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On May 13th, more than 200 protesters gathered outside the Detroit offices of House Judiciary Chairman and longtime Michigan representative John Conyers (and Congressional Black Caucus member), the sponsor of the controversial Performance Rights Act (HR 848).  Referred to as the “performance tax”, the bill, if passed, 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 the TV-One television network, Giant magazine and the signature syndicated drive-time program, Tom Joyner Morning Show. Radio One’s “Save Black Radio” campaign responds to fears that the Performance Rights Act will adversely affect already struggling black-owned radio stations, but obscures black radio’s own failure to live up to its responsibility to the very communities that it is calling on for support.


To be clear the debates about the Performance Rights Act are part of an on-going struggle that pits record companies—specifically the four major global conglomerates, Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony and Universal Music Group—against large radio broadcasters such as Clear Channel, CBS Radio and the aforementioned Radio One. The bill, which has been pushed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), seeks to reverse (rather tepidly) the long known, though denied practice of “pay for play”, where record companies paid “independent” promoters. Those promoters then offered financial and other incentives to radio stations to support the products of the record labels the promoters were in cahoots with. The practice, which was brilliantly captured in a series of Salon.com essays by Eric Boehlert, came to public light three years ago when 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.


Supporters and detractors of the bill have been quick to point how its passing or failing will impact artists. Record companies are simply disingenuous when they suggest that artists will benefit from the passing of HR 848, when their own business practices guarantee the average artist less than 10 percent of profits generated from the sale of their recordings and the companies will themselves take part of the proceeds generated from the collection of a “performance tax”. If the RIAA and Record companies were really so concerned with the plight of artist, they would create less exploitative relationships with artists.


The folk at Radio One are quick to put out charts and numbers that suggest how important black radio and local airplay are to black artists citing the examples of top-tier acts such as Kanye West and Curtis Jackson. Such examples are meaningless for anyone who has listened to so-called urban radio or Radio One over the last decade and been taken aback by the distinct lack of diversity featured on major black radio stations. The dearth of the kinds of local and independent artists that black radio had historically been supportive of is striking on contemporary black radio, where even those stations that specialize in classic R&B and soul do so in a way that essentially supports the back catalogues of the major conglomerates. In fact, 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.


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 Clear Channels of the nation and in that regard, Radio One has often out “clear channeled” Clear Channel. 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 been critical to. In his important book Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media, Eric Klineberg 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.


In that smaller radio stations were often the only places where real independent artists could get any airplay (as opposed to those artists who are simply marketed as “independent”), HR 848 will be detrimental to independent artists. As Tony Muhammad recently wrote, “with the economy the way that it is, new up-coming artists and all current lime light artists that bind themselves like slaves to corporations (including the major record labels themselves) will fall just as the economy that they are so dependent on will continue to fall.” 


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 a Radio One. 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, black radio has been indispensable to the social and political gains of black Americans. But the advantages that black Americans gained from their use of the airwaves, was a product of a particular historical moment. New technologies emerge, as do new opportunities, particularly under difficult economic conditions. As such, this is a moment that demands new models (indeed the use of podcasts and on-line programming like that of Bob Davis’s 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.
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