ON FRIDAY, Washingtonian Terry Scott putout a major-label debut album that deserves strong airplay. Radio program directors will be receiving the album in a special blank cover that lists the contents without showing the players. The cover consumers will find in the record stores, however, shows Scott cradling his guitar in a standard rock 'n' roll pose.
The formula of Scott's music --crisp and hard-driving vocals, thudding bass lines, razor-sharp guitar solos and thunderous percussion -- has meant platinum sales for bands like Foreigner and Bad Company. Elektra Records would have every reason to hope for similar success with Scott's album -- every reason but one: Terry Scott, who is playing what might be categorized as white rock, is black.
"I was told I was chasing rainbows trying to go in there and get a record deal playing rock 'n' roll in the first place," Scott says. "I don't know exactly what I'm up against, but I plan to use my blackness to sell this act. It shouldn't make any difference. But I'm finding out more and more that it does."
Scott's potential problems in getting airplay are by no means exceptional in the world of contemporary radio, which has become increasingly segregated in recent years. Across the dial, very few black performers are able to break into dominant white radio playlists; those that do are mostly out of the pop mainstream. New and established black acts (including monster acts like the Jacksons) generally have to prove themselves by attaining gold or platinum status on black stations before white stations will even give them a listen. And what doesn't get played obviously also has trouble getting sold.
Representatives of the black music industry, from producers and artists to label owners and rack jobbers, are speaking out against the widespread reluctance to program black music. It's a system and cycle that has always existed (with the exception of the period roughly from 1955 to 1968). "It cannot be allowed to continue," says George Ware, director of programs and special products at the influential Black Music Association. "It destroys the foundation of black music, which is the foundation of American popular music. It's an intolerable situation."
Rick James may be second only to the Rolling Stones in terms of being a concert draw, and his albums may go multi-platinum, but chances are you're not going to hear James on most white stations. You probably won't hear immensely successful black groups like Cameo, the Gap Band or Maze, or black pop singers like Luther Vandross, Stevie Woods and Rockie Robbins, either. The people you're likely to hear will be familiar representatives of the acceptable face of black music -- Diana Ross, George Benson, the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Jarreau. "And they're not even thought of as black artists any more; they're considered pop," says one veteran black promotion man. Another adds, "They've had to prove themselves on black stations, then they're picked up by the white stations." Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy said it all 50 years ago: "If you're white, it's all right; if you're brown, stick around; if you're black, get back, get back."
Part of the problem, of course, is that out of 8,000 radio stations in the United States, fewer than 300 are black-formatted (and even fewer are black-owned). Another part, some conjecture, is a lingering racism that seems to be coming back into fashion. "If we're not given access to the airwaves, our artists are forever limited to a certain demographic," says George Ware. "White people in America today watch teams in football and basketball with predominantly black athletes and it doesn't upset them too much -- as long as their teams win. I think the same thing could happen in music -- if people could hear it."
Jim Gallant, program director at WMAL, Washington's top-rated station, rejects the notion of intentional discrimination. "Radio formats that include music will play the artists who fit the mood, sound and style of the audience they're targeting," he says. Q107 music director Frank Holler echoes that standard industry response, pointing out that "radio, like advertising, has to do with going for a select audience and the audience that you go after is really what your station is a reflection of. We survey our target audience and let them tell us what to play." After its ratings began dropping with a solid-rock format, Q107 has recently started playing black hits again. With the exception of Jimi Hendrix and Gary "U.S." Bonds, WAVA and DC101 play no black artists at all.
KYS and WHUR, Washington's major black-formated stations, are ranked third and fourth in the market and KYS' assistant program director, Joe Alfenito, confirms the separate airwaves theory: "It's true in this market, particularly on the pop stations." Jessie Fax, program director at WHUR, splits the blame between institutional racism and the record companies that don't even attempt to push black product at white stations. "I'm convinced that white program directors will take a new Aretha Franklin album home, listen to it and like it, but refuse to put it on their radio stations." Both WHUR and KYS are categorized as "urban contemporary" (mostly black programming) but both also have significant shares of white listeners. Says Quincy McCoy, promotion director at Fantasy Records in Berkeley, "if anyone believes that only blacks or ethnics listen to those stations, they're crazy. You can't get the ratings numbers and only have ethnic people listening."
The Black Music Association, a trade and advocacy organization, was formed three years ago; it includes almost every major figure in black music, from the black marketing executives of the major labels to independent black labels to broadcast consultants and station owners. What bothers Ware and the association's membership is black music's inability to penetrate the dominant radio formats -- Album Oriented Rock (AOR), Adult Contemporary (AC) or Top 40. Recent surveys by Billboard and Record World, the two leading music trade publications, support Ware's observation:
On the "Hot 100," seven of the first 50 songs were by black artists (13 in the bottom half). Because of radio's increasingly restricted playlists, it's those top 50 songs that garner the most airplay. The black artists represented there? Earth, Wind & Fire, Benson, Ross (twice), Stevie Wonder, Jarreau and Kool and the Gang, which is the one exception to the mainstream rule.
The Black Oriented singles list is full of top-selling artists who never benefit from crossover play: Skyy, Cameo, Bobby Womack, Peabo Bryson, Frankie Beverly and Maze, the Sugar Hill Gang and scores of others who are inaudible on the great white airwaves.
Billboard's most recent Top Tracks, directed to AOR stations, didn't list a single black act. Last year, according to Impact (a black music tipsheet), only 38 black singles crossed over to achieve significant airplay on white stations.
One general reason given for excluding groups like Skyy and the Gap Band is that they are "too black," a charge that rankles black executives and marketing specialists. Quincy McCoy lists some of the excuses he's run into: "They don't like Teddy Pendergrass' 'growl' . . . they don't like the 'lingo' in the rap records . . . the female singers are 'shrieking' or 'screaming.' What it is is basic racism."
White program directors counter that demographic studies tell them exactly what their audience will accept -- and that's very little "black" music. Dwight Ellis, black vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, concedes that stations "play records to get the audience to pull in the advertising. It's a profit-intensive industry."
In 1982, radio stations are so tightly formatted that they can identify their target audience not just to age and color, but almost to height and weight. As a result, program directors may not know a lot about music, but "they do know a lot about research," says Fantasy's McCoy. "They do a lot of call-out testing and then they add records that are familiar to their audience. And that means that there's no new product; they end up playing a record on its way down. Know what the most impossible task is today? Breaking a black act on white radio."
Mike Bone, vice president of AOR promotion for Arista Records, confirms the herculean scope of that challenge. "If you're a black artist trying to get airplay on AOR, it's as serious as cancer." Bone worked with the Bus Boys, a black New Wave band from Los Angeles that had to sell itself as satire to get attention. "They were not a raging success," Bone says. The airplay was minimal "and a lot of that had to do with the fact that they were black."
Many black marketing experts point out that black music weathered the industry's recent recession better than any other genre. According to Ware, "In times of economic difficulties, a drop occurs more slowly and bottoms out faster in black music, which carries its share of the marketplace during hard times and sometimes provides the margin of profit. But our survival depends on expanding the black market. And how can a person buy something they can't hear? How much black music can be sold if it's not played?"
Ellis adds that "black music is based in fads. And black music tends to sell itself without promotion, without gimmicks, without a lot of merchandising." And without much airplay on white stations, either.
One of the big areas of controversy right now centers on a new radio format called urban contemporary. The difference between adult and urban contemporary is that one is white with a sprinkling of black and the other is black with a sprinkling of white. Critics include Jack Gibson, whose Jack the Rapper is a major black music industry publication. Gibson calls it "zebra radio," which he feels erodes the integrity and strength of black stations. "It's a format for stations which feel they have to alter their sounds to get white listeners. We feel that white people who like black music turn on the radio to hear it and that you don't lose your black listenership by staying black."
As far back as 1956, a young Alex Haley wrote in a Harper's study of "Negro Radio" that it "drew white audiences as well because it was more interesting than most of what was heard on white radio." In many major markets, the dominant music stations are black (including Washington with WKYS and WHUR).
Like most black radio formats, urban contemporary is much more likely to program white artists than white formats like adult contemporary and Top 40 are to program black artists. The number-one song on the black charts right now is "I Can't Go For That" by the white Hall and Oates. Last year's number-one "black" female artist was Teena Marie, the white prote'ge' of funkster Rick James. "She was raised around blacks, and sings black," says Jack the Rapper managing editor Winki. "Her whole mental thing is very black . . . and she's on a black label owned by black people."
Adds George Ware, "Black radio has always maintained a liberal attitude, especially to those who emulate black music, like Blondie and Hall and Oates. 'I Can't Go For That' is a beautiful, classic R&B tune." A reverse liberalism doesn't hold true. Many stations don't even bother to listen to an album if the artist is black, which is why Elektra actually considered not putting Terry Scott's picture on the cover at all; sending out disguised promotion copies was the compromise. "That's the decision they came up with," Scott says. "I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it has to be done, anything to get the record played. But I also feel kind of insulted, because it shouldn't have to be that way. The Bee Gees didn't have to do a blank cover to get their records played" on black radio.
Despite the fact that almost all branches of popular music -- jazz and rock in particular -- come out of the Afro-American tradition, blacks have never wielded significant control, certainly not equal to their contributions to the music industry. With few exceptions (notably the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots in the '30s and Nat King Cole in the late '40s), black pop performers didn't get exposure with white audiences until the golden era of rock 'n' roll in the early '50s.
Until 1950, most black music was confined to "sepia" or "race" records specifically directed to black audiences. What little radio programming was aimed at blacks was in blocks purchased by advertisers seeking out specific consumers. Ironically, the arrival of television paved the way for diversification as radio suddenly found itself targeting specific audiences -- including blacks whose lower median income predisposed them to radio rather than television.
Between the mid-'50s and the mid-'60s, something changed on radio. It started when legendary disc jockey Alan Freed took primarily black music and played it for primarily white audiences and called it rock 'n' roll. For the next decade or so, audiences grew up listening to black and white performers almost interchangeably. The great catalyst was Motown, a black-owned record company whose president, Berry Gordy, learned how to grind out formulized black music that was palatable to white tastes. "All music that was good made the airwaves," says Winki. "People like Murray the K, Dick Clark, Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack made a fortune because they put the very best of both on their programs."
After 1968, though, black and white music started to go in different directions; the audiences that had once crossed color lines did so far less frequently. Whites still tend to champion esoteric forms of black pop music -- blues, reggae, soul and primitive rock 'n' roll (witness the revival of Gary U.S. Bonds and Chubby Checker or the unwarranted success of the Blues Brothers) -- but they have not been receptive to successors to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone in the area of black rock, groups like Mother's Finest and, more recently, Prince and Time have not done well on the white airwaves. A few groups have attracted crossover audiences -- The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool and the Gang -- but they've also been around for well over a decade. For every crossover success, there are dozens of equally talented black artists who are being overlooked. Pop vocalists like Patti Austin, Angela Bofill, Melba Moore and Syreeta won't be given shots on white radio until Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin retire.
"The sound of the music must be the criterion and not the color of the performers," says BMA's Ware. "It's in the area of classifications and formats that there must be some struggle and some involvement. Names like R&B and funk are really used to discriminate against artists; they exclude a large number of people because of race."
The segregation existing on today's airwaves is denying whites a rich form of music; it's also creating a potentially dangerous social climate. "White kids are being educated away from understanding anything about blacks," says Winki. "If they don't hear the music, it affects their attitude toward black Americans." Picture 1, Diana Ross: accepted, played and successful; Terry Scott: hoping to break the barrier; Picture 2, Stevie Wonder Photo by John McDonnell--The Washington Post