Hot 97, Chuck D, The FCC and Me: An Update on the Filed FCC Petition to Take Hot 97 Off The Air

Hot 97 - Chuck D - FCC Petition

Weeks before Public Enemy frontman and hip hop activist Chuck D ignited a war of Twitter words by criticizing New York radio station Hot 97, a team of lawyers was working to respond to a document that I filed with the Federal Communications Commission that has the power to potentially knock them off the air.

The document is a “Petition to Deny,” asking that the FCC inhibit a radio station’s license to broadcast.

Even as heated debate and discussion swirls around the internet and media, sparked by Chuck D’s criticism, the action that I began back in April remains very much active, awaiting FCC review, and has forced Emmis Communications to respond.

Here is an update.

Fight The Power

I filed the original petition as part of my work as an advocate journalist and media watchdog, presenting a well-thought out argument that Hot 97 was not “serving the public interest,” a basic obligation that stations must achieve, as per FCC regulations.

The argument revolves around the idea that by claiming to be “Where Hip Hop Lives,” Hot 97 is taking on the responsibility of serving New York’s “hip hop” community. With a series of examples, I demonstrated what many critics have said for years, that Hot 97 focuses only on a very narrow spectrum of “rap music,” largely ignoring the wider spectrum of New York’s hip hop musical and cultural landscape.

By neglecting the wider range of the New York-area hip hop culture and community, I argued, Hot 97 fails in serving the interest of the public they purport to serve.

It is a unique argument for sure, one never quite presented in the manner I chose. But hip hop music and culture represent a highly unique phenomenon in American history, and as such, rules which govern the radio stations should be given special consideration where hip hop is concerned.

Many people took this petition to mean I want Hot 97 off the air (I don’t, I want them to be better).

Many simplify such protests by whittling them down to “taste,” figuring that I don’t approve of the content. (Some, I don’t, but a lot I do. But that’s missing the point. I actually think arguments that revolve around content are doomed to fail.)

To me, it boils down to a corporation (re)defining “hip hop” to serve their capitalistic needs. To me, it is the highest form of societal theft, cultural misappropriation to the highest degree.

After studying the FCC’s guidelines for agents of the public trust, I thought there was a case to be made.

But I also worried that the FCC might not fully understand hip hop’s cultural significance. So I tried my best to explain it to them in my original petition.

Greatest Misses

In response to my petition, lawyers for Emmis Communications, in a highly dismissive, condescending manner, sought to redirect my argument to better suit a defense.

He claims that WQHT fails to adequately serve the New York “hip hop” community because the Station (1) does not provide adequate programming directed at “hip hop culture,” (2) focuses disproportionately on “hip hop” music as compared to the related “culture,” and (3) does not do enough to promote the New York “hip hop” scene. With all due respect to [his] programming preferences, his complaints relate solely to matters that are, pursuant to the First Amendment, The Communications Act, and settled precedent, committed to Emmis’ editorial discretion and therefore outside of the Commission’s proper inquiry in evaluating WQHT’s license renewal application.

Let me paraphrase:

“You say we don’t cater to all of hip hop? Well, yeah, but we don’t have to. Right, FCC? (wink, wink).

This is based on precedent that states the FCC will seldom get involved with what a station plays, as long as it is “serves the needs and interests of their community.”

But you’ll note, this does not actually deny the basic accusations that Hot 97, while claiming to represent “hip hop” as a whole, does not actually serve the needs and interests of that community.

It’s tricky, for sure. But what is clear to me is that they just want to pretend the problem is that I don’t agree with what songs they play, or that there’s not enough “New York” artists in their playlist.

This is not the case.

As part of my reply to their opposition explains:

By attempting to redirect the context of the objections set forth in my original petition as matters of content, the applicant is attempting to obfuscate the fact that they are in actuality attempting to define their own “community of license.”

By providing no assurances or examples that the entirety of hip hop’s wider cultural community is being served, and in fact, hiding behind their assertion that they don’t really have to, the applicant continues to demonstrate an egregious violation of the very first obligation of a licensee.

I then go on to strengthen my actual argument, an argument that again, has nothing to do with content, and everything to do with “community”:

As evidenced by their own citation:

Licensees have broad discretion – based on their right to free speech – to choose, in good faith, the programming they believe serves the needs and interests of their communities.

By stating that they are “Where Hip Hop Lives,” WQHT Hot 97 is clearly defining their intended audience, clearly claiming which “community” they are purporting to serve. Yet, the extreme lack of attention to wide swaths of that community, and therefore an enormous amount of its needs and interests, demonstrates otherwise.

As such, they should not “in good faith” be allowed to continue to broadcast while demonstrating such discriminatory behavior.

I point out how no other aspect of hip hop culture is represented by Hot 97, despite their proclaimed allegiance to hip hop. No B-Boy/B-Girl representation. No art/graffiti representation. No representation of the wide range of hip hop issues that are specific to members of the community who are part of hip hop culture and lifestyle.

And despite it not being the crux of my argument, there remains the fact that their playlist doesn’t represent a very wide spectrum of hip hop music, nor does it adequately reflect the region they are supposed to be serving.

(I particularly liked how they noted that my criticism of the lack of content on their website was irrelevant, but then went on to tout the inclusion of New York artists on that very same website as some kind of proof that they “support the scene.” But I digress.) 

Bring The Noise

It’s much more than “programming preferences.” It is a complete lack of regard for the entirety of a culture, something that arguably goes against the most basic tenet of the Commission’s rules governing radio.

In their roles as part-time, professional provocateurs, station personnel like to argue publicly that they are really not responsible, have no obligations to satisfy anyone in particular, and that the hip hop community should basically shut up and be happy with the efforts they do make.

As if they have been granted some authoritative power to decide what is “good enough” on behalf of an entire community.

Their stance, aside from being wrought with arrogance and hubris, is also blatantly hypocritical.

An example. In response to Chuck D’s comments criticizing Hot 97 for, among other things, helping to perpetuate negativity in the genre, morning show host Peter Rosenberg said, “I wish radio sort of served a more grand, positive purpose. But it’s entertainment and a business. And that’s it.”

However, the CEO of parent company Emmis Communications, testifying before the House of Representatives in 2012, lobbying to have FM radio chips embedded in cell phones, insists that local radio does serve a grander purpose, i.e, to educate, inform and entertain.

So, let me get this straight.

When in front of Congress trying to expand the company’s potential reach, the company essentially states, “We have a HUGE, important obligation to serve our local public community,” but when confronted by defenders of hip hop, they say, “We have NO obligation to serve our local public community.”

To me, and others, this reeks of marginalizing the hip hop/urban/minority communities, the very community the FCC gives Hot 97 license to broadcast to.

Is this serving our community’s needs and interests?

I would argue that this is all unmistakable evidence that the problem is bigger than a playlist. It is further exacerbated by station personnel using the airwaves as a bully pulpit to defend their actions, on behalf of an organization with no ties to the community or culture therein, and no desire to serve the needs and interests of that community at all.

They would rather deny any possible wrongdoing, and accuse those who would oppose such actions of “trolling,” or seeking to advance their own agendas.

As if Hot 97 isn’t constantly seeking to advance their own.

Shut ‘Em Down

In any event, while the corporate lackey spinmeisters continue to play with e-fire on social networks, the actions that started long before the recent flare-up are still in motion.

The response by Emmis Communication demonstrates they believe they have the right to create their own definition of the “hip hop” audience, cherrypicking who and what they consider to be the community that they are “home” to.

As I stated in my reply:

If the stations, and the corporations who run them, are allowed to define their own communities, as Emmis is attempting to do in this case despite widely accepted, culturally accepted standards, then the FCC would be conceding an enormous amount of control into the hands of the entities they are charged with regulating, eroding that public trust, setting a potential precedent which could be extremely damaging to the public.”

I did my best to make it clear that by neglecting to look at hip hop as a culture and community, the FCC, and by extension the U.S. government, would be doing a great disservice:

As an individual who is a part of the actual hip hop community, I speak for myself and many others when I state that I should not have the wide expansiveness of my cultural affiliation stifled by an entity of the public trust. I should not have aspects of my culture and lifestyle ignored by an entity that capitalizes off of a fraudulent attachment to my culture. With WQHT Hot 97 holding such a powerful voice in our area, their actions present an imminent and ongoing menace to hip hop culture and community as a whole, myself included. Their actions are damaging and discriminatory, and discount a well-established segment of the population of New York City and its surrounding areas, myself included.

Though I may not have the right words necessary to prevail over high-powered purveyors of litigation, I am hoping that my petition, as well as the uproar created by Chuck D and others who are mirroring the battle I started with this petition, leads the FCC to contemplate the true depth of hip hop culture, and to understand that it is more than simply a genre of music, and needs to be treated with the respect and given the protection it deserves.

At the very least, perhaps it will inspire a nation of millions.

You can read the entire Opposition to my petition, as well as my official filed response, below.

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