You Will Eat Your Oatmeal! (From the upcoming book, “The Slow Death Of American Radio”)

I’ve always been a picky eater. What I didn’t like I didn’t eat, period.

But I grew up in a time when children were supposed to eat everything on their plate. This caused a bit of a rift between my mother and I, given her penchant for cooking stuff I didn’t like. The list included chitterlings, liver, kidneys, and all pork other than bacon. My brother and sister, on the other hand, dutifully ate what was given to them, especially my younger brother Norman (he’s now vegan).

What does this have to do with radio? Read on.

One of the foods on my don’t eat list was…and still is…oatmeal. I hated its texture, and thought it tasted like lumpy paste. Yet my mother insisted on cooking it for breakfast way too many times for my taste. Most of the time, I could get away with dumping it in Norman’s bowl, since he would eat anything.

One crisp fall morning, at the age of seven, I decided to enforce the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.

My mother put a bowl of oatmeal in front of me, and I simply said “I’m not eating it”. To be clear, this kind of insolence would usually result in a quick slap upside the head.

Oatmeal

My mother, however, decided to take a stand as well. She narrowed her eyes, and said to me, “you will eat your oatmeal, or you won’t get up from this table”! The last part was between a yell and a shriek . I repeated that I wasn’t eating it, and so, I sat at the kitchen table for what turned out to be all day.

The only solace my mother allowed me was the radio on the table, which she had tuned to WCBS-AM. Prior to that morning my contact with radio had been casual. I’d listen to Top 40 radio when my mother let me (wasn’t often). That morning, I heard WCBS’ entire program lineup.

Arthur Godfrey, WCBS
Arthur Godfrey, WCBS

There was Arthur Godfrey, Claude Kirschner, and soap operas in 15 minute increments. I was utterly fascinated. I imagined what the voices on the radio looked like. In the case of the soap operas, I created the plot lines in my head.

Needless to say, the oatmeal sat in the bowl, untouched. My mother must have thought I was in a trance. Yet she never thought to turn the radio off, which would have made that day pure torture and might have resulted in my capitulation.

Instead, what came out of the radio that day became a portal, a means of transportation away from where and who I was. As I got older, and began listening to music radio as a tastemaker, I also imagined what a studio looked like, and the lives my favorite disc jockeys led. Radio, even more than television, became larger than life.

Yet radio in my consciousness began at that kitchen table. About 5PM that day, the milk in the oatmeal began to curdle, and my mother realized I could no longer eat it. She sent me to my room without supper that night, but further down the road, something changed. Little by little, my mother stopped trying to make me eat things I didn’t like.

She never realized the true impact of her insistence and my stubbornness.

Mark.Janet.RTileyAlways the wiser…Thanks Mom!

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Rangel – The Lion of Harlem Runs Again!

I don’t exactly remember the first time I met Rep. Charles Rangel. I do know his career in Congress and mine in radio have slightly overlapped. He was serving his second term when I began my radio career in 1973.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve interviewed him, through good times and bad for both of us. I’ve admired his work in the House of Representatives, and said so. I also said so when I thought he was getting the shaft, which he did more than once.

And so it was on Thursday, December 19th, that Charles Rangel announced he was running for a 23rd term in Congress. I for one was happy to hear it.

Charles Rangel

Charles Rangel has faced some formidable opponents in his time, including the person he first beat back in 1970. Last time around, in 2012, a state senator from Upper Manhattan came dangerously close to defeating the Lion of Harlem. That bid fell short.

The senator, Adriano Espaillat, has broadly hinted he’ll make another run. At least two Harlem clergy people have been the subject of media reports saying they may run. At his announcement news conference Thursday, none of this seemed to faze Charles Rangel (I can’t call him Charlie, not even in print). When asked about opposition, he said he was unconcerned about any opponent.

Through the years, I’ve heard quite a bit of criticism of Charles Rangel. I’ve been criticized for defending him, mostly by callers to my radio programs that never lived in his district. In fact, I was part of an effort to show citywide support for the congressman when the House Ethics Committee was breathing down his neck. There was a rally for him at City Hall, organized by my friends Ken Sunshine and the late Bill Lynch. As we waited for the rally to officially start, a member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration walked by, on his way inside City Hall. I heard him say to Bill, “You do know Charlie Rangel brings about a half billion dollars in federal money to the city each year, don’t you?” Bill smiled, because he knew. My jaw dropped because I didn’t.

Critics will often ask “What has Rangel done for Harlem?” It may not be obvious, and hasn’t been all that obvious to me, even though I walk through the neighborhood regularly. I can think back 40 years, to the Harlem I work in when starting my radio life. I remember Sylvia’s when it was just a lunch counter, and the Chinese restaurant that stood where Sylvia’s Also is today (the old heads told me that Ho Chi Minh worked there was a college student back in the ’20s).

Yet when someone asks what Rangel has done for Harlem, it’s not about buildings or artifacts. It’s about people. Walking across 125th St. on this unusually balmy Thursday in December, I was struck by the number of middle aged and older black folks who still call the street home. Yes, there’s been gentrification, and the displacement it causes, but there are still vendors, and people walking along the street I’ve seen for decades. They still call Harlem home in large measure because Charles Rangel has looked out for them.

Charles Rangel shops Harlem

He hasn’t been able to beat back all market forces in the neighborhood, but he’s kept the community affordable for enough folks that Harlem still has its unique pulse and rhythm. You know, that which is created by people.

And so, Charles Rangel runs again. He’s not just running in Harlem this time. He’s got a good sliver of the Bronx that he’ll have to convince that he’s still the best man for the job.

I wouldn’t bet against him.

Would love to know your views…

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The Day the Radio Died (excerpt from the upcoming book “The Slow Death of American Radio”)

I should have known it would come on Friday the 13th. 40 years of radio work came to an abrupt end on 12-13-13.

It’s been a great ride. What’s sad is not that it ended for me, but that American radio has been dying a slow, agonizing death for many years now.

radio_mic_american_flagpreview

 

Some people look at it from the perspective of formats, Rock, Urban, and the like. It’s not about that. The death of radio, both music and talk, began the day the suits took it over and made the corporate profit motive the medium’s only reason for being.

Death of Radio 1.collage

 

In the boardrooms at modern stations, minuscule quarterly revenue increases are celebrated  as if Radi0 had rediscovered itself. Formats change as often as the weather, and air talents –  and those who support them  – are tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage.

But make no mistake. It took awhile to get to the current tepid, mind numbing state of a medium that years ago exercised its ability to enlighten and provoke audiences. Trouble is, when people get used to the mediocrity on the air , they listen, accept, and eventually revel in it.

That’s a shame.

As previously mentioned, I worked in radio for 40 years. During that time, while working for one of the premier black owned station chains in America, I had the opportunity to interview the great Nelson Mandela one on one; bear witness to two inaugurations of democratically elected presidents in Haiti; cover national US political conventions; Carnival celebrations in Brooklyn and Trinidad (sorry Rio); helped elect the first black mayor of the city I love, and much, much more. I’ve talked to presidents and junkies, heavyweight champions and street hustlers, rappers and tap dancers, the whole nine. I was able to do this because I had freedom — the freedom to seek people out and give voice to those who had none.

Trouble is, in today’s radio universe, there is no young person who will be given the freedom and resources that I was. Some Executive Vice President of Multi Media Platforms, Cluster Cross Pollination and Four Last Things would never, ever allow it to happen.

That’s precisely why radio is dying, and that EVP is blissfully unaware of his or her role in its passing. To really understand the death of US radio, you have to go beyond my small role in the medium through the years. You have to know what radio used to be, and its potential for shaping rather than  reflecting the public’s awareness of music and public life.

That used to be radio’s responsibility. That charge has systematically shirked to the point that few people remember what it was like to listen to a station just to see what would happen next.

Now we know.

So I’m writing the book. It’s been a long time coming but I’m told God’s calendar is different to ours. I hope you’ll join me as I reflect on memories, anecdotes and insights and even some artifacts (remember we didn’t have smartphones back in the day)…

I’ll be posting regularly – there’s a lot to cover.

What do you remember of radio?

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