. The hosts’ discussion and coverage of the case led to 20,000 joining a major march that was dubbed the rebirth of the civil rights movement by many.
The important role played by Black-owned radio to institutions such as the civil rights movement did not go unnoticed by leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. According to historian Bryd, during a speech to a gathering of NABOB Dr. King stressed the importance of the stations to the civil rights movement.
Black radio advocates also say Black talk radio plays an equally important role, but fear the genre may well go the way of the rotary telephone. Dominique DiPrima, host of Front Page, a daily talk show on Los Angeles station KJLH 102.3 FM, which is owned by music icon Stevie Wonder, said talk radio is “a unique opportunity to reach the community.”
“But, the real problem is that Black people do not have a national talk network such as Air America. We need a Black Rush Limbaugh, and we need a bigger tent to express our visions,” Ms. DiPrima said. “We must have the freedom to talk about the issues that affect our daily existence,” she added.
Mr. Byrd points to how the Arbitron rating system forced New York’s Inner City Broadcasting Network to cancel its popular talk format because Arbitron said Blacks do not listen to talk radio. “Inner City had made some of the boldest moves in Black talk radio, but they couldn’t fight against the rating system, which forced them into a music-centric format such as 24-hour gospel,” he said.
Observers say WLIB played a key role in the 1989 election of New York’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, and that Black-owned radio station WVON played a significant role in the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington.
Karen J. Bond, executive director of the Chicago-based National Black Coalition for Media Justice, insists the key is to encourage lawmakers to rollback the 1996 “Telecommunications Act” which lifted restrictions on radio station ownership, allowing unlimited ownership of stations nationwide. The legislation also eliminated the requirement that stations include public service programming.
“There was a sound reason that monopoly ownership of media was originally outlawed by Congress in 1936, and that was to prevent control of a major source of information that citizens need to make informed decisions about their lives,” Ms. Bond told The Final Call.
“Black communities have suffered for the last 10 years of media ownership consolidation more so than most other communities in this country,” Ms. Bond opined.
Ms. DiPrima said people across the nation are now being mobilized concerning the issue of corporate dominated radio, particularly on the left. “We have to be stubborn and keep on talking about the demise of Black radio,” she said.
- Partnership Between The Black Church and The Black Press (Minister Farrakhan/FCN, 05-29-2009)
- HR 848 and Black Talk Radio (CedricMuhammad.com, 05-21-2009)