HipHopWired.com recently sat down with Sybil Wilkes, co-host of the nationally syndicated The Tom Joyner Morning Show. The veteran radio personality shared with us a few of her thoughts on some interesting topics including the future of Black radio, if HBCU’s are still needed in this day and time and why she supports Hip-Hop artists and their rights to freedom of speech.
HipHopWired: You’ve been in broadcasting for a little over twenty years. Many feel that broadcast radio, as a format, is out dated, underused, and should be forced to change to survive. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Sybil: Well, since it pays my mortgage, helps me send kids to school, and have a life, I am offended by that. But times change and we have to change with it. I don’t think we are an outdated medium but I do think that we need to do some things to change. I’m not certain what all those things would be or how we would go about doing it, I just know we have to be open to the possibilities of doing some things differently to keep people as our audience.
HipHopWired: Do you feel threatened by the rise of satellite radio with it becoming more of a normal feature in automobiles and the widening access of availability that it is gaining?
Sybil: I have satellite in my car, so I’m paying for it and listening to it like everyone else, I enjoy it. I think it’s different. What we have to do in terrestrial radio is a little bit more difficult because we have to be very mindful of the things that we say as opposed to ‘whatever comes up, comes out’ and we have to be able to create a better picture, or be better at creating a picture for that matter. A lot of people are on satellite radio because it’s really easy to get a laugh or make a point with profanity as opposed to really use our craft of words in order to get a point across. So I’m not threatened by it, to answer your question; I think that the table is big enough for all of us to sit down and get a plate. I just think that we have to go with the times while not shutting anyone out. We can all be here together.
HipHopWired: Speculators and terrestrial radio advocates feel that HR 848, the Performance Rights Act a.k.a. ‘the Pay to Play Bill,’ is threatening to change the face of radio as we know it. Congressman Hank Johnson of Atlanta is one of the politicians that signed on to the bill. In a recent statement made to the press, Congressman Johnson told the people that they should not ‘believe the hype’ while calling Radio One owner Cathy Hughes a ‘pimp,’ citing that he believes that she pimps artists out of their due monies anyway. As a radio personality, what are your thoughts on this piece of legislation?
Sybil: You know, what really surprises me most, is that the Black legislatures that are involved in passing this bill is that they were told by representatives of Black radio that this legislation would put Black radio out of business because it does not make the kind of money that mainstream radio makes and if the owners of the radio stations have to pay this money out, as required by this bill, its going to put Black radio out of business as we know it. Black radio is where a lot of these Congressional Black Caucus members have made their name. So if you take away this one area where they always know they can get on, where they can always have a voice . . .if you pass this bill, you’re going to put Black radio out of business and then where would you go to get your point across and to tell people about these other bills that need their attention? I understand about artists not getting their fair share and I can appreciate that, but at the same token, you’re going to take away our livelihoods as well, so there has to be some sort of compromise.
I am really offended by John Conyers and the way that he treated Mrs. Cathy Hughes and Tom Joyner when they went to see him and he virtually ignored them or tired to play them as being stupid by telling that, “You know, I’m not going to pursue this bill… I’m not gonna let this get out of committee’ and then tell then he was kidding! I know his constituency is Detroit, home of Motown, and there are a lot of people there who pulled his ear, but I think that he has to be mindful of the fact that there are so many other people around the country that will suffer as a result of this bill. I think that there has to be some way for them to sit down (and talk), which he wasn’t willing to do with leader of radio when they did go to see him before the bill even got out of committee. It’s really crazy that they are jumping onto this bill and they will lose their voice among their constituents.
HipHopWired: What do you say to people who feel that the Performance Rights Bill is just a “Black” issue and how exactly would it affect everyone involved in radio?
Sybil: One of the good things about radio is that ‘mom & pop’ operations are still in effect and people can still own radio stations; they are the lifeline for many communities, especially Black communities. They are the lifeline of information as to what is going on on their block as well as around the country and around the world. So if this bill comes about, and is passed, then it will kill business for these small radio station owners. It will bring an end to a lot of these ‘mom & pop’ operations that are still surviving right now. I shutter to think what that would mean in the future for us as radio broadcasters. Even the larger organizations, such as Radio One, will have to . . .not go out of business, but certainly a lot of people are going to lose their jobs and a lot of stations are going to go under. The smaller radio stations are going o suffer the result by having to close down.
HipHopWired: Do you believe that HR 848 will have an impact on the Latino population?
Sybil: I think it will. I think everyone that play’s music is going to be affected by this. Even as the Hispanic population is growing, their population is going to feel the effects not with standing. I am not sure to what extent Hispanic radio is going to feel the effects because it is such a monster right now, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, it’s just that Latino radio is just so huge! It is as important to the Hispanic community as Black radio has been and continues to be. It’s just such a big force to be reckoned with that I’m not sure to what extent that it will be affected, but definitely, they will feel the effects of the bill.
HipHopWired: Do you believe that Congressman Conyers is pushing the bill because he has ulterior motives? . More specifically . . . do you believe that he is getting kickbacks from the RIAA?
Sybil: You know what Jordan, I don’t know. I know that is a part of politics and I would really hate to think that. I’m gonna say no, I don’t think that there is a back end deal in this for him. I just think that it is interesting that so many members of the Congressional Black Caucus have signed on to this bill while I’ve heard ads on radio, spearheaded by white congresswomen and men saying that they are going to vote against this bill. So it is really curious as to why Black members of Congress are signing onto this while White members of Congress are spearheading an effort to defeat the bill. Even with all we’ve learned about politics in Detroit as of late, I would really hate to think that he is getting some sort of back-end result from supporting this bill.
HipHopWired: Ok, ok. Well, some economists theorize that radio takes in about $16 billion a year. If this is true, how much would you say that Black radio contributes to that figure?
Sybil: If $16 billion goes out of radio it has to be a very small percentage of that. The economy is so bad right now; everyday I read the trades and some friends of mine have lost their jobs. Radio stations are consolidating at such a rapid rate. I don’t know if it is even a billion dollars that they are taking in or putting out every year. I just know that DJ’s aren’t paid enough! [laughter]
HipHopWired: Let’s switch gears for a second. You and The Tom Joyner Morning Show have been supportive of The United Negro College Fund and Historically Black Colleges and Universities and have helped raise money for them for many years. With obvious financial shortcomings, shaky administration, and lackluster facilities, it would seem that HBCU’s are in a state of emergency. Do you honestly think, in the 21st century, HBCU’s can compete against the impressive selection of learning institutions that are available to students today?
Sybil: I think they can Jordan, I think they can . . . and will. But they have to do like we just discussed with radio. They have to be open and adaptive to the changes that have to take place and we have to continue to support them. I am not a HBCU alum but everyone in my family is. My mom went to a HBCU. My grandmother was president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City Missouri. So I have that in my family, and then of course, Tom; you can’t work on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and not know about the history there. But I think we have to continue to support and we have to hold our institutions accountable. If the administration is a little shaky, if the teachers are not as good . . . and I would beg to differ. I think that the teachers are just as good, if not better, at HBCU’s than they are at some of the mainstream institutions. But we do have to continue to support and not ignore them and let them fall by the waste side. When they are fighting for accreditation, or whatever they need, we have to be there for them in order to keep that alive. We cannot let that history die, but they do have to change with the times.
HipHopWired: Many HBCU’s hide their inadequacies under the veil of “tradition.” Whenever there might be mention of making a change, or progress, “tradition” is used to justify a lackadaisical ‘business-as-usual’ approach. Based on what you just said, should it be surmised that you feel HBCU’s should let tradition go?
Sybil: No, tradition is good. Let’s be mindful of what tradition means; usually you would like to think of it in a positive nature. You’d like to think that good teachers, a support system, and a real sense of community is the tradition that you want to continue. Going to a school without air conditioning in the dorms or classrooms and rundown buildings? That’s not a tradition that you want to continue. You want to keep up with the times from a cosmetic standpoint. Think of it this way: no one wants to go to sleep in a building that is rundown and have someone tell them, Well, that’s the way I did it.” If we can afford to change that part of it then, by all means, let’s do.
HipHopWired: What made you decide to not attend an HBCU?
Sybil: I had an opportunity to go. I was born and raised in Chicago and I was in the theater program at Northwestern; I started out wanting to be a theater major. So I really liked the school. I liked their School of Speech which is where I ended up going, majoring in communication studies and a concentration in political science. I just liked what it had to offer and it was close to home.
HipHopWired: Alright. Well, switching gears again. Do you support the music that is being created by today’s Hip-Hop and R&B artists even though some create more controversy than good music?
Sybil: You’ve got to! You have to support them. I mean, what are you going to do… have one group of music that ends in 1985 or whatever? That’s not gonna work. Just like our grandparents didn’t understand Sly Stone or someone like that; we have to continue to accept the music, otherwise, the art form dies. And then what? There is no expression and that is what freedom of speech is all about. That’s what music is all about; giving people the opportunity to express themselves in whatever particular way they can. It may not sound like music to one but it is music to someone else, and we have to keep encouraging people to express themselves, even if we don’t agree with it. That’s a problem that a lot of people have.
If something you say, something you sing, or something you write doesn’t agree with your way of thinking, then it’s wrong? That’s crazy to me! We can agree to disagree. You may not always like the music, you may not always like what people are saying, but that is what is right. You have to have two, three, four, five, six, seven, different sides to an issue, a song, idea, or something, in order to keep things going. If we’re all thinking, doing, and singing the same things, that’s boring! Then you’re extinguishing the art form.
HipHopWired: Who are some of you favorite Hip-Hop artists?
Sybil: Hmmmmmm… I like Lil’ Wayne. I listen to The Game. I love listening to different types of music, but on the same token, I listen to some of the old stuff to. My great-grandmother used to listen to Frank Sinatra, so I grew up listening to that in her house. I just love listening to different stuff, even though it may not always agree with me; I’m still open to it. Oh… and I like Jeezy too!