Credit: Photos courtesy of Ranelle Sykes

The voice, heard floating out of a radio, moves between peppy cheerleader and clear piccolo. It’s light and high and perky, but never slips into helium-laced bimbo-ness. Maybe there’s a dollop of Eartha Kitt’s velvet during the serious moments, but there aren’t many of those. There are many more funny ones, in which a laugh is a series of musical flutters. The voice isn’t just a pleasant accident, though; it’s a mastery of pause and pitch and breathing, along with what those in the industry call “good articulation.”

Sitting across from me at a Starbucks, that voice is finally connected to a face: the opal-eyed, full-lipped visage of Ranelle Sykes. Sykes hasn’t been on the air for a while, and she has a story to tell about that. It’s a story of work and fairness and gender and the law.

But first, there’s a story of a girl who loved music—and a voice that helped her turn that love into a job. Sykes explains the emergence of her voice like this: Growing up black in predominantly white Alexandria, the woman thousands of D.C.-area radio listeners know as “DJ Rane” was an enigma—a middle class military brat with two doting parents who was president of her church choir. A girl who also loved listening to Nas and Tupac. A music obsessive who found in the knock and bang of ghetto music a welcome intrusion on a suffocating life of good grades and God.

Photograph courtesy of Ranelle Sykes

“I didn’t live in circumstances similar to what people were saying,” Sykes says. “When I listened to Pac or Nas, for me, there was this sense of identification with how they felt in society.”

For Sykes, that identification turned into a career. From an early age, she and hip-hop were in serious cahoots. She memorized lyrics, and at night, focused her Sony boom box on WPGC-FM 95.5 to dance to D.J. Tigger and his Live Den Show or WKYS-FM 93.9 to jam to Steph Lova, P-Stew, and Poochman of the Live Squad Show. They both blared “all the hottest joints,” she remembers.

“Hip-hop had a profound effect on my life, and you know, I kind of wanted to be a purveyor,” Sykes says. She scored a broadcasting degree from West Virginia University and, after graduation, tried her luck at WPGC—one of the stations she’d grown up listening to. Before long, she was working with the baritone Keith “DJ Flexx” Clagon in the 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. slot on the venerable hip-hop broadcaster, now owned by CBS Radio.

The voice, all of a sudden, was an integral part of the most dynamic African-American radio outlet of Sykes’ childhood. Rane and Flexx were dubbed the Home Team. They cultivated a chemistry that would last them ten years, enough time to dream up features like “Kickass Countdown,” a nightly rollout of the five most popular songs in the DMV, as well as “the Home Team Halftime Show,” during which mixer D.J. Book would throw down a collage of tracks as Sykes and Clagon hyped the festivities.

Clagon would punctuate his on-air time with raspy chuckles and party yells, and Sykes with her bubbliness. The duo came off like a fun couple, the kind that never fought. That’s not how things ended up.

Photograph courtesy of Ranelle Sykes

It’s the middle of summer in Washington. On 95.5 FM, Sykes is elatedly shouting about the blazing temperatures as if they were trucks full of cotton candy: “It will be upwards of 95 degrees today,” she says. “Roastin’!”

“Hope you’re drinkin water!,” adds Clagon. “Home team on your radio!”

The country is learning the fate of Casey Anthony, the Florida mom accused of suffocating her two-year-old daughter. Here’s Sykes, delivering the news that the mom has been found not guilty. And there’s Clagon with a comic “oh, boy,” in the background.

Off-air, though, the good times had petered out. Sykes believed she was being stiffed.

In April of 2010, Clagon had shown up at the studio distracted, Sykes says. When she asked him what the trouble was, it all came pouring out. “He confided in me that management had come to him and asked him to give some of his money back, so that I could make more,” Sykes remembers.

Sykes, who’s rarely at a loss for words, was speechless. Up until that point, she says, she’d had no idea that Clagon’s salary trumped hers. She’d always considered them partners.

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.

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.