by Rahwa Asmerom
The day after Christmas and in the aftermath of a series of controversial discussions on Capitol Hill involving the financial bailout of minority-owned businesses, Percy Sutton died. The founder of the radio empire, Inner City Broadcasting, left behind an important legacy as a self-made media mogul and as a leader in African-American politics and business. It is this legacy which many believe influenced the Black Caucus to rally such strong support behind his company and has led to speculation about the controversial decision of 10 Caucus members to skip out of the voting on a financial regulatory reform bill in late 2009.
“One of most intriguing mysteries here in recent weeks is why members of the Congressional Black Caucus have chosen to buck their party and president in trying to stall financial regulation reform,” wrote Eric Lipton in a New York Times article on December 2nd. Although the Black Caucus also requested financial support like other minority-owned businesses, the Caucus’ specific lobbying efforts for Inner City Broadcasting and its impassioned crusade to save black-owned radio perplexed many in and outside of Capitol Hill.
In a letter from eight CBC members, including Percy’s friend Senator Charles B. Rangel, to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner dated in the Spring of 2009, the Caucus invoked the overarching importance of aiding companies like Inner City Broadcasting. “It is absolutely essential that we do not allow this once-in-a-generation financial crisis to erase the modest inroads minorities have made into the broadcast industry,” the letter said. Members of the Caucus, including Maxine Waters, Charles Rangel and Mel Watt, could not be reached for comment.
“The Black Caucus was standing up for all minority broadcasters,” said Skip Dillard, operations manager for Inner City Broadcasting stations WBLS and WLIB in New York. “They know how important we are. Our voice has always begged to be heard and it’s very important that we not only preserve the minority ownership that we have but that we train and promote and find ways to encourage others to own broadcast television and radio stations in the future.”
Today, for many, the importance of ‘Black Radio’ is lost in an era when urban music and musicians are dominant in the music industry. “Black radio is a misnomer now,” said Bernie Hayes, a disc jockey and author of The Death of Black Radio. “When we referred to black radio, we spoke of black-owned stations which directed good programming to the African-American community and provided quality information and other things of substance. But today, black radio just means R&B and hip-hop – nothing informative or of concern to the African-American people.” He added that stations that represent ‘Black Radio’ are scattered, albeit to a lesser extent than in the past, in parts of the South and Midwest.
No longer are black music or black musicians considered underground or alternative. And no longer does the political and social climate of the civil rights era, during which “black radio” flourished, exist. The popularity of black culture has chipped away at the definition of black-owned when it comes to media. Although Inner City Radio, which owns 17 radio stations, and Radio One, which owns 53 radio stations and is waging its own battle in Congress, are identified as black-owned stations, they face the challenge of defining themselves from other companies and conglomerates. “You can’t distinguish Inner City Broadcasting or Radio One from Infinity Broadcasting except for the names of the announcers and the way they present their product,” said Hayes.
That is clearly not the sentiment that fell on the ears of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel when Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) reportedly “berated the administration for not doing enough to help minority-owned businesses, mentioning specifically a New York broadcaster that couldn’t get a loan reworked,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The CBC has lamented that minority-owned businesses have been disproportionately hit hard during the recession but Inner City Broadcasting cannot claim to be alone. A decrease in advertisement spending has hit broadcasters nationally.
“In the last three years, we’ve actually seen a decline in station revenue at the local level,” said Justin Nielson, a media and communications analyst with SNL Kagan. “The ad markets have contracted and we’ve seen almost double digit decline in revenue alone in terms of the overall income of radio stations.”
So why would the CBC take up such a particular case? It may seem jarring to many outside of politics but if it weren’t for the fact that the issue disrupted one of the biggest decision-making processes in Congress this year, it may just have been politics as usual. “Large broadcasters contribute to politicians,” said media historian and radio consultant Donna L. Halper. “I have the feeling that the Black Caucus probably knows these [radio owners] and have probably gotten donations from them.” She added that Clear Channel has contributed to Republicans.
Congressman Rangel, a founding member of the Black Caucus, was a close friend of Sutton’s. He guided Rangel in launching his political career and helped him to win the Harlem congressional seat in 1970. Both Percy and his son Pierre, the current CEO of Inner City Broadcasting, have been major campaign contributors to him ever since;yet, the Rangel connection does not solely explain Percy’s sphere of influence. His own extensive political experience as a New York assemblyman and Manhattan borough president has been key to the fate of Inner City. “It’s a measure of Sutton’s importance that even as the 89-year-old power broker lay in a New York nursing home struggling with dementia, his political allies scrambled to save his family empire,” reported The New York Post. The Black Caucus’ strategy appears to have worked as Goldman Sachs agreed to renegotiate Inner City’s loan in reaction to, it seems, the mounting political pressure. Until then, the broadcasting company faced defaulting on $230 million in loans. Despite this victory for Sutton’s company, the other minority broadcasters asking for support will have to wait and see how Washington handles their requests for a piece of the federal bailout money.
Nevertheless, Halper is optimistic about the potential for a greater degree of support for minority-owned radio. “My hope is that this will start a trend back to help the smaller local broadcasters,” she said. “Let’s help the people who may not give the big political donations but who do serve the community.”
Like Hayes, she believes that black-owned radio still has an important role to play in fostering community engagement. “The most important thing about minority broadcasting is it brings those voices and those perspectives and can stand for the needs of the community,” she said. “Unfortunately, because of consolidation, a lot of those stations have gotten away from that mission and have just become jukeboxes which synidacte. That’s not what radio is suppose to be. That’s not what Inner City originally intended to do in 1972.”
Whether government continues to address minority broadcast ownership in years to come or whether the distinction between urban programming and black ownership in radio becomes clear remains to be seen. Halper hopes the recent plight of Inner City Broadcating invokes a greater concern beyond the financials.
“People have been predicting the death of radio since television came along. Well, guess what, radio didn’t die. Radio finds a way to adapt and it always has,” she said. “[Black radio] has to get back to its roots. What will save it is being live, local, interesting and compelling.”