As a small crowd filters into the Columbia City Theater on a gray May Tuesday, Tony Benton stands on the stage with a mic in one hand and a smoothie in the other, saying “one-two-one-two-one-two.”
Volunteers and assistants yell back and forth as the moment they go live ticks closer — “One minute!” “Guys, we only have one camera going!” — but Benton exudes Zen.
In a cramped little studio in the next room, a community talk show is ending. An ad comes on for a Wednesday “dance-based walking program” for older adults or people with disabilities.
A volunteer counts down to one.
“Welcome to Rainier Avenue Radio,” Benton says. “This is a town hall meeting. First of all, my name is Tony B.”
Rainier Avenue Radio has existed since 2017 as an online community radio station, with Benton as its founder and station manager, but it was late last year that the station moved into the Columbia City Theater. The theater was purchased last year in a partnership between Benton and a public development authority called the Cultural Space Agency, with a grant from the city of Seattle paying for the upfront costs and some upcoming renovations, Benton says.
It’s a flourishing moment for the little radio station, which Benton started broadcasting from a reading room of the Columbia City library branch a block away. Before 2020, the station had about 10,000 monthly listeners on its website, rainieravenueradio.world; COVID-19 and the programming Benton created to spread information about COVID bumped that toward 50,000.
And after nationwide protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Rainier Avenue Radio — which has lots of buy-in from Seattle’s Black community, though its programming is directed toward all of Seattle — saw its listenership soar to 70,000 monthly listeners, according to Benton.
Rainier Avenue Radio is one of several Black-run online media organizations that sprang up in the mid-2010s but have seen a lot of growth since the pandemic hit and protests rocked the country. Most are focused on the communities they feel are under-covered by largely white-owned mainstream media.
Now, many of the organizations are building their home bases — like the radio station’s move into Columbia City Theater — or shifting into new eras of leadership and looking to the future. At the same time, the past looms: in the civil-rights era, when many Black-led and -owned newspapers and radio stations sprung up in Seattle, many didn’t survive to the modern day.
“We’re so much further back than we used to be, so it feels like we lost a lot and we’re attempting to catch up, and there are a few seeds,” said Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who hosts “Hacks & Wonks,” a podcast and radio show broadcasting on two Seattle low-power FM radio stations, KODX 96.9 and KVRU 105.7. KVRU also has largely Black leadership.
“Things have changed, but they haven’t,” said Larry Williams, who founded The Anchor Group U.S.A., a consulting group specializing in Black media, in 1982; before that, he worked for local Black-run newspapers The Seattle Medium and The Facts. The Anchor Group saw a 40% increase in business last year — much of that from local advertisers seeking out Black media — which is encouraging to Williams. But Black media is subject to the same market forces as other media and still finds itself competing for the same “crumbs.”
“The information out there, the volume, the amplification of Black media is out there, but we’re still not getting the results as far as clients are concerned,” Williams said.
Where Black perspectives are thriving
Tony Benton has no script as he introduces that event at Columbia City Theater, and he didn’t memorize an intro. He just has his decades of experience hosting radio shows, and his voice. Tonight: a town hall on the redistricting of Seattle’s second and third city council districts. In the small audience is Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents District 2, which the theater sits in.
Eight of tonight’s audience members simply came in off the street because volunteer Tyrone Kenney — host of the station’s religious talk and inspirational show “God Is” — was sitting at the door handing out fliers.
“This is a critical issue,” Benton says. “It’s not the sexiest issue, so you may not have heard about it.”
Benton often says that Rainier Avenue Radio is not Black media; it’s simply a media company run by a Black man. “I’m not a Black voice; I’m Black, and I have a voice,” he says. The station — which accepts donations via Shunpike, an arts administration support nonprofit — has nine part-time and volunteer staff from a number of racial backgrounds, and over 80 people who broadcast shows, from pastors to business owners to attorneys to nonprofit leaders to hobbyists.
There are shows in Spanish, Fijian, Tagalog, Vietnamese and other languages. There’s reggae, jazz, live high school sports broadcasts, fitness shows and shows on money and real estate — and of course, Benton’s weekly news show, “Impacts of the Coronavirus on South Seattle and Surrounding Communities,” which he’s hosted from 1-3 p.m. every Friday since March 13, 2020.
Yet Rainier Avenue Radio and shows like Fincher’s “Hacks & Wonks” are often pigeonholed as just for Black people or communities of color.
Fincher’s podcast has a “lefty urbanist-y” leaning audience, and many listeners are white, she says. In the last two years she’s had lots of politicians wanting to come on and talk about Black issues, but she makes it very clear that her show isn’t a “Black” show just because she’s a Black woman: she wants to talk about their entire record.
“Yes, we absolutely want to have Black-owned outlets thriving,” Fincher said. “We also want Black perspectives thriving in all places, and to relegate that to Black media only is overall not a success.”
Media organizations like Rainier Avenue Radio have been growing steadily for years, but many saw a bump in 2020 that has held steady.
The budget for news and opinion website the South Seattle Emerald, though under a million dollars a year, is three times what it was three years ago, as hundreds of monthly donors and a few bigger grantees signed on to support the nonprofit. The South Seattle Emerald publishes turn-of-the-screw police coverage, neighborhood-by-neighborhood announcements and coverage of South Seattle events, and op-eds by local elected leaders. Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, D-Seattle, recently took to the Emerald’s pages to announce she wouldn’t be running for reelection and document what she called a lack of integrity among state House Democrats as the Legislature rolled back some police-accountability measures.
Web broadcast network Converge Media — whose CEO Omari Salisbury became well known locally for broadcasting from the front lines of the Seattle protests — went from talking to “100 people” or so in 2019 to tens of thousands now. The organization’s dozen or so shows and podcasts cover everything from news to sports to activism to pop culture, often but not always from a Central District or South End perspective, and has gathered nearly 400,000 YouTube views and almost 15,000 Instagram followers. The company announced an expansion to Portland this summer, and earlier this month at the Northwest Emmy Awards, Converge received a Governor’s Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Northwest. (Salisbury declined to talk on the record for this story.)
Many of these organizations are still small, however, with few to no full-time staff, and while the resurgence is welcome, it does feel at times like a drop in the bucket. It’s hard to compare to the number of Black newspapers and radio stations that existed in Seattle in the 20th century, Benton and Fincher said.
Future an “open question”
Now these organizations are at an inflection point. Leadership roles are shifting: Salisbury announced at the end of May he was ending his show on Converge — a new show hosted by King County Equity Now’s media director, TraeAnna Holiday, will succeed it — and wrote in a blog post about mental scars and even physical injuries sustained during protests two years ago that have yet to be healed.
Benton said he’s had four strokes this year, and is trying to limit his time working for Rainier Avenue Radio. He talks slower on the radio now, and gets far more fatigued.
South Seattle Emerald’s founder, Marcus Harrison Green (who writes a column for this newspaper), stepped back from his role at the site in May, and hired a new executive director to succeed him, Michael McPhearson — the organization’s first full-time employee.
Some new leaders, like McPhearson, feel the future is still an “open question.” While McPhearson feels the Emerald will always have support from community readers, media organizations need big-dollar investment to thrive. He worries that commitments from bigger institutions could fade like they have in the past.
“Two years, three years from now? I don’t know,” McPhearson said. “The history of this country is one that after a while, people get sidetracked, or bored, or some other new thing comes along and we don’t continue to focus on an issue that’s been with us from the beginning, which is racism.”
If some of these organizations don’t last, it wouldn’t be the first time.
“Black media fought over the same nickel”
Back at the theater, Benton soon turns the mic over to a gathered handful of community advocates and activists: Yuan Tao, chair of the King County Young Democrats; Nirae Petty, advocacy program manager for the Black-led social services and housing nonprofit the Urban League; and Maria Batayola, chair of Beacon Hill’s community council.
The discussion starts bare-bones. Tao explains that with the census comes a redrawing of Seattle’s council districts, chopping up neighborhoods into seven chunks. On tables in the back of the theater, there are a number of draft maps that cut up the city in different ways, currently being considered by the city’s redistricting commission. Tao printed them out to show them to the gathered audience.
One major concern to speakers is the splitting-up of the Chinatown International District, which they fear could cut most or all of the neighborhood off from the majority-minority District 2 and dilute it in a whiter district.
The Columbia City Theater they’re all standing in has been a lot of things in over a century: the gold crown molding around the stage Benton is standing on calls back to its status as the first vaudeville theater in the state. On the walls, Benton has put up posters of ‘70s flicks that hearken back to his childhood, when the place was called Rainier Cinema and it was the only place he could go to see Black films and kung fu movies (at some point, it also became an adult film theater before shutting down).
When Benton came here to see those movies, he had no idea he’d one day own the space. When he listened to “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge growing up, he had no idea he’d one day be interviewing Kathy Sledge on this stage, which he did a month ago.
Benton grew up in what he would say was a better time for Black-owned Seattle media. The mid-’60s had seen a flurry in the creation of Black-owned newspapers, such as the Afro American Journal, The Seattle Medium and The Facts. KYAC, which in the mid-’70s became by some accounts the first Black-owned radio station on the West Coast, was on “all the time” when Benton was growing up.
But as Benton got into radio himself, hosting ‘StreetBeat’ on KUBE 93 for 20 years, he saw organizations like KYAC and the Afro American Journal fade.
“Black media fought over the same nickel,” Benton said. “We’ve lost ground. If there wasn’t the internet now, we’d have lost more ground.”
“Let’s spread the word”
Another thing that’s different now, according to Benton: Many of the Black-led organizations work together. The South Seattle Emerald posted Converge’s “The Morning Update” show on its site every day until Salisbury announced it was ending earlier this month. This May night’s Rainier Avenue Radio event on redistricting is also being simulcast by Converge, and at one point, Salisbury can be seen on a walkway above the stage.
Benton, meanwhile, goes to the audience gathering questions.
“How do we stop this politically-motivated redistricting?” asks Bereket Kiros, chair of the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees and Communities of Color.
Several people express frustration they didn’t know about this critical process of redistricting, and that one public forum had already taken place without any of them knowing about it.
“How you feeling about all this?,” Benton asks one man in the audience.
“I think it’s a bunch of baloney,” he says.
This is why Benton loves community media. He treats the format as somewhat informal and ad hoc. If there’s shrieking feedback from a speaker for a few seconds, that’s OK. If an audience member gets upset and goes on a rant, Benton hears them out.
As he draws the event to an end, Benton talks about how it came about: a conference call two weeks ago with community activists, where he learned about this redistricting process that was happening without his knowledge, and without the knowledge of many people in the community.
“It was ‘you know what, let’s spread the word. Let’s not complain about what we don’t know.’ And you’re free to do that, too,” Benton says, turning to the online audience. “If this has got your attention like it got the attention of some of the folks in here, request a map. Have a meeting in your own home, have a barbecue, and say, ‘let’s talk about what’s going on in our neighborhood.’”