The faces of black news anchors and reporters, talk show hosts and editorial directors on television in Washington are familiar and perhaps reassuring to a community that recalls the days just a decade ago when few blacks held important and visible jobs in the broadcast industry.
Today, although the numbers of blacks and other minorities who occupy on-the-air positions have increased significantly, there is still a great need for more minority broadcasters. But increasingly, blacks are eschewing the glamorous on-camera jobs for behind-the-scenes management positions.
Unknown to viewers, a number of blacks now occupy the less visible but more influential off-the-air jobs in management, programming and production. In those jobs, they can control station business, staffing and, most important, program content. At the same time some of these top-level positions appear off-limits to blacks, many of them say.
Some broadcasting industry critics applaud stations in Washington for their records of including black men and women in management positions. But they also charge that there are too few minorities at higher levels of management where the power is.
One well-known broadcaster, WRC-TV/Channel 4 anchor Jim Vance, said management positions have been "pretty much exclusively white male bastions. Although there have been a few exceptions recently, they are abysmally few." If stations intend to "practice what we preach, anybody qualified for a job should be given a chance," he added.
Pluria Marshall, chairman of the the National Black Media Coalition, a media monitoring organization, noted that while Washington is the best market for black broadcasters, "There is not a single black news director in TV, not one executive producer of the news, not a general sales manager, not a general manager, just one station manager" and only two radio station general managers here.
The black presence in management is "critical," said Aisha Karimah, a producer of local programming at WRC-TV. "We bring a sensitivity and an awareness that allows us to make sure that what is actually disseminated has some real truth and reflects the black experience. . . . It's just as important for white viewers as for black viewers."
"We need to be there. We're not," said Lavonia Perryman Fairfax, a sales representative at Howard University's radio station WHUR-FM. "We do the news, but we're not where they make the decisions. . . . The board room is where I visualize myself. That's where I want to be."
Local broadcasters say blacks have not moved into upper-level broadcast jobs for a number of reasons. They include the problems that novices have in breaking into the nation's seventh-largest television market, a decline in affirmative action and training programs that gave novices entry in the past, and the preference of many aspiring broadcasters for the higher-salaried and higher-status on-air jobs.
"I think too many people in the minority community are star struck," said Michael Douglass, vice president and general manager of WTOP-AM, an all-news radio station. "They want to be on the screen or behind the microphone. . . . They do not appreciate the importance of sales or what you can do with a sales background in the broadcasting business." Not only are sales representatives often the most highly paid persons in radio stations, but most management officials began in sales departments, said Douglass. He was a sales trainee in 1972 and is now one of a handful of black general managers at major radio stations nationally.
Ronald Townsend, the lone black television station manager locally, is second-in-command at WDVM-TV/Channel 9, the CBS affiliate. The highest-placed black person in any Washington station, Townsend oversees every aspect of the station's day-to-day operation and its 250 employes, more than a third of whom are black.
"That's good, but it could be better, it should be better," he said. Townsend, one of three black managers at major television stations nationally, said it "gets kind of lonely out there" when he attends national meetings of broadcast officials. WDVM, the leading Washington station, also has one of the best records on hiring blacks.
Tom Cookerly, general manager of WJLA-TV/Channel 7, said he feels "that if we're going to effectively serve the community, the makeup of our staff certainly should reflect the community." Although his station employs many blacks in behind-the-scenes positions, Cookerly said, the station has not hired top black managers as quickly.
"The real area in terms of content is news and there is no ranking black in the news department at this point," Cookerly added.
The shortage of black broadcast managers costs the industry "the opportunity to give an accurate, positive image of black Americans," said Dwight Ellis, vice president for minority and special services of the National Association of Broadcasters.
"It has everything to do with the final product," Marshall said. "A news director may make only $75,000 a year, while an anchor may make $200,000, but she's doing what that news director tells her to do. And a black producer brings a certain sensitivity" that whites cannot, he added.
Like Townsend, who began his broadcast career in 1960 in the mail room of CBS headquarters in New York, nearly all of the black managers, producers, and others who have reached any position of authority entered the business 10 to 15 years ago, during what Thursa Thomas, WJLA producer of "Good Morning Washington," calls the "golden age" of opportunity.
It was an era when stations were picketed and station licenses were challenged for not hiring and covering blacks. The civil rights disorders of the late '60s also helped open station doors for blacks.
"In 1968 the door was wide open," said Britt Arrington Jr., who was the first black on-the-air newsman in Louisville, Ky., that year. "They were looking for blacks who were qualified. . . . If there had been no riots I probably would never have gotten in."
Industry insiders said efforts to hire more blacks quickly spread to include women and other ethnic minorities. In addition, a growing pool of qualified applicants has made training programs a luxury in a market as large as Washington, where stations can attract the best talent from smaller cities.
In most instances, vigorous affirmative action activities have slowed or ceased altogether. Repeatedly, blacks of any altitude on the career ladder attributed their entry and rise to training and internship programs that, in many cases, are no longer available.
Most of them say that remaining in the business and building a career, difficult for anyone, is still harder for blacks and other minority employes.
Sandra Butler, executive producer for programming at WDVM, said she took a "tremendous cut in salary" when she gave up her C&P Telephone job as a service representative in favor of broadcasting.
Butler said that WDVM's record in hiring and promoting blacks has benefited the station. Blacks in upper-level jobs have enhanced rather than diluted the quality of the station's operations, she said.
"There's not a black person on this staff who's here because they're black--they're here because they're damn good," said Butler, who oversees the content of Morning Break, Harambee, P.M. Magazine and other local shows on Channel 9.
Lavonia Fairfax said she would like to see more blacks move into broadcast sales jobs, as she did. She left a successful career as a radio and television reporter and anchor in her hometown, Detroit.
Fairfax, a former teacher, beauty contest winner and popular "personality," was being urged to run for political office in Detroit, but chose instead to come to Washington for a fresh start. She said she was "playing big time" as an editorial assistant at ABC network news here when a white colleague informed her, unkindly, that if she "wanted to go to the top or be the next Barbara Walters, I could forget it.
"That's when I decided that as a reporter I would never be able to obtain that kind of control in the system," she said. Learning that most managers in radio began in the sales departments, she begged a job at then-white-owned WOL-AM radio where she was given the lowest sales job.
Four years later, she is the top sales person at WHUR and believes she is on the path to upper-level management.
Tony Rose, president of the Washington Area Media Organization and one of two black sales executives among five at WKYS-FM radio, said most of Washington's 35 radio stations have one or two blacks in advertising and some stations still have none. Even those blacks in sales positions do not get the the largest accounts, he said, because "some agency executives just don't want a black sales representative calling on them. It's that simple."
"Why are there so few?" Rose said. "That's the question we are addressing. Why are there so few?."