I recently added D.C.’s two FM hip-hop radio stations--WPGC and WKYS--to the list of items banned in my house. I’ve long been tired of having to explain the latest raunchy R&B and hip-hop lyrics to my kids, and when I heard the radio ad for The Stadium (yeah, that strip club) for the umpteenth time, I realized that black radio is beyond redemption.
I clearly have nothing against strip clubs, but I’m bringing back the ghost of C. Delores Tucker because, bottom line, my children need to be allowed to be what they are: children. Because at the tender ages of 8 and 11, they have a whole lifetime of gutter street talk, cursing and unsubtle sexual innuendo ahead of them. Because, if they keep getting exposed to this stuff now, going away to college will be anticlimactic.
But they are allowed to listen to the local Top-40 (white) pop station. For a hip-hop fan and certified race woman such as myself, that is the saddest thing to admit. Given the plethora of other choices, Pandora, to iTunes, or satellite radio, I shouldn’t be so bothered by black radio’s descent into the gutter.
But for generations, black radio has been a driving force of black culture and politics, the modern day drum for communities of African descent as William Barlow explains in “Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio.”
Giving up on black radio, which was so critical for giving an immigrant like me a window into race in America, feels like losing a friend.
I had just moved to suburban Indianapolis from my native Canada in the late 1980s when I casually mentioned to my first black friend, January, that I listened to the Top 40 rock music radio station WZPL. She was incredulous. No, you’re supposed to listen to the black station, WTLC!
I was 10 years old, and I did as I was told. A window opened to a whole new world. I learned about the latest public service campaign against infant mortality, which disproportionately affected black people. I heard about anti-violence rallies taking place far from my suburban community. I mastered the art of taping hit singles by artists like Full Force, New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe off the radio.
Back in those days, rap was fairly new, and although WTLC was a black station, it still considered rap the Devil’s music. If there was a hip-hop and R &B collaboration, they would edit out the rap chorus.
It didn’t matter if the song was explicit or not, it was just what they did. It was as though the genre’s staccato chants, somehow deposited rocky sediment into our ears over the airwaves.
In college, I listened to WOL the black AM station when it did a live broadcast of the O.J. Simpson trial. When I published an essay about the death of the local station Jazz 90 in the late 1990s, I reunited with my now-husband. I. Love. Black radio.
So where did our love go wrong? Paul Porter of the media think tank Industry Ears, recently explained in his essay “Why Black Radio is So Damn Bad” on RapRehab.com that the community connection to black radio slowly began to unravel with the 1996 passage of the Telecommunications Act, which turned formerly black-owned stations into publicly traded commodities. The rise of syndication, which expanded the reach and influence of personalities such as Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, but muted local voices and news. Porter further explains:
“Black music has suffered a systematic demise and Black radio is a major compliance. The youth in America, get a steady diet of bitch, hoe and bling. The once undisputed music leader now follows the lead of the powerful recording industry. Commercial hip hop is the format of the lyrically challenged but the youth are too young to notice."
So this is how you have black radio being used to peddle kiddie malt liquor aimed at black communities. That is how it became the site of Cathy Hughes own personal grudge match against Congress. Black music and radio industry execs act more like tabloid editors, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Don’t get me wrong- I am no rap hater. The only way I can make it through my morning jog is with an iPod full of hard-driving beats. Jay-Z’s testoterone-fueled curses are often the only thing propelling my butt up those hills at 6 a.m.
That’s fine for me, but kids aren’t naturally that jaded, and even if they are, they don’t need to have all that anger, aggression and hostility reinforced over the airwaves. They should at least wait to meet their first idiot boss!
White pop stations are not perfect either, but they offer a less grim view of reality. Those songs can be cheesy, corny. They are not nearly as soulful, catchy or stupid-funny as, say, the Ying Yang twins. But I can safely allow my son to listen to it in his room, with the door closed, without worrying about him losing his innocence.
I will always love the organic, crunchy feel of black radio. The live broadcasts from political and cultural events around town. I will always have warm feelings toward classy personalities like Donnie Simpson whom I welcomed into my home like part of my family. (And shout to my friend the Rev. Tony Lee, who is always a reason to make an exception!)
I also know that for kids, being told you can’t do something immediately raises its stock. So I’m thinking my ban will probably force my kids’ relationship with black radio to go underground. Hopefully by the time that happens, black radio will get its act together.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington writer and author of the forthcoming “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.” Follow her on Twitter.
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