Black-Owned Radio Stations Tuning Out

Two stations formerly owned byA. G. Gaston are the latest to fall

Booker T. Washington Broadcasting Services (BTWBS) recently sold its two stations to Cox Radio Inc., one of the 10 largest radio companies in the country.

The Birmingham, Alabama-based stations, WENN-FM and WAGG-AM, originally owned by A.G. Gaston, were purchased by BTWBS Insurance Co. in 1975. The stations’ 1996 revenues were about $5 million, but competition from two white-owned but black-programmed stations played havoc with BTWBS’ fortunes.

Within a matter of months, the radio stations’ revenue base had decreased by one-third, says BTWBS’ Chairman Kirkwood R. Balton, who made the decision to sell based on the shrinking bottom line. Terms of the sale have not been disclosed.

Currently only 2.9% (or 330 commercial broadcast properties) are minority-owned nationwide, according to the Commerce Department. This outlook will likely get dimmer thanks to the passage of the Telecommunications Act, which allows large corporations to own multiple radio outlets in the same market.

Balton says, because of their collective number, these conglomerates can offer advertisers better rates than a smaller station by selling air time in combination deals.

There’s also concern about the community-wide impact when black stations are sold. “What happens to the news coverage and the sensitivity to issues of concern to the community?” asks Lois Wright, general council for the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters. “Just keeping the same music format isn’t enough.” Cox Radio declined to give details of any format or staff changes before the sale is complete. BTWBS will now focus on managing its real estate properties.

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