ST. PETERSBURG – The second night of Cross & Anvil Human Services’ Heritage Lecture Series featured author and radio/TV personality Paul Porter with Dr. Wilmer Leon, political scientist, nationally syndicated columnist and the host of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s “Inside The Issues with Wilmer Leon.
Held at St. Petersburg College Allstate Center on Feb. 12, series sponsors included Duke Energy, St. Petersburg College and Pinellas County Schools.
“Words have so much power in our lives,” said Porter, and he should know.
Porter’s career in radio and television has spanned four decades and has included stints at a leading radio station in New York and at Black Entertainment Television (BET). Co-founder of Rap Rehab and music industry nonprofit IndustryEars.com, Porter is also the author of “Blackout: My 40 Years in the Music Business.”
“I wrote this book ‘Blackout’ because I was starting to see—it’s been almost 20 years now—that we were losing that ability to talk and communicate,” Porter said. “And for me, music was that vessel when I was younger that meant so much to me.”
Referencing the book’s title, blackout is a temporary loss of consciousness, Porter explained, and noted that “we get desensitized by some of the music and lyrics.”
Music empowered Porter at a young age and it continued to do so as he went off to college and ultimately found a career in radio. One day while working at a radio station in New York, Porter said a plea from a youngster led to an epiphany of sorts. A teary 12-year-old girl from Queens approached Porter and pleaded with him to get a certain record off the air. The chorus of this record was, “Beat that b—h with a bat.”
“She said, ‘My mom got beat up by my father,’” Porter related. “‘He beat her with a bat.’ And insensitive kids had started making fun of her,” he said.
That young girl’s plea made Porter realize it was time to take a stand. He went to Hot 97, the station where he worked and one of the leading stations in New York, determined to get the record pulled. Instead, he found roadblocks.
“The problem was that everybody I had talked to in management had an excuse for the content,” Porter said.
He was told things have changed these days. He was told the program director said this and the general manager said that. He was told the station does giveaways and other positive things for the community. Porter stood his ground. He told the higher-ups that the content was affecting young minds. Nothing happened.
Porter then went directly to Jeff Smulyan, the president of Emmis Broadcasting, and emailed him examples of offensive records the station kept in rotation. The president immediately took Porter’s side and had said, ‘“No way these records are being played,’” Porter remembered.
Two days later, there was a note in the studio from the program director saying certain records will no longer be played—thanks to Paul Porter.
“So I was the whistleblower,” Porter said.
And as the offensive records were taken off the air, so was Porter. Called into the office of his superior, Porter was informed that since he had decided to go over everyone’s head, he’d no longer be on the air.
“That was the beginning of my end,” Porter said. “I didn’t work again in New York. I didn’t work again in radio for 10 years. I was blackballed.”
Yet after the Hot 97 incident, the “New York Post” did a big story on Porter and he even appeared on several TV news shows. But his time in the limelight was fleeting as he was left to wonder if he had made the right move. After all, it had cost him his job and his source of income.
“Maybe I could have done things differently,” he remembered thinking at the time, “but I did what was in my heart. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The power of speaking up still costs money, Porter explained. Yet many celebrities and big names won’t talk about music content because of their ties to large corporations, and they tend to “forget where they come from,” Porter noted.
“When you have stockholders,” he said, “things change.”
Money is indeed powerful in more ways than one, as one of the things Porter talks about in “Blackout” is payola—the illegal practice of paying radio and TV stations to play certain music and videos on the air. And even Porter himself was not immune. After leaving New York radio, he found work programming for BET. When he arrived for his job and checked into his hotel, he found three envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—a total of $30,000 in cash.
“I’ll be honest,” he said, “I kept that $30,000 because I never saw $30,000 in cash before!”
Even though the record representative who had sent it innocently had assured Porter that it was merely to welcome him to town, Porter knew that the record company would soon follow up with a list of videos that they fully expected to see him play on the air. But ultimately Porter, who would spend 10 years at BET as a program director and on-air talent, decided that he would base his programming decisions on what he thought was best.
Five years ago, through an FCC program called Low Power FM, Porter decided to apply for an available station in Orlando and it finally launched in 2016. The station was in such a high-crime area, Porter said, that there were 13 murders committed within the first three days—all within a three-mile radius of the station.
But Porter was committed.
“This radio station meant so much to me,” he said. “We were doing it the old way for so long. Black radio and black music had so much power, so my dream was to put together a radio station that gave that same type of energy. So what if it only had 100 watts instead of 100,000 watts as our competitor.”
His perseverance paid off when the Nielsen rating company recently called Porter and told him his station—The Wire 98.5—is the first Low Power FM station to “show up in a major market with a one share.”
Apparently, Porter is doing something right—even with a playlist that doesn’t include offensive records. But he maintains that black listeners these days have become “fragmented.” Adults listen to the urban AC channels while the younger kids tune in to the hip-hop channels.
“So you don’t know what your kids are listening to,” he said, adding that there are many songs out there—with lyrics of gratuitous sex and violence—that tell young people to do the wrong things and even have the power to “change minds.”
Citing a study conducted years ago on rap music videos, Porter said the every eight to ten seconds the content displayed either violence, misogyny, sex or “bling.”
But what’s worse is that not enough people seem to care these days, Porter maintained. Even in the days of social media through which so many people can connect, people are talking about the NFL or what President Trump said, but not enough people are doing what they can to reach the kids. Porter wants to change that.
“That’s why I try to help anybody I can,” he said. “Every place I go, every time I sign a book I put my telephone number in there with these young kids. It says, ‘Somebody’s here for you. Somebody will talk it out.’”
To reach Frank Drouzas, email firstname.lastname@example.org