On February 28, a shootout involving rappers 50 Cent and The Game outside the studios of New York City’s WQHT-FM (97.1) became the latest in a plague of controversies afflicting the station, better known as Hot 97. Three days later, activists staged a “Stop Racist Hot 97″ rally on the south side of Union Square, directly across from a Virgin Megastore, to protest corporate media’s exploitation of hip-hop culture.
If it seems surprising that Hot 97, a popular hip-hop radio station staffed by mostly African-American and Latino DJs, is being accused of racism, then you probably never heard “The Tsunami Song.” Asian Media Watch and the Hip-Hop Coalition organized the anti-Hot 97 rally specifically to protest this spoof-song, a parody that repeatedly aired on the station in January. It set tasteless jokes about Asians and Africans drowning and being sold into child slavery to the tune of “We Are the World.”
Though promoted as an antiracist event, the rally lamented the degraded state of the corporate music industry generally. One of the first performances at the demonstration came from Asian-American rapper Koba. In front of an audience holding signs reading “Hot 97 Divides Our Community,” “Stop Hate 97″ and “I Am Hip-Hop,” Koba recited lyrics that earnestly expressed his grievances with the state of hip-hop: “With a hot producer/Hitler would still be popular, blinged-out with Medusa [a popular jewelry brand].” In another song, he castigated greedy artists who fail to recognize the boost in visibility they get from bootlegs and online music traders: “Now you mad ’cause your bootleg’s on the Ave.?/That’s the best promotion team that you’ve ever had!…/You whiners unnerve me/You’re just an old, white exec in a throwback jersey.”
The activists who organized the rally are justified in framing their criticisms in anticorporate terms. Hot 97–“where hip-hop lives,” according to its slogan–is owned by Emmis Communications, which owns twenty-four other US radio stations, fifteen US television stations, three European radio stations and a publishing company. Emmis’s 100 percent Caucasian board of directors makes its decisions in Indianapolis, more than 700 miles away from Hot 97’s listeners. While media critics have long recognized that the rise of radio megaconglomerates like Clear Channel and Infinity Radio has led to a decline in the quality and diversity of radio programming, the history of Hot 97 shows that smaller media conglomerates can be just as unresponsive to the needs of the communities they serve.
A recent cover story on Hot 97 in the Village Voice implied that a ratings war with rival station Power 105.1, owned by Clear Channel, instigated much of the station’s divisive behavior. However, Hot 97’s shortcomings were apparent to some critics even before Power 105.1 existed.
One of the first clues that Hot 97’s absentee overseers might be out of touch with their audience came in 1999, only months before Emmis’s first public stock offering. On an episode of the station’s public affairs show dealing with the acquittal of the four NYPD officers who shot at Amadou Diallo forty-one times, the host interviewed a police official and conspicuously chose not to air criticism of the decision. The phones were never opened up to the outraged listeners who flooded the lines.