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Fiercely competitive African American radio personalities led by Pierre “Pepe” Sutton of Inner City Broadcasting and Bob Slade of Emmis Communications waged an on-air assault against Mark Green in the waning days of one of the most divisive mayoral races in the city’s history.
The carpet bombing of the Green campaign—an angry, uncoordinated response to the racial profiling of Reverend Al Sharpton and Fernando Ferrer by Green and some of his white aides—may have swayed the 25 percent of black voters who helped put novice Republican Michael Bloomberg over the top. Daily, up-to-the-minute commentaries were so openly anti-Green that some listeners teasingly began to refer to WLIB-AM, WWRL-AM, WBLS-FM, and WRKS-FM as “Bloomberg Radio.” Slade, the moderate lead anchor on WRKS’s The Open Line and The Week in Review, suggested that the stations be dubbed “the 25 percenters” for changing the minds of that percentage of black voters.
To those who criticize his stations for currying favor with Bloomberg, the general manager of WLIB and WBLS, Kernie Anderson, noted that former mayor David Dinkins, Green’s most vocal black supporter, hosts Dialogue with Dinkins on WLIB, and openly campaigned for the public advocate on his show. On the other hand, Anderson pointed out, Sharpton, who backed Ferrer, co-hosts Sharp Talk with ultra-black nationalist Alton Maddox, and stumped for Ferrer on his program.
Fatiyn Muhammad, the politically connected producer of The Open Line and The Week in Review, said that after Green’s camp complained that this reporter, who was a guest co-host on The Open Line, was too tough on Green when he appeared on the show in early October. Muhammad said that when Green rejected an invitation to return, he offered the entire hour to the mayoral hopeful. Five days before the election, however, Green backed out and instead recommended hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, who had disparaged Ferrer in a New York Post article, referring to the Bronx borough president as “this Puerto Rican guy.”
“I told them that we are not going to bring on any of Mark Green’s surrogates,” Muhammad recalled. “After The Open Line on the Sunday before the election, one of Green’s people called and asked to substitute Reverend Floyd Flake. I told her, ‘First you give us Russell Simmons, now you give us Floyd Flake. That’s insulting to our show and to our audience.’ ”
Queens-based WWRL, which is owned by Access 1 Communications, was the first black station to court Bloomberg. Early in the campaign, Bloomberg found a sympathetic ear in famed broadcast journalist and DJ Rennie Bishop, the station’s program director, who co-hosts The Morning Show with Sabrina Lamb. At the outset, Bishop grilled Bloomberg on racially motivated stops and frisks and police brutality, two issues of paramount concern to undecided black voters. “They [cops] have to tell you why you were stopped and apologize if they don’t arrest you, and [the NYPD will] have somebody call later on to make sure they did,” Bloomberg promised. “Those kinds of things are practical. . . . ”
In a follow-up complaint, Bishop brought up the “S” word. “[S]ince Mayor Giuliani has been in office he has refused to sit and dialogue with prominent African American leader Reverend Al Sharpton; would you meet with Reverend Sharpton, at least to hear his views and understand what [his] concerns are if you are elected mayor?” Bloomberg’s affirmative response resounded with black listeners.
“If I am the mayor, I will meet with anybody who represents a significant number of the electorate,” he said. “I think that you have to be the mayor of all the people. I think you have to get everybody’s views, and it has nothing to do with whether you agree or disagree.” Bloomberg was interviewed on three separate occasions, on air, by Bishop and Lamb.
When it was all over, Green had received 75 percent of the black vote—10 percent less than a Democratic mayoral candidate would ordinarily get. “But that 10 percent difference that went to Bloomberg could be attributed to the activist role black radio played in allowing Bloomberg to appeal to the black community,” asserted Inner City’s Anderson.
** Two weeks before the election, African Americans jammed the switchboards of the black radio stations and black-oriented programs on WRKS, responding to emotional appeals for racial justice by talk-jock firebrands such as Charles “the Cutman” Ethridge, James “The Third Answer” Mtume, Bob Pickett, Mark Riley, and Conrad Muhammad. The radio activists—all avowed Democrats with the exception of Muhammad, a former Nation of Islam minister, and Pickett, a conservative Republican—went full tilt for Bloomberg.
Because of his vow to defend the controversial legacy of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the liberal Democrat–turned–Republican had been cast in the unseemly role of a billionaire Barabbas by some black and Latino voters, who in their vengeful attempt to crucify the Great White Hope—Mark Green—themselves were accused of rejecting a savior.
“Inner City Broadcasting has never before broken with its Democratic roots,” declared Sutton in his Editorial on Our Times, which ran on WLIB and WBLS. “After two consecutive disappointing political seasons, one for the presidency and recently for a Democratic mayoralty,” he added, “it may be difficult to maintain focus on the goal of political empowerment—but maintain we must. . . . We cannot allow the Democratic Party to take our votes for granted.”
The usually cool-headed Sutton, the son of former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, wrote the editorial after a Daily News article claimed that four Green aides had been present at a secret meeting in which the idea of using racially tinged imagery to derail Ferrer’s campaign was discussed. The plan, according to the newspaper, was to galvanize white voters against Ferrer by highlighting the Bronx borough president’s relationship with Sharpton.
The day after the October 4 meeting, anti-Ferrer fliers and posters began appearing in predominantly white areas of Brooklyn. Several days later, thousands of anonymous phone calls were made in which voters were told that Ferrer would “hand the keys to City Hall” to Sharpton. Some of the fliers featured a New York Post cartoon that showed Ferrer kissing Sharpton’s buttocks. The Daily News reported that the same cartoon had been passed around at the October 4 meeting, with suggestions that it be used against Ferrer. At about the same time that the fliers were disseminated and the phone calls were made, the Green campaign ran a TV ad questioning whether voters could “trust” Ferrer as mayor.
Sutton blasted the white media, lamenting that “our hope for a Black-and-Latino-led resurgence of a great New York was dashed by a desperate candidate and a disingenuous liberal press (led by The New York Times).” He argued that the ambivalence among some black leaders toward Green should not be bottled up. That, some say, was his signal to blacks to consider embracing the political Barabbas Bloomberg on the eve of his crucifixion. “In former Democrat Mike Bloomberg we have a man that has shown his desire to improve our quality of life and participation in the economic mainframe,” Sutton said.
Green, however, is “a man who sees our cry for inclusion as divisive,” a not-so-subtle rebuke of the public advocate for berating Ferrer’s argument during the campaign that the city was partitioned into two New Yorks. “Who do we vote for?” Sutton asked. There should be no question which candidate baffled black voters must rally behind. “We say at WLIB/WBLS, vote for Mike Bloomberg, who sees us not as troublesome numbers but as an asset on New York’s balance sheet,” Sutton concluded. “We like Mike. Again, we may have been disappointed in the past, but the future belongs to the patient, the practical, and the righteous. . . . VOTE! VOTE! VOTE!”
Two days before the contest, the battle for the black vote exploded on Sunday Night Live, the talk show hosted by former Nation of Islam minister Conrad Muhammad on WBLS. Muhammad, also known as “the hip hop minister,” had invited both Mark Green and Michael Bloomberg to make last-minute pitches to his listeners. Green bowed out, but in what was now becoming a tired routine, sent in his place Eric Adams, the outspoken black NYPD lieutenant who is the leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, who was one of Green’s point men in the black community.
During a tumultuous exchange with Muhammad and Wayne Gillman, WLIB’s news director, who was Muhammad’s guest co-host that night, Adams accused “black radio” of being unfair to Green. “Black radio—all the stations—have given a distorted view to our public,” Adams charged. “I hope that you let the public know that the candidate [who’s] running against Mark Green supported apartheid that strangled our people in South Africa. This candidate made some very degrading statements toward women, and I have two sisters, so I am disturbed. . . . ”
As far as Gillman was concerned, “the horse” had already bolted from the barn. “Many of our black business leaders, some of our elected officials, [and] Giuliani Democrats, are considering crossing over to the Republican Party to vote for Michael Bloomberg,” contended the veteran journalist, whose audience on sister stations WLIB and WBLS is 90 percent African American and West Indian.
Muhammad weighed in, pointing out that influential African Americans like Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine; Barbara Ann Teer, director of the National Black Theater; Wilbert Tatum, publisher emeritus of The Amsterdam News; and Tom Watkins, publisher of The Daily Challenge—the city’s only black daily—had long tuned into Bloomberg. But Adams insisted that Bloomberg bought that support; that “money has been put in our community.”
A caller from Brooklyn picked up on Adams’s accusation. “I am surprised,” the male caller said. “I’m wondering if WLIB and WBLS have been bought.”
“Why do you ask that question?” Muhammad fired back.
“I see you guys supporting Mike Bloomberg, who embraces racial profiling, apartheid that we’ve all fought against in this city,” the man protested. “And as an African American, I’m insulted that we spend our money with the two stations that you represent. You are being used as an agent or tool. . . . to divide our community and to discourage our people.”
Inner City’s Kernie Anderson denied any underhandedness, explaining that both Green and Bloomberg spent a lot of money on campaign commercials with his company. “The amount of money that was spent on black radio is probably astronomical because everybody was trying to go after [us],” Anderson emphasized.
Over at “Radio Free Harlem”—the in-house moniker for white-owned WRKS, which broadcasts the black-oriented programs The Open Line and The Week in Review—Charles Ethridge was “cutting up” black leaders for supporting Green in the face of the candidate’s refusal to apologize for playing the race card.
“The thing that I find outstandingly amazing is the rapidity with which the black elected [officials] and ministerial representatives of our city fell in line,” the acid-tongued co-host proclaimed. “I can find no excuse [by] any one of them—including Reverend Sharpton, who has called for a boycott, which he backed off of.” Sharpton, Ethridge fumed, waffled on the question of his support for Green. “We have a black political leadership that is willing to go and sell out the black voters to the Democratic Party. . . . ”
Last Sunday, Michael Bloomberg placed a thank-you call to The Open Line. But it was co-host James Mtume who reminded all the Johnny-come-latelies that it was black talk-show activists like himself, Bob Slade, and Bob Pickett who first sold Bloomberg to African Americans. “All the stations that have black talk spoke out on this first, [and] everybody else came on a little later,” bragged Mtume, the legendary musician who wrote the theme for the TV series New York Undercover.
In closing out the “victory broadcast,” Pickett, a former New Jersey administrative judge, put Bloomberg’s win in its proper context. “What it says is that if you give black folk information they will take that information, absorb it, dissect it, and make the best possible decision they can make,” Pickett opined. “I am proud of all talk radio for pitching in these last four weeks and giving our folk information they needed to make a critical decision. And I congratulate . . . the 25 percent of you [who] changed your minds, and I also congratulate the 75 percent of you who did not. . . . Maybe! Maybe! You learned a lesson.”
Peter Noel is a co-host of WRKS’s The Week in Review and a commentator on WWRL’s The Morning Show.