Radio personality Olivia Fox will be the first to tell you that these are challenging times: These days, it seems as though black radio is under siege. Sixty years since Atlanta’s WERD became the first black-owned and operated black-format station, once-loyal listeners are turning away in droves, heading for satellite radio, iTunes, Pandora or the comfort of their own iPod.
But Fox, a 21-year veteran and midday host of Radio One’s Majic 102.3 in Washington, D.C., remains bullish on radio. It is, she says, that which she most loves to do; she thrives on the chaos, the rush of the immediate.
Fox is the ultimate multi-tasker, sitting down for a phone interview with The Root while undergoing kidney dialysis. (She is hoping she’ll get a kidney transplant next year, and has formed her own not-for-profit, the National Association of Preventive Kidney Care and Counseling, Inc., to increase awareness of kidney disease in the black community.) “I do this,” the single mother says of her thrice-weekly sessions, “and then go home and deal with a 6-year-old. It’s kind of a bug-out, but you got to keep on keeping on.”
The Root: The days of DJs spinning records are over. How do you feel about the music being programmed?
Olivia Fox: Well, radio has changed quite a bit. This is my 21st year. Of course, every DJ wishes they could pick their own music. There’s so much music out there, you have to have [someone helping to prioritize the music.] … As a radio personality, it gives me one last thing to worry about. I can focus on my delivery and the information that I have to give.
TR: What made you want to go into radio?
OF: I kind of just fell into it. I went into school for athletic medicine. I wanted to be a trainer. I found out there were a lot of ologys in medicine, biology, kinesthesiology.
I initially went into television news, realized there was no way I could dress television-friendly for the rest of my life, so I went into radio news, and that was depressing. I initially started working at a rock station in Carbondale, Illinois, from ‘88-‘89 on the overnight show.
TR: What do you consider to be the highlights of your career?
OF: Meeting Muhammad Ali. Someone I grew up admiring, someone who meant a lot in my family, and in the race as a whole. He truly was the greatest. It was one of the few times I was truly without words. I was so … taken. That was in ’96.
Another highlight for me was 9/11, to be on the radio airwaves during 9/11. The emotions were so high, I was scared out of my mind, but my journalistic talents and love of doing radio just kicked in…. I was doing the morning drive with Russ Parr. We were watching it happen on the air and reporting as it was happening…. When I think about it now, I get goose bumps. You will never ever, ever forget where you were when it happened.
TR: Your departure from the “Russ Parr Morning Show” in 2002 generated a lot of controversy. What happened?
OF: It kind of puts me in a situation. The company I was working for then is the company that I’m working for now. I’ll just say that creatively, Russ and I were going in opposite directions. It wasn’t because I was difficult to work with…. We drifted apart, and my contract negotiations fell apart.… I’m good with it now. I’ve moved on. Basically, my career has soared since. I haven’t looked back. In that sense, I’ve moved on.
TR: These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who listens to radio, particularly black radio. Why is that?
OF: I think a lot of it has to do with other technologies. It’s not like it used to be when the only way you could get your music was from the radio.
You can go to the Internet, you can pretty much get whatever you need and want from the Internet. There are so many choices for people. Now we’re living in a culture, the people want what they want now. Right-now food, right-now technologies, right-now e-mail. Everything is instant, instant gratification. If you turn on the radio, and you don’t hear the song you want to hear, guess what? You change the station.
TR: How culpable is black radio in this because of what is played on black radio?
TR: But a lot of young people aren’t listening to the radio, either.
OF: That demographic is more likely to get their music from another source than terrestrial radio.
TR: But there are a lot of people who are mad at black radio, one-time, die-hard hip-hop heads that feel they can’t listen to the radio with their kids in the car. What do you listen to when you’re in the car with your daughter?
OF: When I’m taking her to school, I need to listen to what’s going on with traffic. When we’re taking a long trip, we listen to CDs.
I need to control the message.… If it’s just me, I’m listening to my Snoop Dogg. I also listen to Rod Stewart and Clearwater Revival.
TR: Is there a future for black radio?
OF: I certainly hope so, but I’m scared. As a person who actually went to college, who actually majored in radio. I would consider myself a seasoned, educated and trained radio person, and I’m scared. One, there’s syndication. And two, you have people working in radio, that are not real, trained, educated radio professionals. They succeeded maybe by being a comedian or an actor or a porn artist. They are taking jobs from real radio people. It’s scary. Here I have dedicated half my adult life to the industry. Say you’re a doctor, an OB-GYN, and all of a sudden, ear nose and throat doctors are taking your job, you’d be a little irritated, too. That is what is happening to my industry. When you have people not only taking your jobs but being paid more, well, it’s scary, but it’s disheartening. Especially when you consider yourself a person who is truly a professional.
TR: Given that, how do you adapt?
OF: I do what I’m doing now. Recreating my brand. Taking Olivia Fox and expanding it, where I can achieve several streams of revenue through my brand. Book, television series. I’m a dialysis patient; I’m going to need a kidney. You recreate different ways of making a living by utilizing the brand you are dealt.
I can always do radio. Radio is something I can do with my eyes blindfolded and both of my hands tied behind me. I prefer to work in chaos; I prefer to work last minute. If someone says Olivia, we’ve got President Obama coming on in five minutes. Not only can I interview him, but it’ll be the best interview ever.
OF: To me, it just seems odd for the government to say to terrestrial radio, if you play an artist, you have to pay x amount of dollars. Why do we have to pay the artist when all we’re doing is marketing and promoting your music?
I feel bad for the older artists who lost millions and millions of dollars … But I don’t think that radio is the group you should be coming after. To me, it’s the record labels.
If it passes, a lot of black-owned radio stations are going to go away. Where are these artists who are getting play on black radio? Where do you think their plays are going to come from? Black radio has always supported black R&B artists …
That again, is another anxiety-causing situation for someone like myself who has made a living working in black radio. It’s scary.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.