By Carmen Glover
A modest ESPN contingent was on hand as ESPN host Stephen A. Smith and David Roberts, vice president and general manager of ESPN 98.7 FM and ESPN Deportes 1050 AM, met with journalists, community leaders and residents at a town hall meeting at MIST, a restaurant in Harlem on July 24. The town hall meeting was organized by Eric Tait and Robert Anthony, co-chairs of NYABJ’s Media Watch committee. The town hall event was convened in response to concerns expressed by the black community about the sale of KISS FM a year ago to ESPN, effectively depriving former KISS listeners of public affairs programming that was a mainstay on the station for decades.
“The changes that were made at 98.7 FM do not diminish the importance of the community. We are here to serve the community whether the FCC is involved or not,” Roberts stated, before another ESPN voice, Bill Daughtry, revealed that ESPN runs a one hour public affairs show “at 5:00 AM on Sundays,” prompting participants to ask in unison: “Who is listening to the radio at that time on a Sunday morning?” Daughtry mentioned his colleague, Larry Hardesty, who did not attend the forum and he lauded Roberts, saying “In my over forty years in this business, David Roberts is the first African American boss I have had.” Both Smith and Daughtry touted the fact that they are native New Yorkers, committed to giving the local residents a voice. Roberts emphasized range. “We have made sure that there is a diversity of voices that are black such as Willie Randolph and Ray Lucas. Everyone knows of Walt Frazier as an iconic NBA sports figure but no one thought of making him an analyst until I put him on the air,” he said. Roberts also stated that while the focus of the station is sports, “every program on our air is representative of race and balance.”
But community residents were not satisfied. “Man cannot live on sports alone,” repeated a forum participant who was unhappy with the change in format at 98.7 FM. Smith was having none of it. “ESPN is a sports network. I grew up listening to KISS FM and when the merger happened my voice was the first one heard on the station,” he said. “But I’m confused because I never heard anyone clamoring to KISS FM for a sports network. I don’t know what would happen to me or my job if I just ignored A-Rod and started talking about housing and public affairs.” Similarly, Deon Livingston of WBLS did not mince words. “Black radio serves the community but it does not make money and you have to make money to stay on the air,” he said. However, legendary media professional and activist Bob Law was unmoved “The difficulty of selling black talk is a result of collusion between the advertising industry and radio stations,” he said, “Our concern is that we, black talk, are being forced from the marketplace of ideas.” Both sides identified ongoing dialogue and ESPN’s continued involvement in community events such as Harlem Week as measures that will help reduce the ideological chasm that was on full display at the event.