On May 13, more than 200 protesters gathered outside the Detroit offices of House Judiciary Chairman and longtime Michigan representative John Conyers, who sponsored the controversial Performance Rights Act (HR 848). Known as the "performance tax," the bill would require that radio stations pay yearly license fees for the right to play music on the air.
The protest was sponsored by Radio One, the largest black-owned radio company in the country, with over 50 stations in nearly 20 markets and an increasing share of the so-called urban market via TV One, Giant magazine and the signature syndicated drive-time program, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Radio One's "Save Black Radio" campaign responds to fears that the new law would hurt already struggling black-owned radio stations.
What's not clear to me is why we should be crying any tears for Radio One. It is BET without the rump-shaking videos, and it's nearly as destructive in warping the musical and communal values that have historically made radio an institution in black communities. This is the very same industry that has effectively shut out independent artists, put out music and lyrics that degrade women and warp the values of children.
Why should we run to black radio's defense when it has failed black communities so terribly?
To be clear, the debates about the Performance Rights Act are part of an ongoing struggle between record companies (the major global conglomerates, Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony and Universal Music Group) and large radio broadcasters such as Clear Channel, CBS Radio and Radio One.
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is pushing the bill in an effort to combat the long-known, though often-denied practice of "pay for play." The practice was brilliantly captured in a series of Salon essays by Eric Boehlert, and three years ago then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer forced Universal Music Group into a $12-million settlement in response to claims that the company had engaged in pay-for-play tactics.
In this light, the Performance Rights Act is simply payback (reparations, perhaps) with a stream of money going from the radio stations back to the record companies.
Both record companies and the radio industry have touted the adverse impact on artists if the bill passes or fails. Both arguments are disingenuous given the exploitative relationship they have with talent.
As industry analyst Cedric Muhammad noted a few years ago, Radio One was notorious for admonishing on-air talent who played music that was not sanctioned by the company, making it difficult for independent artists to get airplay. Understandably, Radio One's own corporate ambitions were tied to their willingness to play the game on the recording industry's term, and accordingly now that the environment has changed, they are trying to reverse course.
Black radio used to be a place that was supportive of local and independent artists. For many, the idea of black radio has long been dead as companies like Clear Channel and Emmis (parent company of New York's famed Hot 97) have effectively mined the field for "authentic" black on-air talent, to give the impression of being "black-owned," while having little to do with the black communities they ostensibly exist to serve. In a highly competitive marketplace, black-owned radio stations have had little choice but to try to replicate the successes of the ClearChannels of the nation.
Even those Radio One partners such as The Tom Joyner Morning Show and The Michael Baisden Show, who were admirable in their roles during the 2008 election season, are problematic in the ways that they privilege national issues over the kinds of vital local concerns that radio stations have historically shed light on. In his important book Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, Eric Klinenberg provides examples of radio conglomerates that didn't have personnel on the ground at local stations and thus were unable to warn their local listening audiences of impending dangers.
Because smaller radio stations were often the only places where real independent artists could get any airplay, this bill will be detrimental to independent artists, as Tony Muhammad recently noted.
To be sure, the economic impact that the Performance Rights Act will have on black and community-based radio stations are real, particularly those without the corporate profile of Radio One. Historically, black radio has been indispensible to the social and political gains of black Americans, as William Barlow and Brian Ward attest to in their respective books, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio and Radio and the Struggles for Civil Rights in the South.
But as new technologies emerge, so have new opportunities, particularly under difficult economic conditions. As such, this is a moment that demands new models (indeed, the use of podcasts and online programming like that of Bob Davis' Soul-Patrol Radio points the way) and perhaps "black radio" as we know it and as Radio One has represented it, needs to die, in order for black radio to survive.
Mark Anthony Neal is professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture and the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities. A version of this essay first appeared on his blog.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.