Sykes started out earning a piddly $30,000 a year in 2001, according to court documents. By 2010 she was making $50,000. Her take was enough to pay rent and live her life—she drives a not-especially fancy Toyota—but it certainly didn’t buy her access to the entertainment scene she covered.
Sykes’ first instinct was to comfort her coworker.
“I said to him, you don’t have any obligation to me,” she says. “You don’t sign my paycheck, so we both kind of agreed that it was really just an inappropriate situation for CBS management to put him in and that really, I didn’t think it was his decision.” (Clagon won’t answer any questions that have to do with his former partner’s salary dispute.)
But just because Sykes was sympathetic toward D.J. Flexx didn’t mean she wasn’t inclined to poke around. She played detective, finding someone with access to company pay records, she says, and claims to have discovered Clagon was making twice her salary. All of a sudden, she was a lot angrier at management than he was.
In July, after failing to negotiate a better contract, Sykes took CBS Radio to court. She filed a $200,000 lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Maryland Equal Pay act, which “prohibits discrimination in the payment of wages between male and female employees in the jobs of comparable character of work in the same establishment.”
Unsurprisingly, she vanished from the airwaves not long afterward.
For now, CBS Radio refuses to comment on Clagon’s take home except to say two things through WPGC General Manager Steve Swenson.
One: “Flexx wasn’t making double her salary, and by that I don’t mean he was making triple her salary.”
Two: CBS believes Clagon’s pay is “commiserate with his duties.”
When asked if that means the salaries of Clagon and Sykes were the same, Swenson refuses to answer. “I wouldn’t tell you that information because we don’t discuss people’s salaries.”
In D.C., jobs like the one Sykes had matter. Longtime D.C. disc jockey Petey Greene, who began his career on WOL-AM in the 1960s, used his perch to commiserate with the District’s blacks about their struggles—and to confess his own rage. Reaching out to Chocolate City in a personal and irascible way earned him respect and power. When the 1968 riots broke out, Greene was in the unique position of being able to talk down crowds and get people off the street.
Black D.C. does radio well. It’s where Greene’s shock-jockness inspired the likes of Howard Stern. It’s where Melvin Lindsey of Howard University’s WHUR-FM started the much-copied quiet storm format. And, more recently, it’s where legendary personalities like Donnie Simpson and Russ Parr became giants.
But even if most of the D.C. jocks who’ve ridden the African-American airwaves to celebrity are men, there’s a vital history of female radio personalities, women like Angie Ange and Jeannie Jones. Sykes would fit in among their company—in good ways and bad. It’s taken Angela Davis to call attention to the fact that black women championed the Civil Rights movement and Sister Souljah to show us that the base-quake of hip-hop belongs to women, too.
And, on the airwaves, it may well take DJ Rane to show us how far we haven’t come.
In black radio, Sykes says, “the male is always the dominant focus. His interest. His passion. His life. His story.”
Divorce can get nasty. Sitting in her three-bedroom loft in Alexandria’s Kingstowne neighborhood on July 22, Sykes furiously typed a 1,562-word email to WPGC’s management.
The email said that in two weeks, she was gone. Sykes, who earned a law degree from George Washington University while working for the station, belittled her partner’s credentials, essentially accusing Clagon of being a do-nothing with a high-school diploma. Her pay, she suggested—in an argument that seemed a bit disconnected from what it takes to be a stellar DJ—should be related to her educational attainment.
“During show time, my co-host is down the hall in his office, entertaining, taking leisurely walks outside, or doing a variety of other activities unrelated to our on-air responsibilities,” she wrote. “I am solely responsible for playing all of the mandatory elements necessary to create the on-air product, which includes playing songs, drops in between songs, promotional elements, and commercials.”
Though Sykes says she didn’t feel slighted by the extra chores in the past, her awareness of pay scales changed that. “I simply can no longer consent to such discrimination in pay and performance of job duties every day,” she wrote. “I refuse to be treated like a female sidekick.”
Sykes may have gotten equal billing in the Home Team’s title, but Clagon is clearly the one with star credentials.
Sporting a pink patterned shirt, cargo shorts, black high-tops, and a shaved head, Clagon, 41, looks like the host of a never-ending backyard party. If you put a Michelob Light in one hand and a paper plate weighted with food in the other, everything would seem right with the world.
Instead, when I meet him, I encounter a tired-eyed man standing on stage in front of hordes of screaming teenage girls at an amusement park.
As he paces the boards, there’s the kind of ecstatic, eardrum-quaking cheering that would suggest Clagon deserves millions a year—if only it were for him. But the sweaty masses gathered at the WPGC Six Flags Back-to-School Jam on Aug. 20 are just anxious for Clagon to raise his microphone, shout “Ladies and gentlemen, Mindless Behavior!,” and get out of the way so the tween boy band can take the stage.
Backstage, Clagon has thrown on a pair of sunglasses and wears a disinterested look. His arms are folded. Though he refuses to talk about the case, he’ll talk about his 1994 go-go song, “The Water Dance,” a chirpy single that opens with Clagon declaring, “it’s on fire tonight.” Seventeen years ago, the album put him on the map. In May of that year, it climbed to number 22 on Billboard’s R&B charts.
“I was DJing clubs and I started to get a lot of popularity, and there was some DJs that would come on before me,” Clagon says. “They was hatin’, basically, so what they would try to do was they would try to play all the hot songs, so when I got up there I wouldn’t really have anything to play. So I just got creative. I just said ‘Ima do something they can’t do and Ima start making my own records.’… So I started performing them live and ‘Water Dance’ just took off.”
The next year, according to a bio supplied by WPGC, Clagon was offered a position at WPGC’s sister AM station as a mixer. The FM station hired him next. BET also scooped him up to spin for its Teen Summit Show. Clagon went on to record songs with Rare Essence, Backyard Band, Groove Theory, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, and Funkmaster Flex, says the bio, which calls him “the area’s most notable disc jockey.”
Ask around the go-go community and you get a predictably wide range of opinion about that. Go-go force DJ Rico, friends with Clagon for the last twenty years, calls him a “D.C. legend.” But Chi Ali of Suttle Thoughts says he wouldn’t give Clagon a second thought. “He’s a non-factor in the go-go community,” says Ali.
Some others, like Kip Lornell, author of The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C., straddle the line. “Would I call him a superbad motherfucker, a bad motherfucker, or just a motherfucker? I’d call him a bad motherfucker. He’s important but not first rate.”
That’s not a disparaging assessment. Still, considering the fact that there are several nano-cultures of go-go out there, and that go-go itself is a specialized form of hip-hop, it doesn’t sound like it equals legendary fame either. And how does it influence what Clagon’s status is worth in purely economic terms? The answer, almost impossible to determine in any rational way, represents the crux of Sykes’ complaint.
Asking Sykes about her former partner’s fame, by the way, elicits merely an eye roll. “He had one song that was regionally popular,” she says. “We didn’t even play it on the station.”
Black radio is in flux. Corporations like Clear Channel Communications have been expanding into the market since a 1996 law abolished limits on broadcast station ownership. Currently, Clear Channel owns 11 stations locally and 750 nationally. Even if a station isn’t gobbled up, it has to worry about other kinds of competition, like Pandora, Grooveshark, and Last.fm, which allow consumers to tailor their listening experience.
A 2011 study by Arbitron Media and Research says that 44 percent of Americans are streaming audio and video from the Internet these days, nearly twice as many as three years ago. Between 2007 and 2009, according research conducted by professors Catherine Sandoval and Allen Hammond of the Santa Clara University School of Law, along with the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, there was virtually no growth in the number of minority-owned radio stations, long the backbone of black programming.
For about twenty years, WPGC was locked in battle for the number one D.C. ratings spot with the region’s other preeminent black station, WKYS. But the standings changed with the advent of a device called the Portable People Meter. Arbitron, which compiles broadcast ratings, began using the meters locally in 2009. Listeners were once asked to keep a diary of their radio habits; now, meters automatically pick up the stations they’re hearing. Abruptly, WPGC stopped hovering near the number one spot, dropping closer to number 15, as did WKYS and many other stations with non-white audiences.
Still, there’s profit to be had. Terrestrial radio in general made $14.1 billion in 2010, a 5.4 percent increase over 2009, according to a report by marketing firm BIA/Kelsey. That may be why contract wrangling is still a radio staple. In the industry, a sharply negotiated contract can deliver a windfall.