NELSON GEORGE HS CL

Since its invention in the 1940s black oriented radio had been the chief vehicles for promoting all forms of black music, from R&B to jazz, gospel to funk. For much of its history these stations had been limited to the far end of AM radio. In fact, a great many of them only had day-time licenses, which meant they only broadcast from sun up to sundown.

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The early ‘70s had witnessed a tremendous evolution in black radio. The AM stations were still around but had been joined by FM outlets in major cities (WBLS in New York, WDAS in Philadelphia, WHUR in Washington D.C.). The sound quality was great. The vibe smoother, more laid back. The entire sonic package, just like the music, reflected the growth of the black middle class and its aspirational nature. The fact that many of these stations were black owned reflected their cultural importance.

 

But this evolution didn’t necessarily impress Madison Avenue. Black radio had always been a place where hair grease, prayer cloths and local bars had advertised. More expensive upscale products (automobiles, airlines, real estate companies) resisted advertising on radio stations aimed at black consumers. Trying to increase big brand advertising on their station was major mission of these stations, which is why so many of these stations began labeling their programming as “urban” or “urban contemporary” as opposed to “R&B,” “soul,” or “black.”

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It was a linguistic evasion that allowed many stations to program disco music or R&B tracks by Queen along with Earth, Wind & Fire or Natalie Cole. The urban idea was that these stations attracted more than black listeners (which was absolutely true) and thus should not be locked into old stereotypes (also true.) It was this pursuit of mainstream advertising that would, in a few years, inform black radio’s initial negativity towards hip hop.

But it wasn’t just Madison Avenue that these hip black FM stations had beef with. The major record labels, for whom black radio was crucial, weren’t perceived as being truly supportive. When artists came to town having local DJs host the show or the station co-promote the show or have a ticket giveaway were crucial branding for these stations. Yet especially when a black performer with pop appeal came to town, the Pop (aka white) department of a label would control the majority of the promotional dollars and often offer black radio stations token involvement.

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While these big market radio programmers strategized, the smaller market FM and AM R&B stations had their own issues. Though they generated revenue for these stations and were extremely popular in their markets, the DJs felt poorly paid and treated like disposable product. Talk to a radio DJ and you are speaking to a gypsy, someone who’s moved from station to station, city to city, sometimes to move up, other times just to survive.

The taking of payola to play certain records or promote new artists was rampant at black radio since a) it had been a generally accepted practice since the ‘50s and b) most black radio station personnel, despite their visibility, were often barely holding on financially. This was particularly true of black AM stations and smaller market broadcasters in the South and Midwest. It’s why the fight to get a piece of shows by acts visiting their market was crucial to them.

Another piece of this puzzle were drugs, particularly cocaine. Some radio promotion people curried favor with radio programmers and air personalities as drug suppliers, effectively buying airplay for nose candy depending on how thirsty folks at that station were. When it came to radio play sometimes the line between the music world and underworld was as thin as vinyl on a turntable.

 

 

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