The summertime’s sudden firing of Hot 97 morning show co-host K-Foxx left her describing the experience as “liberating.” Says K-Foxx: “I think that sometime these corporations hire communicators to do a job and be a personality. But I think when you shine too bright, they want to dim your light.”
As the only African-American female on Hot 97 (a station where she was one of two Black personalities), the release of K-Foxx from the airwaves pointed to a growing trend of one less voice of color in the media. And when it comes to Black radio, the concept of an AM or FM dial having a color increasingly seems to be outdated.
“I don’t think it’s really Black radio anymore. We are kind of beyond that. We’ve grown out of that term,” says K-Foxx, who’s moved on to explore other options as a media personality and philanthropist. “I think music is not Black. I think that it’s colorless now.”
Maybe this viewpoint comes from the age of gentrification, when we look out our windows into what used to be a neighborhood of all Black and brown races, and now see a rainbow coalition featuring pale skin, red hair and blue eyes. We turn on the TV and see a much-loved biracial president elected into a second term, while on another channel, we witness Black-created arts and culture accessibly embraced by youth of every shade, worldwide.
So when it comes to, say, African-American radio, for example, the old “for us by us” concept seems to be “obsolete,” says former WWRL morning show host Karen Hunter. “Our nation is very diverse. The typical ‘Black radio’ doesn’t quite address or serve what ‘Black America’ is today. It stereotypically speaks to a 1960s, ’70s reality when we are in a 2013 reality. So when I talk about Black radio, I am talking about Black culture in general. Black leadership in general, it’s obsolete, outdated and tone deaf.”
The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was famously known to use Black radio. After the first African-American owned station, WERD, was purchased in the 1940s, its headquarters was moved into a Masonic temple on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue. Also home to the M.L.K.-led South Christian Leadership Conference, King would beat at the ceiling with a broomstick as a signal that he was ready for the microphone to be handed down so he could address the public.
“Black radio, when it first started, was the voice of the community,” says Sway Calloway, who speaks to millions as an MTV personality and through his own radio shows on Sirius/XM’s Shade 45. “Black radio [today] in most cases—not all—let down the community, because it doesn’t really talk about the community. It just talks to it. It’s not a conversation going on with the community. It’s not informative. It’s one big gossip report to me.”
“People get selfish and they get caught up in themselves, as if they’re there just because they’re brilliant,” criticizes Karen Hunter. “None of us are that brilliant. We are there because, at the end of the day, we are here for a purpose that’s beyond us. It’s not about Black radio. It’s about being your Black self wherever you are, and making sure that you speak power when you have the opportunity, no matter what position you’re in.”
But what if your position isn’t given enough time? On traditional radio, the more popular a host is, the more time they’re given to speak… sometimes. The average Black radio personality is given a 30-second “break” to talk. Some hosts are allotted two minutes to make a point.
“What’s so crazy about it is a morning show trying to have two- to three-minute breaks. So it’s three people who [as a team] have a two- or three-minute break,” says K-Foxx. Her former show’s time limits mathematically break down to 30-60 seconds of talk per person. “Or you just get left out. There’s definitely some limitations and revamping that went on. But I think that’s radio, period. More music. Less talk.”
Gone are the days of disc jockeys like Washington, D.C.’s Petey Greene calling the Black community to action through conversations on racism and poverty. No longer will you turn on the radio and hear 15-minute speeches “I Have a Dream,” which was broadcast over TV and radio in 1963. Even lighter things, like entertainment news and gossip reports, are being cut.
“In terrestrial radio, you can no longer luxuriate over conversations, so I think I got out just in time,” former radio DJ Wendy Williams explained during an interview on Sway in the Morning. “Because it’s all about ‘the music and the jocks be quiet.’ And I don’t care about the music. I’m a personality.”
“It’s true,” Sway adds, thinking on his nearly 20-year career in broadcasting. “When I came in radio, it was about the jock and the music was the decoration.”
“That’s been the argument since the days of radio existed,” says Skip Dillard, operations manager of New York’s WBLS and WLIB. At the end of the day, you have to play the game. There is a ratings game and a revenue game. I personally have worked with jocks who felt like they weren’t given a chance to talk and do the radio they wanted. You have to find balance. You’re constantly reinventing yourself.
“We always have to find new horizons, and sometimes it may involve doing a shorter break,” Dillard continues. “We provide far more spoken word programming than any urban station in the country. We do over four hours on WBLS and more on WLIB. We’re still at community events, still fighting for equality, education and getting people information like we did during Hurricane Sandy.
“We do our best to answer everyone. And everyone may not like our answers, but it’s business. It’s about survival. It’s about being here. If we stay in the same old ways, doing the same old things, we are going to be in the same situation where we’re always behind the eight ball saying, ‘What happened? How did we lose our business?’ ”
Perhaps that’s what happened to New York City’s legendary Kiss FM…
*Additional reporting by Rhonesha Byng.
Raqiyah Mays is a writer, radio DJ, actress and advocate named by VH1 as a Future Leader of Black History, currently working as entertainment editorial director of Shadow League Digital Media. You can follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays.