Alicia Keys’s “New Day” is the theme song for morning news shows on CNN. And when it comes to radio, “New Day” (which repeats on stations nationwide) has become the soundtrack to an age of Black radio when many are seeking ways to stay relevant and afloat in a changing environment. But some grow pessimistic about survival.
“The future of radio is very bleak,” says Karen Hunter, who since her transition from hosting a morning show on New York’s WWRL, went on to found Karen Hunter Publishing with her own imprint under Simon & Schuster. “Radio is going to be gone because the people who run ‘Black radio’ right now haven’t figured out that there is a big world out there. They haven’t figured out how to include different voices to get those messages across. They haven’t figured out how to energize their base or bring in young energy and figure out the social media. They’re stuck in some bandwidth thing that makes absolutely no sense. So that is dead.”
“I definitely think [it’s dead]. That’s why I get up early in the morning to do the radio,” says Tom Joyner, laughing sarcastically. “No, we’re going to be alright.”
But how? In a day where technology is king, influencing ADD-like attitudes and habits that change faster than the click of a remote control, keeping afloat in the tide has made many in Black media contemplate solutions.
“It’s the best of times and worst of times,” says Keith Clinkscales, CEO of Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Revolt TV cable network. “Many in Black media come from a strong and proud entrepreneurial tradition of finding a way when it’s difficult. I think the opportunity is to find entrepreneurs and solutions.”
Clinkscales wears a multitude of hats. From publishing magazines and now digital websites (through his company, Shadow Digital) to producing movies, consulting for ESPN and overseeing Revolt, Clinkscales has proven that ownership and diversification are the keys to power and survival.
“We need to own the means by which our creativity and talent are experienced,” says Thembisa Mshaka, a TV/film producer and author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle your (Entertainment) Business. “It’s great to own a brand or show or concept when we are Black talent. It’s great to be a Black artist and be able to share with audiences of all backgrounds. But if we don’t own the means of distribution, we are limited in terms of how we express ourselves and how far our reach is.”
When it comes to Black radio, ownership is becoming a rarity. Outside of the Cathy Hughes-owned Radio One, and Tom Joyner’s Reach Media (of which Radio One owns an 80% stake), there are few powerhouses of color who own radio stations. Ironically, African-American radio station ownership is attainable, but unpopular. “The government has made more licenses available to minority owners,” says music industry veteran Gary Harris. “With the FCC, there is a big push for minority ownership because the profit margins for radio in general are not what they once were. So a lot of larger corporate entities are backing out of radio.”
But it’s not just conglomerates running from terrestrial territory. Young people, those who signify the future of any company, no longer seem to be interested in even working for a station on the AM or FM dial.
“I was trying to knock on doors on two main terrestrial stations in [New York], and if you’re not coming in with a street team, it’s very difficult to get in where you fit in,” says Aaron “A-King” Howard, currently the program director for digital company, PNC Radio. “No disrespect to those who choose that path. But I saw something greater than that because of my confidence and talent. So I started looking for other opportunities, and Internet radio became one.”
“The one thing I fear: Kids come out and wonder about radio and keep moving because we’re not there,” says Skip Dillard, operations manager at New York’s WBLS, whose internship program focuses on hiring and honing the talent of young people. “I’m concerned about a lot of communicators getting away to cable and entities online. We have to make sure we’re encouraging those next generation of behind the scenes and front of the scenes kinds of people to come our way. ’Cause you never know, the next Wendy [Williams] is somewhere waiting in our wings, or may go elsewhere or give it up altogether if we’re not working to encourage and bring them in.”
The problem is that they may not want to be brought in. Aside from a generation of young folks who want to make their own hours and have mobility and freedom, others have little passion to even turn on the radio thanks to technology that allows them the ease of listening to their favorite music any place, and their favorite song anytime. “I’m not near a radio and I don’t have a radio application,” says Jasmine Carmichael, 23. “So if I want to hear music, I just listen to what’s on my phone or Pandora.”
Younger audiences are exceptional consumers,” says Clinkscales. “They vote with their actions. Radio in general has been challenged by not just other radio but the delivery of audio sound. Not just on Pandora, but also satellite radio, which is uncensored and unfiltered. And younger folks have moved toward that.”
In a survey conducted earlier this year, Arbitron and Edison Research found that the numbers of those listening to radio online or on their smartphones is growing. An estimated 86 million Americans are listening to radio online. Of smartphone owners, 44 percent use their phones for listening. Nearly half of those owners have downloaded the Pandora application.
“I think Internet radio is the future. It still has its kinks to iron out. But Internet radio has taken a large market share of radio listeners,” says A-King Howard. “Terrestrial radio obviously is not going anywhere. Most people are accustomed to going to a dial and listening to radio in their cars. But now, with the emergence of Internet radio and applications, the listener has options. So you could listen to Hot 97, Power 105, PNC radio, or a large variety of programming by way of this new technology.”
Add satellite to the discussion, and it’s not just the numbers that grow, but the vast backgrounds of people as well. MTV’s Sway Calloway weighs in: “When I work on Sirius/XM, I am taking callers from many demographics. Not just 12-24 or 18-36, it’s like 12 to 50-something. I am taking calls from Iowa, Houston, L.A., Seattle, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee. I get calls from Canada, London, Mexico, Virgin Islands. I have more kids that approach me about that radio show on a day to day basis than most of the other things I do.
“The challenge is, how do I talk? How do I hold conversation that can appeal to that 15-year-old who is in the car along with that 35-year-old, and even that 45-year-old?”
“I think one of the difficult things for minority entrepreneurs, myself included, is to realize that the culture we present—especially with digital and the Internet—can be enjoyed and consumed by all. It’s not just for Black people, it’s for all,” says Clinkscales. “We are able to put these stories forward so others that might not be the intended audience can also be invited. That is how you grow media—make sure you keep the tent as open as possible.”
For media professionals, the new task is to catch up and stay on top of the daily growth. “Outlets are looking for people who can do everything,” says Sharon Carpenter, journalist and one of the stars of VH1’s Gossip Game. “Who can book their own talent, who have those contacts, who can produce and write their own stories, who can shoot and edit those stories and be on camera. It’s getting crazy, but this is what outlets are looking for. They’re looking for ways to save money.
“A lot of opportunities are opening up on the web. And we are losing a lot of positions for people who do have authoritative voices, trained and seasoned journalists. A lot of those positions are disappearing. Radio stations are being bought out, publications folding, and it’s a shame. That’s why it’s very important for people who are from traditional media to really embrace what’s happening on the web, because that’s going to be the way forward.”
And for those still fighting in the trenches of terrestrial Black radio daily, they keep hope alive by implementing unite and conquer tactics. “We’re trying to unite all the Black syndicated radio,” says Joyner, whose Reach Media Group oversees the website Blackamericaweb.com and the syndicated radio shows of high profile African-Americans.
“We’re with Yolanda Adams, Ricky Smiley, [Al Sharpton], etc.,” Joyner continues. “We made offers to Steve [Harvey], Mike Baisden and Doug Banks. We think that if we unite, we stand a better chance of surviving, rather than fighting for the crumbs out there. In the general market, the [ratings] numbers don’t add up to the dollars we need to survive. So we put all our numbers together, so they don’t pull us apart.”
Long live Black radio.
*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.