On January 30, 1989, George Michael was the first white artist to win Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist award. His album “Faith” also won as Favorite Soul/R&B Album. That win caused a huge controversy in the black music community. Below is the article published in the Los Angeles Times by Dennis Hunt on “The Whitening of Black Radio: A musical community fears the loss of its identity” that shed light on the issue.
What’s going on in black radio?
George Michael is such a darling of black radio that he defeated Michael Jackson as the nation’s favorite male rhythm-and-blues singer in the annual “American Music Awards” ceremony, the first white to win in any R&B category in the history of the competition.
Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who also is white, saw her latest single, “The Lover in Me,” become a hit on black radio before it cracked the pop-radio market.
Some new kids on the block, Dino, Samantha Fox, Michael Bolton and Taylor Dayne, are other white artists getting black air-play. Black radio has even been playing some white jazz artists, sax players David Sanborn and Kenny G.
All of this activity has led to an ironic situation: After years of campaigning to get more black artists on white-dominated pop stations, much of the black-music community now finds itself in the awkward position of talking about the need to keep whites off black radio.
Some industry observers, such as Billboard magazine’s black-music editor, Nelson George, say a massive white-artist invasion of black radio is a secret fear harbored by many blacks in the industry.
“George Michael has awakened primal fears of some people in black music,” George said. “He’s doing things on black radio that people never thought possible for white artists. After he won that American Music Award, that’s all people were talking about.”
Some black singers admit privately that they resent Michael’s invasion. Soul balladeer Freddie Jackson even complained publicly about it in an interview in the Los Angeles Times last year. Because of those remarks, widely reprinted, he was subsequently attacked by some readers for being jealous and a racist.
Jackson was echoing black-radio executives and analysts who believe that black radio must devote most of its air time to black artists to maintain its identity in the highly competitive industry.
“Black stations have to stay black,” said Sidney Miller, publisher of the trade journal Black Radio Exclusive. “That’s their edge. They offer music that you can’t hear on the predominantly white pop stations.
Added program director Steve Woods, of black-oriented KACE-FM in Los Angeles: “The identity of black radio is based on playing black music by black artists. The white artists who are played are the exceptions, and will always be, as long as black radio is black radio.”
Playing too many white artists, though, endangers that identity.
Black-radio executives and analysts have a driving need to protect the identity of black radio for one main reason: the preservation of black music.
“Without the influx of new artists, black music would die,” said Billboard’s George. “More than anybody else, new black artists need black radio.”
Nearly all black recording artists are initially played on black radio. Pop stations, which devote most of their air time to white artists, normally play records by these newcomers only after they have become hits on black radio.
One way some black programmers look at it, if a lot of white artists are being played, that takes up spots that might be used for a young black artist,” Graham Armstrong, co-publisher of the black trade-journal R & B Report, said.
“For white artists to be played on black radio is a luxury. They get this black air-play in addition to pop air-play. But for young black artists, it’s their only outlet. Without black radio they don’t get played. Most black-radio program directors would rather help out new black artists and play their records.”
That concern about preserving black music is fine but it seems to ignore something even more important, that stations are in the business of making money.
One basic rule of survival in radio is not trying to preserve a certain musical style; it is simply playing what your audience wants to hear. As much as they might want to, stations cannot play whatever they want.
“The primary goal of any radio station, no matter what the format, is satisfying its core audience,” said radio consultant Jeff Pollack of the Pollack Media Group. “You lose that core audience by not playing what they want to hear. Those people would turn to a station that did play what they wanted to hear.
“All radio stations, black or otherwise, live in fear of listeners tuning out. Fewer listeners means lower ratings, which ultimately affect revenues.”
Fans of black radio often want to hear George Michael and other white artists. Like it or not, black-radio stations must adhere to that basic rule in radio, playing what the audience wants, even if it is white artists.
How do programmers choose which white artists to play?
The simple test, according to Jack Patterson, program director of black-oriented KDAY-AM in Los Angeles, is: “Does the record sound black enough?”
If it does, he said bluntly, his station will play it.
Despite the apparent rise in the number of white artists on black stations, few records, programmers agree, pass the test.
Noted Tony Hart, program director of KGFJ in Los Angeles, which plays mostly black oldies: “Very few white artists can play black music as well as black artists. Most black music by white artists isn’t soulful enough to be played on black stations. Some element is missing.”
Take “Sledgehammer,” by white rock-star Peter Gabriel, for instance. That song, modeled after ’60s Motown and Memphis hits, is not played on KGFJ. “It’s just not funky enough for our audience,” Hart explained.
But often singles by white artists are funky enough. How do programmers decide which ones to play?
KDAY’s Patterson explained: “You go by what you hear on the streets, by phone requests, by club action. If there’s a buzz about a record and your listeners want to hear it, you play it. If there’s a white record out there they want to hear it, they’ll let you know.”
Black stations, though, cannot go overboard on playing white artists. The consensus is that black stations may play records by three or four white artists regularly but not too many more. KDAY’s Patterson said: “Playing seven or eight cuts regularly by white artists is too many, particularly for our station which specializes in rap. We’re too street-oriented. Playing too many white artists would ruin our black identity and damage our standing in the black community.”
R&B Report’s Armstrong added: “Unless it’s an unusually strong period for white artists doing black-oriented music, you’ll rarely hear more than five white artists on any black station’s playlist at any one time.”
No matter how confidently some observers insist that black radio will stay black, others believe that white artists will keep on infiltrating black radio.
That is because more and more white artists are likely to be making black-oriented records. White artists can make such records much easier now because black music, detractors claim, has become so homogenized that it is not that hard to duplicate.
The hard-core, gospel-flavored R&B of the ’50s and ’60s, the argument goes, has been supplanted by today’s relatively bland, black-oriented, musical hodgepodge.
“Back in the old days, black music was really distinct,” Billboard’s George noted. “Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Patti LaBelle were at the forefront of black music then. Their styles were so strong and powerful, very few whites could copy it.”
But these days, detractors charge, black music is neither as distinct nor as high-quality as it used to be. “The general quality of black music has dropped,” R&B Report’s Armstrong insisted. “There aren’t any young Arethas and Otises out there. The kids are too busy rapping, which doesn’t take any singing talent. The integration of assorted musical styles has watered black music down.”
Another culprit, some observers agree, is technology.
The technology is such that it’s rather simple for white artists to copy a black sound,” Armstrong said. “With all the incredible equipment in the studio now, it’s no problem to make a black-sounding record. Now that sampling a technique of integrating riffs from old songs into new tracks is so common, anybody can sound black. Just take parts of black records and use them as a base. Look at those English producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who have worked with the likes of Samantha Fox and Rick Astley, All they’re doing is reproducing a black sound.”
What concerns members of the black-music community is that some white artists have become expert at duplicating the black sound, maybe too expert.
“The reason black stations are playing George Michael is because he makes good black records,” Billboard’s George said. “He sounds as good as a lot of the black artists out there. So how can you keep him off black radio?
“With all this technology, and the presence of George Michael, some blacks are nervous about what’s happening now. One of the worst fears of black people is that white artists will be able to make black music as well as blacks do. That never seemed possible before but it’s more possible under the present circumstances. It may become harder and harder to keep black radio black.”
- George Michael Interview with Capital FM Radio with Dr. Fox (Dec 1998)
- George Michael: Artist or Airhead? (Musician, 1988)
- Wham! Teen Dreams Come True (NME, 1983)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- Graham Norton Interview with George Michael (2003)