Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Tavis Smiley, and the Impoverishment of Black Media

Excerpt by Bruce A. Dixon
Black Agenda Report
04/15/2009

“The cancellation provoked outrage among fans because the Tom Joyner Morning Show is about as good as commercial black radio is allowed to get nowadays.”

'The bottom line,” radio fly-jock Tom Joyner told fans in his blog, “is that black radio will never be what it once was, and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it.” Joyner tried to put the yanking of his show by Clear Channel into perspective for fans, who deluged his blog and email with expressions of support, and even talk of consumer boycotts. Joyner discouraged boycott chatter, and like Steve Harvey, who seems likely to replace him on many Clear Channel outlets, declared it was all “just business.”

The cancellation provoked outrage among fans because the Tom Joyner Morning Show is about as good as commercial black radio is allowed to get nowadays. Despite the show's limited playlist of corporate-approved music and periodic descents into minstrelsy, Joyner regularly set aside a small amount of time for commentary, issues and appeals addressed to African Americans as a community. It was never much time, and the issues, the commentary were relatively safe stuff on the whole. But to the news-starved audience of black commercial radio, Tom Joyner, like his colleague Tavis Smiley, stand out like rare gulps of fresh air.

But sustaining the life of a community takes more than an occasional breath. Community and democracy demand a steady diet of news to fuel civic engagement and public conversation in the public interest.

As BAR's Glen Ford pointed out all of six years ago in 'Who Killed Black Radio News,” the owners of commercial black media have for a generation enforced a no-news policy, justifying it with the unsupportable claim that all black people want is to be entertained." The fact is that news is less profitable than 100% entertainment. PR firms and the celebrity industries provide their own “news” releases complete with commercial tie-ins, and already segmented to the age and income divided groups that marketers love. Black radio owners decided not to do news because corporate media has consciously decided not to recognize African Americans as a people or a polity with our own set of collective experience and political will. In a media regime that lives and dies by advertising alone, black commercial radio will only recognize black communities as marketing contraptions, as audience segments whose ears and eyeballs it can deliver to sponsors.

The owners and managers of commercial black radio and TV are not the least concerned about our past or future, our housing or health care crises, the black imprisonment rate or the digital divide or the education of our young or the dignified security of our elderly. To them we are just a market, passive consumers to be sliced and diced according to marketing industry guidelines. A hip hop station, an oldies station, an easy listening urban station, a gospel station, all under the same ownership with no news on any of them, forever and ever, amen. If this is what Joyner meant, and we think it was, when he described the current state of black commercial radio, he was right. Except the “forever' part. Except when he told fans '...there's absolutely nothing we can do about it.”

Commercial black radio and TV have not always been hostile to and incompatible with journalism. There was a brief period, back in the early and mid 1970s when journalism flourished on commercial black radio. Local teams of African American journalists competed with each other to report and package non-entertainment news directed at black communities. News gathering and reporting operations on commercial black radio played a key role in the black conversation, enabling African American communities to define themselves as more than passive masses of consumers and voters. They heyday of black broadcast journalism didn't last long. News was never as profitable as entertainment, and as limits on how many stations one owner could have were removed, owners borrowed heavily to get more stations, and cut costs to reward themselves and repay the loans. News was the first casualty, reported Glen Ford six years ago.

There need not have been a contradiction between Black ownership and community access, including the maintenance of quality news operations. In a betrayal that, we believe, has been a major factor in the relentless decline of Black political power, many Black radio owners have adopted business plans identical to their white corporate peers.

Such is certainly the case with Radio One. "The company's voraciousness mirrored the consolidation throughout the radio industry after rules limiting the number of stations one company could own nationally were lifted in 1996," wrote the Washington Post, in a February 5, 2003 showcase article. Radio One boasts a 60-person research department that "randomly calls thousands of people and conducts 20-minute surveys of those who tune in to its radio stations." Do the people want news? The subject isn't broached by either Post reporter Krissah Williams or her main interlocutor, Radio One Chief Operating Officer Mary Catherine Sneed. Instead, the conversation is all about the sales value of entertainment programming. "If you're not [at parties, clubs and grass-roots events], you'll never be a big personality in the community," Sneed said. "Those are the things that separate stations from one another."

STORY CONTINUES

http://www.blackagendareport.com/?q=content/tom-joyner-steve-harvey-tavis-smiley-and-impoverishment-black-media