The Lighthouse Theater on Manhattan's upper east side was jammed packed Saturday afternoon for what Talkers magazine's founder Michael Harrison billed as "the most important session" of the annual gathering of talk show hosts from across the nation. Not surprisingly Al Sharpton stood the event up, didn't bother calling, and must not have felt it was all that significant that Harrison himself - the greatest advocate of talk radio on the planet - had personally invited him to be one of a panel of six to slice and dice talk radio, race, and the future - perhaps especially significant in light of Barack Obama's possible upcoming presidency.
By my estimation there was one conservative, one center-left moderate, and four liberals on the panel. The task was simple: to engage in a discussion of ideas as to how non-dominant voices could be used in the medium of talk radio today.
Ideas to be covered included: should there be minority focused radio, how should minority voices be integrated into general market radio (radio that all people groups access), and other unique elements as it related to talk radio and race.
Larry Young of WOLB in Baltimore went first and commented on the influence and comfort of working in talk radio - following a 23 year career in the Maryland legislature. Lincoln Ware of WDBZ in Cincinnati went next and immediately began to attack the influence of Sean Hannity, repeatedly and without mercy. Sunny James, an African American female podcaster from DC followed - pinch-hitting for the blind-date no-show Sharpton, she mostly listened and promoted her own ability to fill in for other people. But she had seriously been put on the spot, and had no prepared remarks. Jesse Lee Peterson who hosts a syndicated show was the lone conservative on the panel, and remarked that he found it odd that Al Sharpton would not be there but that it didn't surprise him. Peterson went on to insist that minority focused ownership, programming, and promotion did not serve well the greater purpose of bringing people together.
When Peterson invoked that name of Sharpton and later Jesse Jackson he irritated the remaining two panelists Charles Ethridge a weekend co-host on New York's KISS-FM, and Coz Carlson WWRL's morning host also based in New York. Immediately the scene turned into five on one.
Immediately Mr. Ethridge claimed "racism" in the agencies that "buy" black owned stations, and what they are willing to spend as compared to "white" stations. Claiming that the "system" allowed stations who performed better in the ratings to only "earn" .92 for the "earnings" of 1.27 for "white" stations.
When Peterson interjected to make the claim that it was wrong for "black" stations to insist on being "given things" the same as "white" stations, Ethridge called him a fool, Carlson muttered that he should shut his mouth, and Lincoln Ware all but called him an uncle tom for being a black man that the "Sean Hannitys" of the world could control.
It seemed that the entire panel, sans Peterson, felt offended in the "truths" that Ethridge implied. And Carlson went so far, as to argue for the implementation of the fairness doctrine - without calling it by name.
In other words - not a single liberal or moderate on the panel had any understanding of the free market. And when Peterson attempted to point out that they were promoting the group think of Sharpton and Jackson, the feigned indignities reigned down, "let's not speak poorly of someone who's not here to defend themselves."
To wit Mark Levin responded from midway back in the Theater, "Like Sean Hannity?"
Full disclosure, I did a talk show in Chicago and then New York, both of which have thriving African American focused media operations in the community. Ethridge kept mumbling over and over again on the panel that "Madison Avenue" was in essence conducting apartheid in how "it" allocated it's dollars when it came to buying ads on radio stations.
I hate to tell Mr. Ethridge - but there was a fool on the panel - but it was not Peterson.
For anyone to make such a claim, that a fictitious entity, like "Madison Avenue" should be solely responsible for minority owned and operated radio from not making a buck - is ludicrous - more over it sounds like socialism to me. Towards the end of the rather raucous gathering Lincoln Ware returned to the theme admitting that if he had but one wish for the future of "black radio" it would be that "the man" would just learn to respect the "black dollar" more. Another insane statement from a worldview that places its blame for lack of success outside its own control.
Claiming advertising agencies would pay .30 cents less per spot on a "black" station than the same agency would pay on a "white" station means one thing for sure. That "black" radio station's sales staff doesn't understand how to compose a deal. And if you ask anyone in radio - stations that rely on ad agencies to buy up their inventory are not really putting their best effort forward to make the most amount of money anyway. Consider that my second year in New York WABC - the biggest talk radio station in America grossed $24 million in revenue, that same year under strong sales leadership WMCA grossed roughly $18 million. The difference being that WABC had at least seven or eight times the audience that WMCA had for the same period of time.
If some one isn't getting enough money from advertisers for their radio station - that's no one's fault but the sales people setting up the contracts.
For what its worth - on my show on WMCA in New York - African Americans made up the largest segment of my talk show audience - nearly 37%. Whites were next, followed by Latinos, Asians, and various Semitic and Arab groups following. In other words we were predominantly a"black listened too" radio station, at least more so than any other demographic.
Certainly given the numbers that KISS-FM could garner - being the number one, two, or three station in the market (above WABC-AM), surely they could have been as easily hard nosed about what their valuable air-time was worth and choose to do business with only those who would pay the rates of what their sizable audience would deliver.
The far more disturbing aspect of the panel than the fact that five liberal or center-left people complained about being victims (you always expect liberals to play the role of the victim) was the telling sign that they wished to institute "fairness doctrine" like tactics to fix it - which inherently would cause them to lose even MORE billing dollars by forcing them to deliver even smaller audiences in the future because of a lack of ability to generate the largest audience possible.
The ever fair Michael Harrison - never did get a straight answer to the very genuine follow-up question he posed about the fact that general market talk stations tend to draw sizable minority audiences anyway, so was there even a need for such minority owned/divisive concepts to programming to begin with.
The implications of the panel could not be more clear. The panel that represented "black radio" in America today wants government enforced rules that tells businesses how much they may spend on any given station for advertising. They argued this out of laziness, either on philosophical or staff physicality bases.
Even more telling they ignored the prophet in their midst, who articulately argued that success should be based on effort, integrity, and character.
Or as Darrel from the hit TV series "The Office" argued to his "white boss" Michael Scott, "You gots to earn son!"