CompUSA agreement seen as victory for black stations; CEO told radio host firm will advertise more with minorities; 'Monumental occurrence'; Broadcasting


As civil rights leaders are increasingly fond of saying, economic empowerment is the next frontier of their movement.

Nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner -- heard locally each morning on WHUR-FM -- knows this perhaps better than anyone on the airwaves.

This week, after more than 10 weeks of lambasting CompUSA Inc. for its failure to advertise on black radio stations, Joyner corralled the company's chief executive officer into an on-air admission that his company had ignored black customers.

In response, James F. Halpin promised to offer discounts to black customers and to hire a black advertising agency within a month.

He also admitted the problem had developed because he listened to advisers who, he said on the air, looked just like him.

"I got bad advice," he said.

The admission was a victory for Joyner -- and for minority radio broadcasters across the country, who reap substantially lower advertising revenues than white broadcasters even when they have the most listeners, according to a recent study by the Federal Communications Commission.

The reason, according to the study, is "a preconceived notion on the part of some advertisers that minority consumers are unimportant and do not represent a particularly lucrative market."

For Daniel Webster, an African-American minister who shopped at the Comp- USA in Glen Burnie this week, it came as no surprise that the computer company was under attack by blacks. In his experience, few customer service representatives have welcomed him at the store.

According to Webster, "When you come to Comp- USA, it's like you're a burden to them. They're a little bit more obnoxious than your average store," he said, adding that he came for the good prices.

"I was alive and kicking when Martin Luther King was around, and I don't see anything different today."

Joyner's agreement with CompUSA is "a monumental occurrence," said James L. Winston, executive director of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters in Washington.

"The problems of today of advertising agencies failing to advertise to African-American consumers on African-American-owned media is one that has a financial and economic dimension, but it's a civil rights issue," Winston said.

"Advertising is a huge part of the economic engine that runs this country," he said. "The No. 1 problem in the African-American community right now is economic disenfranchisement."

Joyner and his crew, based in Dallas, are attuned to this issue. News items, comedy skits and other features on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which is syndicated to more than 100 stations, are decidedly black-focused.

Earlier this fall, Joyner and Black Entertainment Television talk show host Tavis Smiley -- a Joyner contributor -- began on-air discussions about businesses that do little or no advertising with black media. They soon targeted the Dallas-based CompUSA.

Company blasted

For weeks, they blasted the company, which has 213 stores nationwide, including three in the Baltimore region -- Columbia, Glen Burnie and Towson -- because barely 2 percent of its more than $25 million radio budget last year went to black stations, Smiley said.

Smiley and Joyner, in daily, biting commentaries about Comp- USA, raised the issue of so-called "No Urban Dictates" -- advertising tactics that direct businesses away from minority consumers. (CompUSA does not use such a dictate, Halpin said after the meeting.)

The issue took on more steam when ABC Radio Networks last week directed Smiley and Joyner to back off CompUSA, saying the computer company had threatened a lawsuit. In recent days, CompUSA has denied this.

ABC said this week it wanted to check the facts of what the two were reporting; the radio hosts admitted they had incorrectly reported some facts over the weeks, but were concerned that their free speech rights were hampered.

In the meantime, Joyner called for blacks who had spent money at CompUSA to send in receipts -- to prove how much business the company does with blacks. E-mails circulated around the country on the issue.

Mayor takes part

Finally, Halpin agreed to meet with Joyner and Smiley last Saturday. Joined in the hourlong meeting by Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, Halpin agreed to some concessions, including offering a 10 percent discount on the next purchase to those who had sent in receipts. About 800 receipts were sent in, according to Michelle Bleiberg, a spokeswoman for ABC Radio.

He also agreed to hire a black advertising agency, but did not specify what portion of the company's ad sales would be spent through that agency.

Halpin admitted that the company has struggled in recent years. Sales were down 2 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the corresponding period last year, and two stores closed last year, Suzanne Shelton, a spokeswoman for CompUSA, said yesterday. Ten more stores could close this fiscal year, she said.

"We want all the sales we can get," she said. "But we really weren't aware there was an issue. I don't know that we've ever had anything quite like this happen."

Pub Date: 10/21/99

A photo caption accompanying an article about CompUSA in Thursday's editions provided incorrect information about a discount program. A discount on the next purchase will be offered to anyone who has sent in a receipt as part of a campaign by a Dallas radio station. The Sun regrets the errors.
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