Unpaid Royalties is a series about the myriad ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what's being done to change them. Read more here.
KJLH is an adult R&B radio station that serves Los Angeles, home to about 10 million Black people. The weekday lineup pulls from Billboard’s weekly adult R&B national airplay chart, which includes newer songs from artists a little past their prime, targeted to 25 to 54-year-olds (in other words, it’s one of the platforms where a new Ne-Yo song is a priority). There’s some Saweetie in there too, but the station is still one of a kind, and not because you’d hear that now-obscure Queen Pen joint within the same hour as Beenie Man and Mya’s “Girls Dem Sugar” in 2020.
KJLH is alone in being the only independent terrestrial commercial radio station serving a Black music audience in California’s major markets. Its peer, KTWV (94.7 The Wave), is one of the 235 radio stations owned by Entercom. A Utah corporation named Bonneville International owns San Francisco’s 41-year-old KBLX, along with 13 other stations. KJLH relies on revenue from ads and various events—two streams dried out by the COVID-19 pandemic—while its peers rest atop bags of corporate money.
“Where we may have been competing one-on-one or two-on-one, now in L.A., you can be competing with as many as seven or eight stations owned by the same entity,” said KJLH VP/General Manager Karen E. Slade. “Then you’re competing for audience and advertising dollars. They make it just so much harder to compete in the market because they tend to have a lot of efficiencies because of their financial structure.”
“It is very hard for us to be arbiters of taste, especially when we're responsible to shareholders."
The station would be an anomaly regardless of which time zone it was in, thanks to legislation passed when some of its listeners were toddlers. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 lifted a cap on the number of radio properties a single company could own nationally. Its stated purpose was to promote competition, and if we are judging laws by stated purposes, it’s failed. Within three years, Bonneville International, the now-defunct Infinity Broadcasting, and Clear Channel dominated the market, collecting about 68 percent of the ad dollars while crippling the diversity of airwaves nationwide.
"I think the Telecommunications Act has taken some of the localism out of radio. Ultimately, there may be a backlash," Emmis Communications CEO Jeffrey Smulyan told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. “It is very hard for us to be arbiters of taste, especially when we're responsible to shareholders."
Of course, the act didn’t just disrupt Black radio. It’s an industry-wide contortion that some classic rock fans blame for making people think Jay Z is good. But if the music business is like every other American business in how it denies Black people capital, the law at least helped instate other roadblocks.
At the very least, the Telecommunications Act doesn’t appear to have had too much of a negative impact on Black radio ownership. Black majority-owned AM and FM stations currently make up roughly 2.4 percent of the market, which is a little less paltry than the 1.6 percent it was in 1997. The shift after the act was more structural. Black radio wasn’t uniformly friendly to emerging forms of expression before 1996—Public Enemy’s “How to Kill a Radio Consultant” wasn’t a thank you note—but some of hip-hop’s most seminal artists were introduced by DJs.
“What we’ve noticed since the ‘90s is that this consolidation of commercial media ownership has allowed for an increasingly smaller number of people to impact what forms of Black cultural production become popular and then re-disseminated back to Black audiences here and around the world.”
But in the two decades since, DJs and personalities started to resemble figureheads instead of gatekeepers. What gets played on the radio rests in the distant hands of advertisers and playlists mandated by the few corporations who own them. That’s a lot of repetition among the dozens of Black radio stations that iHeartMedia and its predominantly white board of directors oversee, flattening the music’s regional characteristics to fit under one ad-friendly umbrella.
“What we’ve noticed since the ‘90s is that this consolidation of commercial media ownership has allowed for an increasingly smaller number of people to impact what forms of Black cultural production become popular and then re-disseminated back to Black audiences here and around the world,” said Jared Ball, a communication studies professor at Morgan State University.
In a 2020 study, Nielsen reported that 91 percent of Black adults 18 and older still listen to radio on a weekly basis, and radio interviews are still promptly mined and aggregated for website content. These are consolation facts; streaming has, of course, overtaken the dial as young listeners’ main mode of music consumption and discovery. But for radio, breaking new artists or premiering an exclusive were more attributes than the main point. When they’re well-studied in the culture, the stations’ hosts lend context to what’s played.
“I don’t want to understate the importance of giving listeners context around what’s important and what’s happening right now, which is hard to get unless you’re a lean-forward listener listening to the hippest playlists,” said Larry Miller, director of the music business program at NYU Steinhardt. “For the average listener, they need and want context.”
It’s wishful thinking to believe amending the Act could salvage the radio landscape. iHeartMedia owns 855 stations, followed by Cumulus Media’s 445 and Townsquare Media's 321. Breaking up the conglomerates would cause a web of financial insolvencies and litigation that would likely cause too much harm to justify a small chance of regaining a platform capable of finding the Next Big Thing.
But in its pivot to the newer tastemaking frontier of streaming playlists, the music industry might’ve just found a mirror of corporate radio. A song getting skipped over and consequently moved lower down or removed from a playlist is analogous to a radio program director being forced to drop a record from rotation. The muscle of a record label is just as potent in apps, too.
Hip-hop is the driving force behind streaming’s dominance, yet the number of Black executives in the record labels that own stakes in Spotify—Sony Music and Universal—is still disproportionately small.
“They have big teams who do nothing but maintain relationships with the people who are choosing which tracks appear on what order on which playlist,” Miller said.
The songs that do get top billing on the main streaming platforms’ landing pages and playlists are often linked to major labels, a dynamic that raises its own ethical issues about ownership. Hip-hop is the driving force behind streaming’s dominance, yet the number of Black executives in the record labels that own stakes in Spotify—Sony Music and Universal—is still disproportionately small. What results is a permutation of two traditions that’s long gamed Black artists: The pre-1996 one, of predominantly white record execs feasting off Black music while controlling its artists’ destinies, and the consolidation of an industry that routinely refuses to give those artists any stake.
“What is important to take from the Telecom Act of 96 is the process that it set in motion as it relates to popular culture—music in particular,” Ball said. “And that’s what needs to be revisited: Who controls the popularity and who controls the wealth that’s being created from what’s made popular. And that’s what needs to be targeted with whatever particular legislation we want to focus on.”
Hypothetically, labels that already control the bulk of pop music don’t have much incentive to support legislation that would force them to relinquish such power. But streaming is still a fluctuating business, and while its fate is to be decided, radio’s fate—a fall from a diverse platform to a largely homogenous one—is already sealed, leaving stations like KJLH figuring out ways to support itself without a corporate pocket to reach into. But Slade remains optimistic. Los Angeles is still a major market, she said, and an audience will always be there.
“We serve the community. We’re in the community,” she said. “So it’s like we’re helping ourselves. One of our slogans is, ‘We are you.’ And we are. We are the audience that we serve.”