News that WLIB-AM, the flagship radio station of the Inner City Broadcasting Corp., was being sold left some Black New Yorkers numb and bewildered. Others quickly rallied to protest the action. If Percy E. Sutton, chairman emeritus of ICBC, was unable to stop a gaggle of activists from gathering to block what they perceived as a takeover of a cherished institution, he did allay the fears of the vast majority, who patiently waited to hear his explanation of the situation.
“We have not sold the station,” Sutton said during a recent interview. “We have merely leased time to Air America. This was done in order to pay the bills that have been accumulating for more than 30 years. For the most part, it has been our sister station, WBLS, that has been carrying the load.”
Air America Network, a subsidiary of Progressive Media, moved into the studios of WLIB on March 31 and began broadcasting a show designed to challenge the choke hold right-wing talk shows have on the radio waves. Political satirist and comedian Al Franken, of Saturday Night Live fame, was tapped to head a lineup of white liberals that includes actress Jeanane Garofalo and media analyst Martin Kaplan, who has often been heard on National Public Radio. Hip-hop artist Chuck D was also slated for the mix.
Veteran broadcaster Mark Riley was to be retained and possibly paired with white co-hosts during the network’s important morning hours.
At press time, Air America representatives said programming for the 19-hour 5 a.m. to midnight time slot was still in the planning stages, though it seemed settled that Franken’s show, to be called the “O’Franken Factor,” a dig at the Fox Network’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” would go up against the kingpin of right-wing talk shows, Rush Limbaugh, in the afternoon. As for the remaining six hours, there was speculation that they would be retained by WLIB. One reliable source said Dr. Carlos Russell, who once worked at WLIB and now serves on its board of directors, would be given the responsibility of filling the nighttime hours.
This arrangement has aroused activist communities throughout the New York metropolitan area. “This is part of the Democrats’ strategy to grasp a radio station with a strong signal to oppose the Republicans’ message,” charged Bob Law, a nationally known radio personality, in a press release that called for a rally to protest the WLIB-Progressive Media deal. “This is an insult to the Black community because no effort was made to give a Black business or person a chance to buy the station. So clearly this is also designed to eliminate genuine Black news, culture and informational programming on the radio.”
Law stopped short of heaping blame on the station’s owners, citing, rather, “the racist Arbitron ratings and marketing companies that don’t adequately count the Black community,” thus depriving Black radio and media organizations of sufficient advertising dollars. Lost in this analysis is the fact that for several years now WLIB has been mainly broadcasting Caribbean music with only a few talk shows and news spots.
It is still undetermined how the deal was made between WLIB and Progressive Media, which apparently is getting financial support from the Democratic National Com-mittee. This may be part of a payback to Mark Walsh, Progressive’s chief executive, who has reportedly donated more than $100,000 to the Democratic Party and has served as an adviser and media consultant to John Kerry, the party’s presumptive presidential candidate. Walsh, according to one news account, has raised more than $20 million for this new venture.
Yet to be known is the long-term plan for a deal that appears to be devised merely to offset a Republican juggernaut. Will the contract between the parties extend beyond two years, or be dissolved after the presidential election is over? Stay tuned.
By Herb Boyd