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: