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Social Studies


By Vincent Williams | Posted 6/10/2009

I've been having a good summer as far as pop culture events go. Against all odds, Star Trek was amazing. I'm actually giddy over the promo ABC's showing for the new V. I just heard that Sade is coming out with a new album. But the event I'm most excited about is the new season of TV One's Unsung! As the title implies, the documentary series examines underrated musicians, mostly R&B acts, through interviews and archival material. And it's absolutely the greatest thing in the history of things. I've been lamenting about the dearth of popular black-music scholarship for years, and Unsung does a magnificent job of starting to fill in some of the blanks. Ironically, considering all of the challenges that owner Cathy Hughes' other big endeavor, Radio One, is facing, I believe that TV One and, specifically, Unsung provides a blueprint for what the radio stations should be doing.

Because, again, Unsung does something that no one else is doing. Sure there is some work that's been done with black music, but that mostly centers on R&B that has had crossover appeal; the music of Motown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, etc. And I don't have any beef with that--hell, who doesn't like those British documentaries they run on VH1-Soul . . . all the time. But Unsung has proven that programming about groups that may not have crossed over still makes for damn good TV. The first season's Phyllis Hyman episode--the highest-rated original show in the 2008 season for TV One--revealed amazingly poignant details of the singer's life as well as provided fascinating insight into the manner in which the rise of Whitney Houston completely disrupted the career of many female R&B vocalists. I've mocked my brother for years because of his bizarre conspiracy theories about Donny Hathaway's suicide, but after hearing about the situation from some of Hathaway's friends and family. . . well, I don't know. And who knew the Clark Sisters' story was so crazy? I just thought they sang, "You Brought the Sunshine."

But the Debarge episode was so bombastic in its realness that it was head and shoulders above the rest. Between the sex, the drugs, the physical, sexual, AND psychological abuse, the twilight of Motown, and the drama with the Jackson family, Unsung's episode on the Debarge clan was one of the most compelling, heart-wrenching hours of television I've ever seen in my life. This was a story worth telling that neither Behind the Music, The E! True Hollywood Story, or any of the various behind-the-scenes shows had ever covered. The Debarge story was a perfect example of a unique product that TV One can offer.

In a 21st-century media environment, I would argue this is the type of philosophy that can help a black entertainment company survive. Look, everyone knows that large swathes of African-American pop culture is mainstream pop culture. If you're a channel flipper, you can find just as much information about Will Smith or Beyoncé on E! or MTV or NBC as you can on BET or TV One. But, dude, one of the new episodes of Unsung is going to talk about Melba friggin' Moore--I'm pretty sure Entertainment Tonight hasn't been knocking down her door. And it's not just music. Sure, Nick at Nite or any random WB affiliate will run a Cosby Show marathon, so they're not that big of a deal but, uh, I spent an embarrassing amount of time watching the That's My Mama! marathon that TV One ran Mother's Day Weekend because, well, I realized I had never actually seen an episode of the show, and when would I have another chance?

While I know the radio-station and cable-channel business models are different, I believe that Radio One could gain a lot by following TV One's philosophy. I mean, Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, etc. are good but, frankly, you can hear them everywhere. Likewise, while I despise that Luther Vandross/Patti LaBelle/Kem type of elevator music, I acknowledge that other people dig it but, again, that stuff is also general adult contemporary fodder. But imagine if Radio One stations followed the general pattern set forth by Unsung. Imagine a station that played Minnie Riperton, Donny Hathaway, Shalamar, Debarge, Melba Moore, that funky '70s/early '80s Clark Sisters stuff, and Phyllis Hyman?

Cathy Hughes has been making the media rounds over the past month due to the implications of the John Conyers-backed bill that would force radio stations to pay additional fees for the music they play. And, while my instinct was to get outraged, I realized that I don't listen to the radio at all because of the bland, repetitive material that makes up the bulk of its playlists. I would love it if the radio would pay attention to the television stations and changed that. But if they don't, I hope the radio woes don't affect Unsung, because I'm looking forward to many seasons and future episodes featuring acts like Loose Ends, Rufus, Syreeta Wright, Slave, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, LTD. . . .

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