Reflections: Black radio ‘assailant’ wrongly accused

Friday, August 7, 2009 at 12:00am

The angry rhetoric from both sides about health care has been tame compared to some of the charges voiced about the proposed Performance Rights Act (HR 848).

This legislation was introduced several weeks ago by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). It would require payment to the performers of a song (as opposed to the composer) for airplay on terrestrial radio. Conyers’ efforts are being supported by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood).

Conyers, a longtime jazz, blues, R&B and gospel fan, saw this legislation as a way to help artists battling years of alleged fiscal impropriety by record labels. He also explained that the bill had no impact on fees already paid to publishers and songwriters. Indeed, in his view, it simply levels the payment field for terrestrial stations (Internet, satellite and cable radio broadcasters already pay these fees).

Instead, Conyers finds himself on opposite sides of the fence from longtime supporters and friends Rev. Jessie Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton. He’s been labeled a sellout, corporate dupe and stooge (and those are just the charges that can be printed) on countless Web sites. He has been attacked by Radio One, the nation’s largest consortium of black-owned radio stations, as “a killer of black radio.”

Also opposing the bill are the National Association of Broadcasters and the Free Radio Alliance. These organizations represent 6,500 stations (including several in Nashville) and more than 235 million people nationwide who listen to radio at least once a week.

Locally, HR 848 has also put area performers and supporters such as Sheryl Crow and Miley Cyrus on the defensive. Crow, Cyrus, Cooper and Blackburn have been criticized with the same venom aimed at Conyers.

Legendary songstress Dionne Warwick fought back last week with an article in The Huffington Post after being branded by Radio One CEO Cathy Hughes as a washed-up star trying to piggyback her way into an unjustified payday.

The main problem, aside from excessive rhetoric, boils down to the same old thing: Who’s telling the truth? The legislation’s proponents claim they’ve made adjustments to the bill that greatly minimize any financial damage it would cause.

According to recent copies of the bill, stations whose annual gross revenues are less than $100,000 would pay $500 each year. The fee increases to $2,500 for stations grossing between $100,000 and $500,000, and $5,000 for those grossing between $500,000 and $1.25 million. In addition, any station billing less than $5 million yearly gets a three-year head start before having to pay the fees.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why small stations are fighting the imposition of any new fees. The recession has put just as big a dent in advertising budgets for radio as print media, and tiny black-owned outlets are particularly feeling the pinch.

Hughes and Radio One might be a multi-national conglomerate that did more than $300 million in business last year, but they are hardly the norm among African-American broadcasters.

So when big-time jocks like Tom Joyner went to Washington and talked about the suffering they’ve seen at small affiliates, the message had enough resonance to get the names of half the House’s 435 members on a resolution opposing the fees.

More importantly, it’s sad to see Conyers, who has devoted his entire professional life to fighting on behalf of civil rights and social justice, depicted as a sap and buffoon, or his wife being ridiculed in Radio One ads.

The situation has gotten so toxic that the NAACP recently asked everyone involved to cool off. It didn’t help matters that Sharpton and Jackson refused Conyers’ offer to testify at hearings on the legislation, yet continue to skewer him in print and on the air.

With Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy committed to bringing a Senate version of HR 848 to the floor before the end of the year, and the bill having already made it through the House Judiciary Committee, HR 848 seems fated to eventually pass in some fashion.

Hopefully, whenever this is resolved, old friends will patch up their differences and once again work together for everyone’s benefit.

Wynn is the The City Paper’s music critic. Contact him at


The angry rhetoric from both sides about health care has been tame compared to some of the charges voiced about the proposed Performance Rights Act, which would require payment to the performers of a song for airplay on terrestrial radio.