What’s going on in black radio?
George Michael is such a darling of black radio that he defeated Michael Jackson as the nation’s favorite male R&B; singer in the annual “American Music Awards” ceremony--the first white artist to win in any R&B; category in the 16-year history of the competition.
Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who’s also white, saw her recent single, “The Lover in Me,” become a hit on black radio before it cracked the pop radio market.
Some new kids on the block--Wendy and Lisa, Samantha Fox, Michael Bolton and Taylor Dayne--are other white artists getting black airplay. Black radio has even been playing some white jazz artists--sax players David Sanborn and Kenny G.
All of this activity has led to a ironic situation: After years of campaigning to get more black artists on white-dominated pop stations, much of the black music community now finds itself in the awkward position of talking about the need to keep whites off black radio.
According to some industry observers, a massive white-artist invasion of black radio is a secret fear harbored by many blacks in the entertainment industry.
“George Michael has awakened primal fears of some people in black music,” said Billboard magazine’s black music editor, Nelson George. “He’s doing things on black radio that people never thought possible for white artists. After he won that American Music Award, that’s all people were talking about. I was on a lecture tour at the time and that was the first question everyone asked.”
Some black singers admit privately that they resent Michael’s invasion of black radio. Soul balladeer Freddie Jackson even complained publicly about it in a Calendar interview last year. Because of those remarks, widely reprinted, he was subsequently attacked by some readers for being jealous and a racist.
Jackson was simply echoing black radio executives and analysts who feel black radio must devote most of its air time to black artists to maintain its identity in the highly competitive industry.
“Black stations have to stay black,” said Sidney Miller, publisher of the trade journal Black Radio Exclusive. “That’s their edge. They offer music that you can’t hear on the pop stations.
Added program director Steve Woods, of black-oriented KACE-FM: “The identity of black radio is based on playing black music by black artists. The white artists who are played are the exceptions--and will always be, as long as black radio is black radio.”
Playing too many white artists, though, endangers that identity.
Black radio executives and analysts feel this driving need to protect the identity of black radio for one main reason: the preservation of black music.
“Without the influx of new artists, black music would die,” said Billboard’s George. “More than anybody else, new black artists need black radio.”
Nearly all black recording artists get their initial airplay on black radio. Pop stations, which devote most of their air time to white artists, normally play records by these newcomers only after they’ve become hits on black radio.
“One way some black programmers look at it, if a lot of white artists are being played, that takes up spots that might be used for a young black artist,” Graham Armstrong, co-publisher of the black trade journal R&B; Report, pointed out.
“For white artists to be played on black radio is a luxury. They get this black airplay in addition to pop airplay. But for young black artists, it’s their only outlet. Without black radio they don’t get played. Most black radio program directors would rather help out new black artists and play their records.”
That concern about the preservation of black music is fine but it ignores something even more important--that stations are in the business of making money.
The basic rule of survival in radio isn’t trying to preserve a certain musical style--it’s simply playing what your audience wants to hear. As much as they might want to, stations can’t play whatever they want.
“The primary goal of any radio station--no matter what the format--is satisfying its core audience,” said radio consultant Jeff Pollack of the Pollack Media Group. “You lose that core audience by not playing what they want to hear. Those people would turn to a station that did play what they wanted to hear.
“All radio stations, black or otherwise, live of fear of listeners tuning out. Fewer listeners means lower ratings, which ultimately affect revenues.”
Fans of black radio often want to hear George Michael and other white artists. Like it or not, black radio stations must adhere to that basic rule of survival in radio, playing what the audience wants--even if it’s white artists.
Black radio, according to the R&B; Report’s Armstrong, can be traced back to the ‘30s, but it blossomed in major urban areas in the ‘50s--playing black artists almost exclusively even though blacks were most certainly buying records by white singers at the time.
“These radio stations were something that black people could call their own,” he said. “It was black radio by black people and for black people.”
The emphasis on black artists in black radio--all AM in those days--intensified with the rise of the black-power movement in the ‘60s. Among the few exceptions in the ‘50s and ‘60s: Elvis Presley and the Righteous Brothers.
“People were saying be black and be proud,” Armstrong added. “In those days, especially, black radio was an important medium in the black community--like black-owned papers. It was one of the only mediums controlled by blacks.”
Emphasized Billboard’s George: “A white singer had to sound real black to get played on black radio in those days. Then, the idea in black radio was to serve the black community . . . playing music that couldn’t be heard anywhere else.”
The ‘70s were a transition period for black radio. The situation began slowly changing in the early ‘70s, with the FM-radio boom, which expanded the market and increased competition among radio stations for advertising dollars. For some black stations, part of that expansion meant expanding playlists to include white artists.
“Black stations had to expand to survive,” said Armstrong. “Black stations wanted some of that big advertising money. They became more cosmopolitan--to keep with the changing ‘70s. That meant playing a bigger musical mix--while still hanging on to that black identity.”
So artists such as the Bee Gees, Michael McDonald, David Bowie and Hall & Oates started showing up on black radio--when they had records that qualified for airplay.
“Black tastes started to expand too,” said George. “They wanted to hear more of a variety of music, different kinds of black music--even black music by some white artists. A lot of these artists just had one record here and there that fit black radio formats. But black radio had to keep up with the times--with the tastes of its audience. They had to play certain white records.
“Some program directors might like to go back to the old days--when black stations were really black--but that’s not possible.”
How do programmers choose which white artists to play?
The simple test, according to Jack Patterson, program director of black-oriented KDAY, is: “Does the record sound black enough?”
If it does, he said bluntly, his station will consider playing it.
Despite the apparent rise in the number of white artists on black stations, few records--programmers agree--pass the test.
Noted Tony Hart, program director of KGFJ, which plays mostly black oldies: “Very few white artists can play black music as well as black artists. Most black music by white artists isn’t soulful enough to be played on black stations. Some element is missing.”
Take “Sledgehammer,” by white rock star Peter Gabriel, for instance. This song, modeled after ‘60s Motown and Memphis hits, isn’t played on KGFJ. “It’s just not funky enough for our audience,” Hart explained.
But often singles by white artists are funky enough. How do programmers decide which ones to play?
KDAY’s Patterson explained: “You go by what you hear on the streets, by phone requests, by club action. If there’s a buzz about a record and your listeners want to hear it, you play it. If there’s a white record out there they want to hear, they’ll let you know.”
Black stations, though, can’t go overboard on playing white artists. The consensus is that black stations may play records by three or four white artists regularly but not too many more. KDAY’s Patterson, whose station specializes in rap, said: “Playing seven or eight cuts regularly by white artists is too many--particularly for our station. We’re too street-oriented. Playing too many white artists would ruin our black identity and damage our standing in the black community.”
R&B; Report’s Armstrong added: “Unless it’s an unusually strong period for white artists doing black-oriented music, you’ll rarely hear more than five white artists on any black station’s playlist at any one time.”
Is there hidden racism in these restrictions?
Black program directors, sensitive to possible racist charges, will naturally deny that, insisting that they play what fits the format, regardless of race. KGFJ’s Tony Hart said: “We don’t look at color. We look at what works in our format--black or white.”
Yet Armstrong contended that racism is a factor sometimes: “There are racial reasons in some cases--where black program directors simply don’t want to play white artists because they’re white. But that happens on white stations, where some white program directors want to keep blacks off just for racial reasons.
No matter how confidently some observers insist black radio will stay black, others believe that white artists will keep on infiltrating black radio.
That’s because more and more white artists are likely to be making black-oriented records--the kind of records black radio listeners want to hear. White artists can make such records much more easily now because black music, detractors claim, has become so homogenized that it’s not that hard to duplicate.
What’s happened is that, in this decade, black artists have become so intent on breaking into the lucrative pop market ( crossing over , in industry slang) that branches of black music have liberally incorporated pop elements.
In fact, some black singers, such as Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, for instance, are seen as pop artists rather than black artists.
The hard-core, gospel-flavored R&B; of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the argument goes, has been supplanted by today’s relatively bland, black-oriented, musical hodge-podge.
“Back in the old days, black music was really distinct,” Billboard’s George noted. “Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Patti LaBelle were at the forefront of black music then. Their styles were so strong and powerful, very few whites could copy it.”
But these days, detractors charge, black music is neither as distinct nor as high-quality as it used to be. “The general quality of black music has dropped,” R&B; Report’s Armstrong insisted. “There aren’t any young Arethas and Otises out there. The kids are too busy rapping, which doesn’t take any singing talent. The integration of assorted musical styles has watered black music down.”
Another culprit is technology.
“The technology is such that it’s rather simple for white artists to copy a black sound,” said Armstrong. “With all the incredible equipment in the studio now, it’s no problem to make a black-sounding record. Now that sampling (a technique of integrating riffs from old songs into new tracks) is so common, anybody can sound black. Just take parts of black records and use them as a base. Look at those English producers,” he said, referring to Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who have worked with the likes of Samantha Fox and Rick Astley.
What concerns members of the black music community is that some white artists have become expert at duplicating the black sound--maybe too expert.
“The reason black stations are playing George Michael is because he makes good black records,” Billboard’s George said. “He sounds as good as a lot of the black artists out there. So how can you keep him off black radio?
“With all this technology and the presence of George Michael, some blacks are nervous about what’s happening now. One of the worst fears of black people is that white artists will be able to make black music as well as blacks do. That never seemed possible before, but it’s more possible under the present circumstances. It may become harder and harder to keep black radio black.”