Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Effects of Media Consolidation on Urban Radio — Part III

Here's the final installment of renowned hip-hop journalist Eric K. Arnold's story on urban radio ad media consolidation. You can read previous entries here and here. The full article is also available for viewing on our main site.

What Has Consolidation Done to My Community?

Studies have shown that to a large degree, localism has been one of the greatest casualties of the post-consolidation era. Not only have playlists become standardized, with the same, say, 100 songs by major-label artists in rotation in every major market, but access to stations by community groups has decreased, as has the number of community-affairs programs. In some cases, corporations have cut the number of public affairs department heads per market to just one for as many as eight stations.

With the decrease in community accessibility has come a lack of community accountability. Despite widespread discontent, commercial stations have only responded to the needs of local communities when significant pressure has been put on them to do so – and then only sometimes.

In 2002, a group of concerned community activists calling itself the Community Coalition for Media Accountability (CCMA) studied KMEL’s playlist and its relation to the social, economic, and political issues facing young people living in the urban areas the station reached. The report concluded that not only was KMEL not supporting local music, but that the music they were playing was detrimental to youth in the community. According to the CCMA, young people were “more likely to be depicted in the context of crime and violence than through issues such as health, education, family and community life, and KMEL is consistent with this trend.”

Yet KMEL isn’t the only urban station in a major market to come under fire by community groups. In 2005, New York’s Hot 97 aired the now-infamous “Tsunami” song, a “We Are the World” parody which was widely criticized as being racially insensitive. Despite firing a producer and donating $1 million to tsunami relief efforts, however, the station made few if any structural changes and soon returned to its old ways. According to a press release by Rosa Clemente of R.E.A.C. (Representing Education, Activism and Community) coalition, one year after the incident, Hot 97 continued to air “racially offensive remarks against Asians, African-Americans and Caribbean members of our community, which happen to make up the majority of their listenership.”

Joined by members of the New York City Council, R.E.A.C. demanded “corporate accountability and responsibility” from Hot 97 and its parent company, Emmis Communications. Yet no real commitment to community-responsible programming resulted. Instead, in recent years, a disturbing number of highly-publicized violent incidents have been linked directly to Hot 97, including several shootouts between rival rap crews.

Likewise, follow-up meetings with the CCMA and Clear Channel executives also resulted in no clear commitment by KMEL to address community concerns, although it did ultimately result in a smattering of more airplay for local artists — for a brief time. Playing more hometown acts was a way for KMEL to “legitimize themselves in a community that was restless over the lack of local music,” says hip-hop authority Davey-D.

What the “Radio Heads” Think About Localism

According to KMEL Program Director Stacy Cunningham, the station has again backed off of spinning local music, because “we were becoming a joke around the country” – despite the fact that the station had its highest Arbitron ratings ever in 2005, when it was playing a significantly higher amount of local records than it is today.

In order to be considered for rotation, Cunningham adds, local music must justify its inclusion alongside national, major-label artists. “I know Mary J. Blige is a winner,” says Cunningham. “What’s gonna make me give up that slot?” In order for local records to compete in the current radio climate, she says, “your stuff has to be hotter.” What qualifies as “hot,” however, is not explicitly clear.

There is, however, another motivator to stick to “safe” playlists. In a corporate radio environment, Cunningham explains, “everything’s run on fear. Fear of losing money and fear of losing (your) job.” As a result, there’s “no real impetus to be innovative.”

Her comments are echoed by Sterling James, a 20-year veteran of commercial radio who’s currently the afternoon DJ at SF Urban AC station KBLX. “With all of the consolidation, the [radio] industry has become monopolized,” James says. “Has it resulted in a lack of innovation? Absolutely.”

James notes that a mainstream crossover artist like Beyonce might be in rotation on several differently formatted stations simultaneously, adding, “most PDs in SF are listening to what NY and LA are playing.” With very few exceptions, she says, “an unsigned artist can’t get on the air.” One persistent indie R&B singer was able to get spins, but only after performing at a party for one of the station’s executives, she says. The reality is that PDs and MDs “have to play the hits and be competitive.” Which means DJs have little to no voice in what gets aired. “I can’t choose the hits, let alone what I play,” James adds.

Still, there are some PDs willing to break the mold, where the possibility exists. Mark Adams, PD for Jammin 95.5 in Portland, Oregon says, “I personally struggle with the desire to support/expose local music and artists with my need to run a successful, mass-appeal, commercial radio station. The two things are often at odds.”

What’s The Solution?

It’s probably unrealistic to think that, even with a change in leadership in Washington, consolidation could be reversed overnight. Commercial radio is unlikely to change unless major changes happen first at the policy level. And with major labels cutting their A&R departments and worrying about job security, it’s equally unlikely that every single deserving local artist in every region of the country will land a lucrative major-label deal anytime soon. This means they can expect a difficult time getting on commercial radio.

Yet some influential artists are advocating less reliance on commercial radio in the first place. Legendary rappers Chuck D and KRS-One have frequently criticized radio for exploiting hip-hop culture. Recently, an email from rap pioneer Too $hort was posted on Davey-D’s website, which read in part: “I just wanna inspire the local artists & fans to be realistic & keep hip-hop in our area alive without help from the radio stations . . . I believe in street-level movements creating the atmosphere for national movements & radio is only one outlet to create those movements. If U know that's not an option then U won't waste time, energy or money trying to please radio.”

Instead, many artists are turning to user-generated content and social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace to find their fans and post their music or videos, while listeners starved for content and substance can log on to Breakdown FM or stream Hard Knock Radio online. Another buzzworthy outlet is Current TV, which is making an increased commitment to covering urban music and trends in their mini-documentary “pods.”

Still another option is low-power FM radio, which doesn’t offer the cachet (or advertising dollars) of commercial radio, but is affordable, accessible, and locally available. Recently, there have been encouraging signs that the FCC and Congress will remove caps preventing LPFM stations in urban markets, a condition originally imposed by powerful commercial broadcasters.

Finally, for those completely fed up with the state of urban radio, here’s what you can do:

• Help remind Big Media that it broadcasts on public airwaves. Community members have the legal right to examine radio stations’ public files upon request. And commercial radio licenses must be renewed every eight years. The FCC does accept comments from the public during the renewal process; any station which is found to be operating outside the public interest can be fined or have its license revoked.

• Get Involved. Becoming a part of an organized effort seeking more community accountability in commercial radio is an effective way to put pressure on stations. At the very least, undertakings like the CCMA’s campaign or R.E.A.C.’s crusade have let urban radio’s corporate bosses know that somebody’s watching them, and at best, have hit these companies where it counts – in the pocketbook.

• Become an active listener. Without community feedback, MDs and PDs can only rely on research and consultants. If a station gets enough requests for a song by a local artist, it could result in increased mixshow spins or even being added to rotation.

• Use the Internet. Usually, Web addresses for key station personnel can be found on that station’s homepage. It only takes 5 minutes to send an email to every urban station in your region!

• Inform urban stations of events they should be covering. Most of the time, a commercial station’s idea of outreach is to send their promotional street teams to clubs and concerts. If you know of an event promoting positive community values, don’t hesitate to contact the station and let them know about it.

About the Author:
Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-1990s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he’s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog,, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. Urban radio remains a subject near and dear to his heart; his recent SF Weekly cover story, “The Demise of Hyphy,” touched off an impassioned debate about the role of commercial stations in local communities which continued in the streets and online for months after the article’s publication. He currently lives in Oakland, California.

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