Banning Saggy Pants is Not the issue. Need for Low Power Community Radio is!

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Bruce Dixon

Local lawmakers in Atlanta, Dallas and other cities pretend to address crime and destructive aspects of corporate-delivered youth culture by targeting the appearance of black youth – with local ordinances to file or jail the wearers of sagging pants and exposed thong straps.  But the public airwaves over which commercial youth culture is delivered are owned by the people and regulated by their elected representatives.  If regulators and legislators did their jobs, would the odious fare of BET, MTV and their commercial radio clones be the only messages permitted to reach the ears of young people?
The Low-Power Community Radio Act in Congress right now is a real solution to the problem of getting more positive choices and voices on the radio.  So why aren’t black leaders rallying people around it?
 “It’s really legislative malpractice, that targets and criminalizes young black males who consume a cultural message conveyed to them by BET, by MTV, by black commercial radio and other corporate for-profit media….”
In case you missed it, local lawmakers around the country have come up with a brand-new answer to corporate youth culture and its glorification of prison, booty-shakin’ drug slinging and nihilism.
It’s also a proven way to get their names in the news for taking a stand. Their new approach to these problems has found its way to the legislative dockets of dozens of communities.  Their solution?  A legal ban on sagging pants that expose underwear, with fines and/or jail time for those caught wearing their pants too low. The bans are on the legislative dockets in Atlanta and Dallas and have already passed in several Georgia and Louisiana cities.
“It’s a profoundly backward idea,” according to Dr. Jared Ball, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, and a candidate for the presidential nomination of the Green Party.  “It’s really legislative malpractice, that targets and criminalizes young black males who consume a cultural message conveyed to them by BET, by MTV, by black commercial radio and other corporate for-profit media.  Local lawmakers who want to address the nihilism, the self-hatred and the disrespect spread by corporate media should instead zero in on the corporate media that make billions of dollars every year spreading those messages, instead of aiming the police, fines and jail at those who consume the messages.”
Atlanta City Councilman C. T. Martin, local sponsor of that city’s sagging pants law, claims that his intention is not to target black youth, or to jail offenders, but rather to start public conversation, to as he put it in a public meeting on September 5, “…continue the work [TV actor Bill] Cosby started.”

“Then it’s the wrong conversation to start and the wrong work to continue,” says Dr. Ball.  “The public conversation we need from lawmakers is not more of this tired noise about ‘what’s wrong with these young folks?’  The correct conversation starts when we ask how come these destructive but highly profitable messages of self-hatred are practically the only ones our media regime allows to reach the ears of young people over the public airwaves – the public airwaves which are owned by the people and regulated by their lawmakers.  Legislators should be targeting the profitable pipeline, not the consumers at the end of it.”
Dr. Ball is on to something here.  Media mediate public consciousness.  The song “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” didn’t win the Hip-Hop Award – it won the Academy Award in 2005.  Instead of regulating the clothes young black people wear, lawmakers should be regulating the media, ensuring that more positive and constructive messages are allowed the chance to compete for the ears of our young people.
There’s bipartisan legislation in Congress right now that would do exactly that.
The Local Community Radio Act of 2007 (HR 2802/S. 1675) sponsored by Reps. Mike Doyle and Lee Terry and Sens. John McCain and Maria Cantwell will open up licensing for hundreds, perhaps thousands of not for profit, locally owned FM low-power radio stations in rural, urban and suburban locations across the United States. This legislation will enable thousands of community groups across the country to start their own FM radio stations.
If the recent history of not-for-profit community radio is any guide, those stations will be only too eager to provide the programming Americans want but cannot get from the owners of commercial radio and TV.  They’ll cover local news, which is altogether absent from broadcast commercial radio. And they will broadcast the work of local and other artists who cannot get airplay on for-profit commercial radio either because their music isn’t commercial or “gangsta” enough or because they can’t afford the payola (bribes) required at commercial radio stations.
The Local Community Radio Act and the low-power FM station licenses it would provide, each with a three-to-five mile broadcast footprint, are real legislative and regulatory answers to the problem of negative and degrading imagery in the media.  Local community radio is a real and substantive answer to payola, too.
The black stake in low-power FM radio is particularly stark.  In the real world there are thousands of hip-hop artists with intelligent, positive messages who can’t reach young audiences because the lawmakers and regulators haven’t done their jobs and constructed a media regime which allows the public to make choices in its own interest.
As Davey D pointed out in Black Agenda earlier this year,  “…while 58 percent of blacks between ages 15 and 25 listen to hip-hop daily, most are dissatisfied with it. They find the subject matter is too violent, and women too often portrayed in offensive ways… Blacks are used largely to validate musical themes being marketed to the white mainstream.
In other words, while 90 percent of commercial rap artists on TV and radio are black, the target audience lies outside the black community… commercial hip-hop has become the ultimate minstrel show, and rap artists are pushed by the industry to remain perpetual adolescents.”
We should not expect to hear much about this legislation or about the revolutionary prospect of locally owned low-power FM radio on the corporate TV or radio news, or in the newspapers.  The private owners of newspapers, of radio and TV station licenses decided long ago that the less thought public gave to questions of media ownership and regulation, the better off we would all be.
When the FCC considered lifting the few remaining limitations on how many radio stations a giant corporation could own in a single market or nationwide, you scarecely find a newspaper story on it.  TV and radio coverage were entirely absent.  Still, more than a million people offered comments opposing further consolidation of radio station ownership.  The 2006 federal legislative push by phone and cable companies to kill network neutrality on the internet and remove from local jurisdictions the power to regulate their own broadband futures has received next to no coverage in the corporate press either, but FreePress <http://freepress.net/> and others generated a million petition signatures against it anyway.  Sadly, the campaign to do the same thing state-by-state has been covered even less.
“If you’re disgusted with the choices some of our young people seem to be making, it makes sense to aim our ire at the media regime and the message it conveys.”
So Atlanta’s Mr. Martin and the other lawmakers who insist legal sanctions on youthful clothing choices are the answer may be smarter than they sound. While their approach is guaranteed not to solve any problems, and their “conversations” are all about regulating or blaming the consumers of bad messages instead of regulating the messages and those who profit from delivering them, they seem to understand one thing very well.
They know what will get picked up in the corporate evening news and talk shows.  They know what the topics of the corporate-funded “brain trust” panels at the Congressional Black Caucus’s Legislative Conference later this month will be.  They understand that big media would rather limit the conversation to “What’s wrong with those kids?” and steer public attention away from how we can achieve a fair and equitable media system that meets the public needs.  They seem to understand that it’s easier to flow with the owners of media than with their nominal constituents.
“If these lawmakers had any sense of responsibility,” according to Dr. Ball, “they wouldn’t be coming up with more excuses to target, to further criminalize and profile black youth based on the way they look.  They would be promoting  the Local Community Radio Act.  They would be boosting and popularizing constructive nonprofit media, which provide voices and choices opposing the destructive ones put out there by privately owned media like Radio One, Clear Channel, MTV and BET.  They’d be chasing real solutions instead of the same old stuff.”
Again, we think Dr. Ball has it right.  If you’re disgusted with the choices some of our young people seem to be making, it makes sense to aim our ire at the media regime and the message it conveys, instead of concentrating exclusively on the consumers of that message.  It’s time to call your representative in Congress.  Demand that they sign on to and support the Local Community Radio Act, HB 2802 in the House of Representatives and SB 1675 in the Senate.
What members of the CBC are actually for more voices and choices on the radio, and which ones are fine with the way it is now?  How many of them will be at the FCC hearing in Chicago on September 20?  These are some of the questions those of us who will be attending the Congressional Black Caucus’s Legislative Weekend this month will put it to some of our African-American members of Congress in person.
Bruce Dixon is the Managing Editor at Black Agenda Report, and can be reached at bruce.dixon@ blackagendareport.com.