In 2008, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh reportedly signed an eight-year contract worth $400 million with Clear Channel. Donnie Simpson, who once worked down the hall from the Home Team, negotiated a contract with WPGC that gave him over a million a year—without syndication.
One strategy to get the big money is jockeying for a better time slot. Mornings draw the biggest advertising dollars. The runner up is the afternoon “drive time.” When DJ and R&B singer Lil Mo left WPGC in April, reportedly to pursue her singing career, the Home Team moved into her slot—a step up. But Sykes says she didn’t see a bump in her paycheck.
Media journalist Dave Hughes, who runs the site dcrtv.com and covers the local radio industry extensively, says it’s hard to get a handle on exactly how the money thing works for jocks. “Radio stations are very guarded about their salaries,” he says. “That’s the one thing they never talk about.” Hughes thinks radio contacts are all about how well you negotiate, though. “You get paid what they think you’re worth,” Hughes says. He says he doesn’t think there was any discrimination involved in Sykes’ salary.
But another prominent female voice on the local airwaves says it really is all about gender. “That’s basically typical, not surprising at all,” says Olivia Fox, who was a longtime staple at WKYS. “In any industry, you have males being paid far more than the females. I myself had that experience with Russ Parr.”
Until 2002, the Russ Parr Morning Show—which still runs on WKYS, among other stations—was the Russ Parr Morning Show with Olivia Fox. Then she had her own stormy departure.
“The first thing they try to do is accuse you of having an attitude,” Fox says, responding to rumors that she’d left the show because of personal conflicts. She says she actually left over pay discrepancy. “I knew people who were in payroll,” she says, in a tale that sounds a lot like Sykes’. She discovered Parr was making about three times as much as she was.
“I wasn’t asking for Russ Parr money,” Fox says. “I was just looking to be fairly compensated.” But Fox says when she tried to renegotiate her contract, she was punished. “Negotiations fell apart and I was dismissed.” WKYS officials declined to comment.
It’s a Wednesday night, and I’m gawking as a licorice-thin red g-string falls from the perfectly shaped orange-sorbet buttocks of a stripper named Royal. I’m sitting here because Sykes’ lawyer—a man who’s spearheading her righteous efforts against sexism—has insisted on meeting at a strip club.
Jimmy Bell has dropped $86 on a plate of filet mignon and lobster. Moments earlier, he had summoned Royal and her colleague, Allure, onto two black tables. The DJ put on one of Bell’s favorite Waka Flocka Flame songs.
Bell, who insists he’s a “womanist,” says that if WPGC wants to argue that Clagon is a famous go-go star with plenty of fans, they’ll have to prove it with marketing research. “The law says real simply, you do the same job at the same time you get paid equally,” he says.
But Bell could still have a long fight ahead of him.
“Discrimination claims involving differing pay are often difficult to prove,” says D.C. attorney Scott Rome, who has represented businesses in such cases, “and this is especially true in a situation like the current case involving entertainment personalities. Unlike a shift worker or other employee paid on a scale, the salary determinations for a radio personality may vary based upon any number of factors. If the employer is able to show that the ratings are substantially affected by another personality over the plaintiff, or make some other showing of the entertainment value of another employee, then the plaintiff’s case becomes even more likely to fail.”
Just getting a company to give up their pay records “can drag out for two to three years,” says Maryland gender discrimination lawyer Kathlynne Ramirez.
There have been no hearings scheduled for the case as yet because Bell is fighting WPGC on jurisdictional issues. WPGC wants the case tried in federal court, where judges and juries tend to be more conservative. Bell wants to do battle in Prince George’s, where he’s likely to get a good number of black women in the courtroom.
When I ask Sykes if she thinks Bell meeting me at a strip club was weird, she answers no. “I don’t believe equality is a ‘feminist’ ideology,” she says. “Jimmy has never treated me in any way different than he treats his male clients...and he has never requested we meet at a strip club.”
In any event, she has more pressing things to think about. Weeks ago, she and her husband, who works in international aid, flew off to Kenya. She is pregnant and has been hospitalized with complications. At Nairobi’s Aga Khan Hospital, “the facilities may not hold a candle to George Washington University Hospital,” Sykes says by email, but the nurses sing to her. She’s been ordered not to fly, though she hopes that order will be rescinded.
Being bedridden has given Sykes a lot of time to think. She doubts she’ll get back into radio. She has bigger plans, she says, and Africa has changed her.
“Until now, I’ve never had fresh sugar cane or purchased eggs from a chicken I knew,” she writes. “And this is considered Metropolitan! I think God has a different plan for me, to reach people around the globe. And since I’ve been here I’ve gotten calls from New York, and Philadelphia. I am anticipating sharing a bigger and more personally challenging perspective. One CBS Radio DC couldn’t contemplate, and wasn’t all that interested in.”
A judge will make a ruling on the jurisdiction of the case, but according to court documents no deadline has been set.
Due to a reporting error, this article initially attributed a rap lyric to artist Waka Flocka Flame that doesn't show up in his work.
Due to a separate reporting error, it also initially stated that Olivia Fox departed from the Russ Parr Morning Show due to "discrimination." Though Fox stated that she believes pay discrepancies between male and female talent are endemic in the radio industry, and that her departure was connected to a pay discrepancy between her and Parr, she said did not believe her own situation amounted to discrimination.