Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Tavis Smiley, and the Impoverishment of Black Media
By Bruce A. Dixon
When the Tom Joyner Morning Show was pulled first from Chicago, and then from other markets early this month, Joyner counseled listeners that "...black radio will never be what it once was, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it." This message of powerlessness and permanent defeat, of resignation to someone else owning and controlling the black conversation may be all we can expect from Joyner and the rest of the black elite. But is it the real answer? Does it even address the crucial question of how we might have and own our own black civic conversation?
“The cancellation provoked outrage among fans because the Tom Joyner Morning Show is about as good as commercial black radio is allowed to get nowadays.” 'The bottom line,” radio fly-jock Tom Joyner told fans in his blog, “is that black radio will never be what it once was, and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it.” Joyner tried to put the yanking of his show by Clear Channel into perspective for fans, who deluged his blog and email with expressions of support, and even talk of consumer boycotts. Joyner discouraged boycott chatter, and like Steve Harvey, who seems likely to replace him on many Clear Channel outlets, declared it was all “just business.”
The cancellation provoked outrage among fans because the Tom Joyner Morning Show is about as good as commercial black radio is allowed to get nowadays. Despite the show's limited playlist of corporate-approved music and periodic descents into minstrelsy, Joyner regularly sets aside a small amount of time for commentary, issues and appeals addressed to African Americans as a community. It was never much time, and the issues, the commentary were relatively safe stuff on the whole. But to the news-starved audience of black commercial radio, Tom Joyner, like his colleague Tavis Smiley, stand out like rare gulps of fresh air. But sustaining the life of a community takes more than an occasional breath. Community and democracy demand a steady diet of news to fuel civic engagement and public conversation in the public interest.
As BAR's Glen Ford pointed out all of six years ago in 'Who Killed Black Radio News ,” the owners of commercial black media have for a generation enforced a no-news policy, justifying it with the unsupportable claim that all black people want is to be entertained." The fact is that news is less profitable than 100% entertainment. PR firms and the celebrity industries provide their own “news” releases complete with commercial tie-ins, and already segmented to the age and income divided groups that marketers love. Black radio owners decided not to do news because corporate media has consciously decided not to recognize African Americans as a people or a polity with our own set of collective experience and political will. In a media regime that lives and dies by advertising alone, black commercial radio will only recognize black communities as marketing contraptions, as audience segments whose ears and eyeballs it can deliver to sponsors. The owners and managers of commercial black radio and TV are not the least concerned about our past or future, our housing or health care crises, the black imprisonment rate or the digital divide or the education of our young or the dignified security of our elderly. To them we are just a market, passive consumers to be sliced and diced according to marketing industry guidelines. A hip hop station, an oldies station, an easy listening urban station, a gospel station, all under the same ownership with no news on any of them, forever and ever, amen. If this is what Joyner meant, and we think it was, when he described the current state of black commercial radio, he was right. Except the “forever' part. Except when he told fans '...there's absolutely nothing we can do about it.”
Commercial black radio and TV have not always been hostile to and incompatible with journalism. There was a brief period, back in the early and mid 1970s when journalism flourished on commercial black radio. Local teams of African American journalists competed with each other to report and package non-entertainment news directed at black communities. News gathering and reporting operations on commercial black radio played a key role in the black conversation, enabling African American communities to define themselves as more than passive masses of consumers and voters. They heyday of black broadcast journalism didn't last long. News was never as profitable as entertainment, and as limits on how many stations one owner could have were removed, owners borrowed heavily to get more stations, and cut costs to reward themselves and repay the loans. News was the first casualty, reported Glen Ford six years ago.
There need not have been a contradiction between Black ownership and community access, including the maintenance of quality news operations. In a betrayal that, we believe, has been a major factor in the relentless decline of Black political power, many Black radio owners have adopted business plans identical to their white corporate peers. Such is certainly the case with Radio One. "The company's voraciousness mirrored the consolidation throughout the radio industry after rules limiting the number of stations one company could own nationally were lifted in 1996," wrote the Washington Post, in a February 5, 2003  showcase article. Radio One boasts a 60-person research department that "randomly calls thousands of people and conducts 20-minute surveys of those who tune in to its radio stations." Do the people want news? The subject isn't broached by either Post reporter Krissah Williams or her main interlocutor, Radio One Chief Operating Officer Mary Catherine Sneed. Instead, the conversation is all about the sales value of entertainment programming. "If you're not [at parties, clubs and grass-roots events], you'll never be a big personality in the community," Sneed said. "Those are the things that separate stations from one another."
News isn't even on the radar screen. Indeed, so insidiously have disc jockey patter and the talk show format been substituted for news that large segments of the Black public may no longer know the difference. “Reclaiming commercial black radio would mean rediscovering the Freedom Movement's traditions of disrespect for illegitimate authority.” It may be that way now, but it doesn't have to be. Contrary to Joyner's wisdom, there's plenty that African American communities can do to influence the behavior of commercial black radio. But seeing the way forward, much less actually organizing it, requires thinking well outside the boxes that the black misleadership class, of which Joyner and Tavis are a part, are used to drawing for themselves and for us. Today's black notables are too respectful of illegitimate authority, too preoccupied with their own careers, too deferential to corporate power to acknowledge the true dimensions of the crisis, or help us solve it.
Reclaiming commercial black radio would mean rediscovering the Freedom Movement's traditions of disrespect for illegitimate authority. It would mean confronting the white and black absentee owners of corporate black radio and TV, like Clear Channel and Radio One at their own public events, like live remotes, and demanding news for the people. It would mean mobilizing people from black journalism schools and black communities to demand the reanimation of black journalism. It would mean insisting on the establishment of local news gathering operations at black radio and TV stations as a condition of the continued good will of audiences toward their owners and advertisers. That is a tall order, well outside the vision of a Tom Joyner or even of a Tavis Smiley, who sometimes pretends to be a journalist.
Leadership is seeing a way where the wise and informed tell you there is no way, and organizing people to take that way. Neither of these guys is in the leadership business. Joyner and Smiley are in the business of marketing, assembling ears and eyeballs for delivery to sponsors. In Tavis's case, those sponsors include Wal-Mart and McDonald's, two of the nation's biggest and most notoriously low-wage employers, along with payday loan and housing bubble profiteers Wells Fargo and Bank of America. This seriously limits the problems one can mention on the air, let alone the solutions.
Media are the circulatory systems of modern societies. Mass media can empower us. They can enable us to carry on our conversation about what we expect from society and from each other. Or mass media can distort our public conversations and our private lives, instilling anti-cooperative and antisocial values in young and old alike. Look at BET. African American communities are not the only ones that suffer from the slow death of journalism. Civic engagement in the larger American polity is withering too, and for the same reason. Newspapers are folding not because they are unprofitable, but because even after cutting actual journalism to the bone, they don't bring in the fifteen and twenty percent returns that the bubble economy has accustomed investors to. A well-run newspaper can consistently bring in a seven to nine percent annual return on investment, which in pre-bubble days was considered just fine. The very few newspaper corporations that remained family owned, or that went nonprofit are doing journalism as well as ever.
Forty-some years ago, Dr. Martin Luther wondered aloud that all his life's work might have been the integration of African Americans into a burning house. King answered his own question by declaring that if that was the case, we would have to be the firefighters, not just for ourselves, but for the whole American polity. If the demand for news, news for the people, is ever to be raised inside corporate boardrooms and in the street at live remotes, it will happen first in African American communities. Or maybe not at all. There is no legal road to this. It can only be done by confronting owners of commercial black media and making the price of a no-news regime too costly for them.
We can be firefighters, struggling for a democratic, responsible media, trying to reanimate old and configure new models of journalism for our own and the larger American community. We can disregard Joyner's advice, and struggle to free the black conversation from corporate gatekeepers who would monetize, militarize and privatize it. Or we can burn with the rest. And watch Black Evil Television
Who killed black radio news?