DISAPPEARING VOICES: THE DECLINE OF BLACK RADIO By: Steve V. Rodriguez

Everything happens for a reason and this couldn’t have been more apparent than the other day when my friend couldn’t make a screening of a new documentary, DISAPPEARING VOICES: THE DECLINE OF BLACK RADIO and passed the invitation on to me. Like the title suggests the film is about the demise of a once popular radio format that was owned, operated and primarily served a Black audience. I attended and graduated from U.C. Berkeley where I majored in Mass Communications specifically, Race Relations within the media. During that time and shortly after I received the first ever paid internship at KBLX Radio Station in San Francisco, which happens to be a Black owned station with an African American Program Director, Kevin Brown. Seeing this film not only tested and invigorated my past but, seemed to fall into my lap as a passionate sign to take some sort of action – my action begins now!

The film is a History Course while simultaneously takes a step back to examine an American media format that rose in the late 40’s and 50’s, had its hey day in the 60’s and 70’s and ultimately was subtly transformed into a commercial and mainstream format that today resembles nothing like its inception. Directed by U-Savior Washington and narrated and written by radio personality, Bob Law (Both pictured Left) featuring rare interviews with Melvin Van Peeples, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Chuck D of Public Enemy, just to name a few, the film not only tracks the history of Black Radio and its impact on a culture but, looks to the future to begin to find solutions.

The film documents that the first Black-Owned Radio station was WERD in Atlanta in 1949 and featured Radio Personality Jack Gibson who greeted his audience with the words, “Hello America we’re here!” Radio became a powerful medium to the Black community because it spoke directly to its audience and featured Black Radio Jocks who became prominent figures on the airwaves developing their own style and sound. A Radio Jock could set the tone and mood of the day and directly affect his audience. He was just as important as the music he played which was often records he chose to spin. The power of Black Radio became a unifying force within communities across the country. Radio Jock, Frankie Crocker, (left) was nicknamed Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker for his showmanship. He was one of the first VH-1 V.J.’s and hosted the popular dance show Solid Gold. He also appeared as himself in five films including “Cleopatra Jones”. Other Jocks developed a “rapping persona” that is believed to have been the inception of Rap. The Jocks would talk over songs adding their own flavor to the tunes often times making them larger than the station they represented.

Black Radio could advertise directly to its local communities featuring local Black Owned businesses and products for Black people. A record could be played by an artist because it was good and found in local record shops like Birdell’s Record Store in Brooklyn. Local promoters could take the popularity of a record that was gaining momentum in a particular city and have the artist headline a nearby venue. Political and social voices could organize through Radio reaching its targeted Black audiences.

There was a shift in perception in the 60’s when Madison Avenue became savvy that Black Radio had power over its audience. White Owned Radio Stations that featured Black Jocks became nervous of the power that Black Jocks had fearing that they were becoming larger than the station and therefore would demand larger salaries. ‘Black’ became ‘bad’ and there began the notion that some of these personalities were becoming ‘too black’. The fears and need for business to assert its advertising dollar on Black Radio changed the format to a new term in the mid-70’s called “Urban Contemporary“. Radio had a new name and with that came larger advertising dollars like cigarette companies, beer and soft drinks like Coca Cola. Urban Contemporary was fazing out Black Radio in favor of a colorless society thus creating a societal shift. With these changes the All Black Radio format was disappearing allowing little or no room for artists like Percy Sledge, James Brown and Isaac Hayes whose lyrics and style were not welcome on this new format.

The documentary points out that with fewer and fewer Black owned Radio stations and with larger corporations like Clear Channel dominating the markets there is little room for community concerns within specific markets. The landscape of Radio has dramatically changed as a voice and outlet for local communities in favor of large advertising dollars and ‘dumbing down’ by loud morning show hosts. These large corporations have been accused of advertising to predominately white audiences and if they do advertise to ethnic populations they ask for “advertising discounts”. Additionally, with the advent of Arbitron, (Radio Ratings Research) in the 60’s, the importance of rank determines the amount of Advertising radio will acquire and ultimately who survives or is forced to turn off its switch.

At a post screening of “DISAPPEARING VOICES”, held at the MAMA FOUNDATION for the Arts in Harlem, Bob Law led an informative Q&A discussion that was passionate, informative and offered solutions by those in attendance. This included a warning of the total decline of any form of Black Radio by Arbitron which is not an officially governed licensing institution yet seems to hold an overriding power over who survives or not. Both U-Savior and Mr. Law informed us that their main reason for making this film was to “clear the air and misconceptions” regarding the rise and fall of Black Radio and how “…many in the Black Entertainment Industry never really understood the political and economic reality that shaped their community”. (Producers Iyanna Jones and Shawna Glover with Laws and Washington)

I encourage you to look out for this informative and timely documentary, “DISAPPEARING VOICES” in festivals around the country as I think the information is vital to be aware of as it continues to shape our society. It’s a look at Race, Business, Power, Money, Community, Celebrity which are all applicable to any audience. BE INFORMED!

You can keep informed of the documentary at: www.blackwaxx.com and check out the trailer for “DISAPPEARING VOICES” below:

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9 Responses to “DISAPPEARING VOICES: THE DECLINE OF BLACK RADIO By: Steve V. Rodriguez”

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  1. KepAccock says:

    What is bumburbia?

  2. Cashisygeatte says:

    Hi

    As a fresh progressivepulse.com user i only wanted to say hi to everyone else who uses this forum :>

  3. Black Waxx says:

    A message from the director of Disappearing Voices, U-Savior Washington and everyone at Black Waxx. We want to let you know whats going on…

    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

  4. createmo says:

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  5. Judy Gather says:

    requesting information on all of your up coming events. Thanking you in Advance.

  6. I am an educator and speaker at numerous music & film conferences throughout the United States and abroad. As a semi-historian I have been speaking on the demise of Black Radio, Black Record Labels and corresponding Black owned support companies. I would love to have the priviledge of obtaining a copy of this documentary for educational showings.

    Could you put me in touch with the films creators?

  7. Steve V. says:

    Hi Petra,
    I’ve contacted one of the producers of Disappearing Voices and someone will contact you shortly.
    Thanks for your comment!!

  8. petra thombs says:

    I am the sister of the late Sonny Taylor and I am am very interested in this topic. My brother’s lifes work was in radio and he worked tirelessly to support others learning the trade in radio. I am interested in seeing the documentary and to contact his colleagues, Bobby Jay and Bob Law to learn more about the history and what can be done now to reverse this trend.
    Could someone contact me regarding this?
    Thank you for making this film and for telling an important part of our history.
    Sincerely,
    Petra Thombs

  9. macewindo says:

    Therefore!
    Black leadership, churches and business folk must crate an alternative to the sellout WLIB/AM and return Bob Law, and Imhotep back to daily status on the air,
    before the coming Economic Katrina that will hit NYC by the next 6 years.