Broadcaster’s action represents one fiant leap backward
Clear Channel has taken the urban radio format in Syracuse back to the 1950s. At the same time, it has kicked its urban audience to the back of the bus. The media giant did so when it banished the signal that carried the rhythm’n’blues programming of the now former WPHR-FM 106.9 (Power 106.9) from FM to AM. Now, when a listener tunes in at 106.9 expecting to hear the soulfulness expressed in the music of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin or one of their contemporaries, they’ll experience the rants of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity of conservative talk-radio fame.
The alternative for local fans of the urban adult contemporary format (the industry’s terms) is to dust off the transistor radio boxed in the attic and accept a closet-filling, basschallenged mono sound devoid of any high fidelity. The good news, if you can call it that, is they won’t need stereo speakers or headphones. If they want stereo, they can listen to compact discs or mp3s on a mobile device like an iPod or smartphone.
And, if they have the financial means, they can sign up for satellite radio, turn to the Internet or direct their ears to a music service carried on subscription television. To do so, of course, means the local news, talk and public affairs programming directed primarily at Syracuse’s black community become casualties lost in the airways of corporate insensitivity and greed.
Unlike other radio formats in Syracuse, there are no other stations (outside of one of Clear Channel’s AM stations) competing for the urban audience, which incidentally represents more than one-quarter of the city’s population.
The media conglomerate’s management in Syracuse is obviously counting on the station’s audience to not raise too much of a fuss after the company’s engineers abruptly flipped the switch on the afternoon of Jan. 2 to end the simulcasting that temporarily broadcast the station’s signal on both AM and FM bands. While Clear Channel is certainly large enough to tolerate a few irate callers and letter writers, the company should also count on something else as a result of treating Central New York’s most loyal radio listeners as second-class citizens. A formal complaint will be filed in the near future to the Federal Communications Commission, noting the blatant disregard of the community once served by Power 106.9.
To Power 106.9’s former audience, don’t waste your time and energy complaining to this outfit based in San Antonio, Texas. Clear Channel’s management made clear its intentions in the fall of 2009 when it abruptly pulled the stunt of switching Power 106.9’s programming over one weekend to the “young country” format. The timing followed completion of the tower that now carries the significantly improved signal of WSYR-FM.
Clear Channel has apparently determined the urban format is not profitable enough to continue to be aired on a now-valuable broadcast property. Therefore, nothing is likely to change its decision. Because many in Power 106.9’s former audience will not settle for a bandwidth better suited for Limbaugh, Beck and Hannity, Clear Channel will finally have the excuse it wants to outright kill the urban format at its Syracuse stations.
So, what should happen after the complaint is filed with the FCC? The community in Syracuse once served by Power 106.9 should make that decision. It could:
1. Encourage other broadcasters with local FM stations to adopt an urban format. Even if successful, however, that broadcaster could pull the plug at its discretion without consulting it audience just as Clear Channel is doing. It might also see little need to provide the news, talk and public affairs programming Power 106.9’s audience had become accustomed; 2. Support a local entrepreneur willing to make a sizable investment and proceed through the lengthy and costly license application process, hoping to secure a slot if and when a frequency becomes available. This approach, possibly the most desirable, was tried by two minority ownership groups in the 1990s, including the predecessors to Power 106.9, who ultimately sold the station to Clear Channel.
Unfortunately, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed limitations on multiple station ownership in the same market and allowed corporate giants like Clear Channel to overwhelm smaller competitors, including many minority broadcasters. As a result, many are no longer in business and diversity in the marketplace is beginning to return to what it was like in the 1950s. The level playing field that might have provided a minority entrepreneur access to capital and the ability to compete on an equal footing for advertisers in order to launch a new radio station no longer exists because of the act’s deregulation of the industry.
1. Lease or buy a digital sub-channel from a local broadcaster. Like Clear Channel’s AM station currently carrying the urban format, the audience will be tiny because will have severe limitations in attracting advertising.
2. Form a non-profit community-based foundation to operate a new FM station. While this may ultimately prove to be the most viable option, the foundation would have to pursue a license through the same application process described above.
Whatever approach the community ultimately decides, it should be geared to the future and protect over the long term Syracuse’s only broadcast outlet for news, information and public affairs programming produced to inform the city’s black community.
The goal must include doing so in a sound fitting for the 21st century. Anything less would be a sign of no R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
J.B. McCampbell is owner of JBM Media Services, a communications and public relations firm based in Syracuse, and a former news reporter and producer for WGTE-FM, a public radio station in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio.