The State of Black Radio Part 2:<br />
The Death of the Listener

Last year’s tragic death of New York City’s 98.7 Kiss FM was marked by the 30-year old station being sold to its crosstown competitor WBLS and replaced by ESPN’s sports talk radio. Emotional fans and radio outsiders, unfamiliar with how the broadcasting business works, blamed internal sabotage by management.

In author Dan Charnas’s well-researched piece, “Long Kiss Goodbye: Fear of a Black Planet Killed a Black Radio Station,” he wrote: “The fact is that the demise of 98.7 Kiss FM did not have to happen at all. Both Kiss and the station that swallowed it, WBLS, were sabotaged from within. Their swift rise and slow decline is the 30-year story of one of the greatest cultural and management failings of our time: How stations that purported to serve broad audiences with the power of Black culture ended up forgetting those audiences and ignoring that culture.”

“To say it was an internal thing… from a high up perspective, I know the president of [Emmis Communications],” responds Jill Strada, a former program director of 98.7 Kiss FM. “That was hard for him to have to sell off a brand that he and the rest of us were so passionate about. Everybody shed a tear when that went down. It definitely wasn’t something that was planned. And when it comes down to the business of it all, their company rep and our rep had to come together and have an understanding from a business sense and go away from the art and creative of what we love. I believe it was a very smart business decision, but hard.”

Barry Mayo, former president of Radio One (who helped launch Kiss FM in 1981) puts it in simpler, more direct terms. “Emmis sold Kiss in an attempt to decrease their debt load.”

There was a time when this load was seen as profitable baggage. Thanks to the FCC’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, companies like Emmis were allowed to legally own more than one station in a market. Clear Channel Communications owns six in New York City alone. Emmis bought three: 98.7, Hot 97 and CD 101.9. This radio-buying trend among conglomerates spread nationwide, planting seeds for what some saw as problems.

“Yeah, I mean Kiss came off the air, and I’m sure there’s Kisses all over the country that just can’t stay afloat,” says DJ personality Sway Calloway, who worked for Hot 97 shortly in 2005. “When the FCC laws changed, conglomerates scooped up all these radio properties and learned how to control the playlists. I was syndicated on Emmis. And when I learned how radio had changed, the creative shackles for me was somewhat of a turnoff.”  

The Telecom Act changed the politics of how records get promoted and what gets played. Creative freedom as programmers is affected negatively.

“The Telecom Act changed the politics of how records get promoted and what gets played. It created less competition in markets,” says Thembisa Mshaka, a former radio promoter and rap editor of the now defunct industry magazine, Gavin. “I explained this at the Gavin seminar in 1995. I said, ‘The Telecom Act is coming. And it’s going to mean fewer jobs for you. And your creative freedom as programmers is going to be affected negatively.’ Some DJs were smart enough to jump on the syndication bandwagon and create national platforms. Others weren’t so fortunate.”

From the viewpoint of fans and listeners—those who don’t see or know the politics of radio and simply tune in for music and banter—all they know is what they hear. “People still listen to the radio?” asks Paul Hamilton, a 24-year-old Class of 2013 college graduate. “I don’t listen because they play the same songs over and over again.”

That type of disillusionment doesn’t just color the thoughts of those in their early 20s. Grown folks in the more mature 25- to 55-year-old demographic have their own complaints. “I don’t listen as much ’cause I don’t want to hear all that ‘hee-hee ha-ha’ all the time,” says Kay Michael, 54, a New Jersey resident who prefers R&B and gospel music. “And when they do the news, they don’t do it fully. It’s like little two-minute segments. They don’t really do traffic. And I’m still mad they took off jazz.”

Ironically, these quotes don’t reflect statistics. According to a report released by Arbitron and Edison Research entitled The Infinite Dial 2013: Navigating Digital Platforms, “AM/FM radio is ‘king of the road,’ with far more frequent users than other in-car options. Nearly six in 10 adults 18+ say they use AM/FM radio ‘most’ or ‘almost all of the time.’ ”

If these stats are coming from Arbitron, then they must be true. Right? In the broadcasting world, Arbitron is God. It’s the all-powerful company that measures how many people are listening to a particular radio station at any given time.

In the early days, Arbitron conducted research by randomly selecting listeners and giving them paper diaries. In exchange for a small payment, participants were