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. 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 required to write down the stations and personalities they listened to throughout the day. But in 2007, in response to calls for more accuracy, Arbitron introduced the Portable People Meter (PPM)—a device designed to take “samples” of listener habits through a small box worn by research participants. This box picks up the signal of any radio station broadcasting within its vicinity. But it comes with problems.
“It’s ugly,” complains Tom Joyner, whose syndicated morning show was cut out of the New York market when Kiss FM was sold. “It looks like a pager from back in the ’80s, but larger. Fashion conscious [wise], it doesn’t match anything. And you’re supposed to wear this? And they don’t change [participants] every week.
“They change, maybe, a year or for however long they keep getting good info from you,” Joyner continues. “When they did diary methods, Black radio consistently finished in the top 5. Now with PPM, [it] finishes in the bottom ten. On the revenue side, local Black radio was in the bottom ten and now we are in the twenties.”
“The reasons for Kiss’s demise were centered around the Portable People Meter,” says Barry Mayo, who left Emmis Communications as general manager in 2006. “This had a devastating effect on most Black and other ethnic formatted stations’ ratings. They found their average quarter hour ratings diminished from 25% to as much as 50% in some cases. Many radio companies who had huge bank debt loads couldn’t sustain their debt payments with the decrease in advertising revenue from their decreased ratings positions.”
Critics of the PPM—pointing to a lack of diversified representation of African-Americans and Latinos picked to carry the device—successfully lobbied the attorneys general of New York and New Jersey to sue Arbitron for violating anti-discrimination laws. Other suits in states like Florida, Maryland and California followed, all resulting in settlements by Arbitron.
“As a result, Arbitron now does in-person recruitment, targets cellphone-only households, and implemented address-based sampling,” says Kim Myers, Arbitron’s senior media manager. “These changes have been implemented in all markets.”
But the changes still aren’t enough. And the festering open wounds point to continual slow Kisses of death. “Black radio is being hurt by this new ratings system. It’s horrible for radio period,” said Steve Harvey, in an interview earlier this year with The Huffington Post’s Black Voices. “Niche radio, like jazz stations, are shuttin’ down shop all over the country. Heavy metal doesn’t stand a chance. R&B is being hurt. Hip-hop in a minute is startin’ to feel the effects too, because of who they give the boxes to. It’s a very, very unfair system.”
“And as you get more scientific with something so creative, you kind of taint it, especially with the way radio is rated now,” says K-Foxx, who was told “budget cuts” were the reason for her summertime firing from the Hot 97 Morning Show in New York City. “Radio wasn’t like that before. Of course you have to change with the times, but you can’t be so scientific with something that’s so creative. You just ruin everything about it.”
The age-old cliché says money is the root of all evil. But in the story of radio, particularly Black radio, PPM is that root.
“We’re judged differently now,” says Tom Joyner. “When we go to advertisers, there was a day when the African-American consumer market meant something. There was money allocated. Then we got listed as multicultural. Now we’re on a general market. And that’s the real battle,” he says, despite African-Americans having over eight million listeners on 105 radio stations nationwide. “We can pack people in seats on airlines. We can make people go to movies, watch TV shows, buy groceries, and laundry detergent. We can move people to go vote, protest and do great things. But our [ratings] don’t reflect that.”
That is unless you’re 107.5 WBLS, which, according to Arbitron’s latest ratings book, is currently one of the most listened to stations in America’s number one radio market, New York City. “We’re doing well. Knock on wood,” says Skip Dillard, WBLS’s operations manager. “We still continue to maintain an ongoing dialogue for fairness of the sample. The sample is everything. But the sample costs money to broaden [it] and increase it with the changing population moves.
“Like, you don’t have to look in New York,” Dillard says. “Look at Los Angeles, Watts. Black folks in L.A., work all over the place. You have Blacks who don’t just live in Oakland, they live in places your urban signal may not go. If you wanna compete today, you have to have a big signal. And you have to battle and make sure Arbitron is giving a fair sample to the population.
“It’s an ongoing learning process,” he concludes. “We are constantly down in Columbia, Maryland looking at [their] info and reviewing data, constantly talking to the people that make the decision over research. You are fighting the fight every single day to make sure your audience is represented.”
If Black radio is going to survive, it’ll need that get-up, stand-up fighting spirit, and the means to aggressively maneuver among the present, while carefully preparing for the future. “When it’s tough, you just have to get tougher,” says Joyner. “And for a whole generation of African-Americans, that’s how we always had to survive. It’s the age of survival.”
*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.