AFRICAN AMERICANS AND RADIO
African American and Radio
By Donna L. Halper
2002. Donna L. Halper, Boston, Massachusetts
Author's note: When I did my original essay about African Americans in early broadcasting, I realised there was so much more to say. Since then, I have gotten a number of requests from students who read that essay, wondering if I was ever going to up-date it. This new essay is not exactly an up-date, but rather an overview of the black experience in radio from the early years up to the present day. Slowly, those of us doing this research are uncovering the hidden history of people of colour in the media, and giving these forgotten pioneers the thanks that they deserve. I hope this essay is informative, and I will continue to add to it in the future. I am grateful to Bennie McRae for his wonderful site, and for giving my work a place on it.
If every picture tells a story, the illustrations in most History of Broadcasting textbooks seem to say that all the important people in early radio were white and male. But that picture is somewhat inaccurate unless we consider the rest of the story. Since many of the pioneers and innovators of broadcasting worked for the major corporations (such as RCA or GE or Westinghouse), they had very efficient publicity departments spreading the news about everything they did and making sure lots of their photos were printed in newspapers. In a segregated society, which America still was in the early days of radio, few major companies hired black people for executive or managerial positions. There was, of course, a separate world, with black newspapers and black companies, where qualified and educated people of color did get hired, but in the 1920s, there were no black-owned radio stations (nor would there be even one until 1949), and the fact that white men comprised 99% of station executives was seen as perfectly normal.
Meanwhile, the mainstream radio magazines of the 1920s did not see it as their role to question radio's (or society's) lack of diversity. Knowing that America was segregated, radio editors seemed to believe that pictures of negroes (as they were called back then) doing supposedly white jobs would not be welcomed in many parts of the country; so even though there were a number of respected black engineers and inventors (one of whom, Lewis Latimer, worked with Thomas Edison), their faces were never shown in Radio News or Popular Radio. But portrayals that reinforced stereotypes were considered acceptable, so one cover illustration in a radio magazine showed a terrified black man running away from a loud noise, not realizing it was only the radio. And just as women's contributions to early broadcasting were often overlooked or ignored, the same can be said about African Americans.
The first radio station with an all-black format (although its owners were white) was probably WDIA in Memphis in 1948; the first black-owned station was WERD in Atlanta, put on the air by Jesse Blayton Sr. in early October of 1949. And the first black-oriented programming service, the National Negro Network, began in January of 1954. But long before these milestones, African Americans had been involved with radio; though social conditions and the grim reality of segregation limited their participation, they were still a part of the industry. Back in the 19-teens, when radio was called wireless and it was done by amateurs, some of those amateurs were black: at least two ham radio clubs, one in New York City (started by Miles Hardy) and one in Baltimore (by Roland Carrington), were established to train young black amateurs. And Howard University in Washington DC was perhaps the first of the traditionally black colleges to offer courses in radio engineering, beginning in 1918. There is also some evidence that black performers were among the first to be heard on amateur radio. One early experimental station, run by a white amateur named Victor H. Laughter, sent out a concert by the Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy, in Memphis TN in November of 1914. And speaking of blues, in August of 1920, just prior to the arrival of commercial broadcasting, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds had a huge national hit with the song Crazy Blues; some sources say it sold 75,000 copies in the first few weeks of its release, and it certainly showed that the public liked this kind of music.
In broadcasting's first year, when only a handful of radio stations were up and running, it was mainly a volunteer effort. Although a few large companies like Westinghouse and General Electric did own stations, advertising was not permitted yet, so without a way to generate income, the first stations all operated on a very limited budget, relying on anyone who was willing to come by and perform for free. Much of the programming was live, since audiotape had not yet been invented, and phonograph records didn't sound that good on the early equipment. There were no formats yet-- the music varied from one day to the next, and listeners might hear almost anything, from opera to folk to jazz to children's songs to popular dance hits. The very first announcers seem to have been white, and some of the first owners had a clear preference for good music (classical or opera); but some stations offered popular dance music right from the beginning, and a few black performers were heard by early 1922: in March of that year, for example, the respected vaudevillian and singer George Dewey Washington made a return appearance to Seattle WA, and performed on the air at KFC, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer radio station. The next day, the newspaper praised his concert and expressed the hope that he would sing on radio again soon. In early November, WNAC in Boston brought the cast of the successful black musical Shuffle Along, featuring music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, to perform songs from that show. By mid-1923, Duke Ellington made his first radio appearances, on two New York radio stations-- WDT and then WHN; he got good reviews in Variety, and soon WHN was having him perform on a fairly regular basis. By the late 20s, Ellington would have his own network show on CBS. There were also black singers of spirituals and sacred music, such as the great baritone and composer Harry Burleigh: one of his first radio appearances was on WJZ in New York in 1924, but long before that, his songs had been sung on the air by choirs and other vocalists. The critically acclaimed tenor Paul Robeson and stage actor Charles Gilpin (he starred in The Emperor Jones) were also heard on radio in the early to mid 20s Gilpin was even interviewed on Boston's WGI in April of 1922. And as for black announcers, the best known, and possibly the first, made his debut in Washington DC as early as 1924. Jack L. Cooper, a former concert promoter and businessman, decided on a career in broadcasting, but to his disappointment, he had to enter the station where he worked (WCAP) by the servants entrance because the city was segregated. But Cooper didn't let prejudice stop him. By 1929, he would have his own show on WSBC in Chicago, and go on to be a role model for millions of African-American young people who wanted careers in broadcasting.
It was a time of good news and bad news for black radio fans. The good news was that for the first time, phonograph records by black artists and performances by black musicians were heard all over the country; America may have been segregated, but radio equalised the social classes by making entertainment available to anyone within hearing distance of a radio receiver. For the first time, the poor could hear the great vocalists just as the rich did. And, by the same token, in cities where white people would never go to the black part of town to hear music, suddenly they could listen to it in the privacy of their own home and no social norms were violated. The bad news was that although a few talented black performers like Duke Ellington were able to get on the air and even make good money, many other black musicians were treated contemptuously: harmonica player DeFord Bailey appeared on WSM Nashville's Grand Old Opry during the late 20s, but he recalled in an interview that I wasn't getting but four or five dollars a night, and they kept me standing at the back. And most troubling of all, the best known representations of black people in the late 1920s were done by two white men, playing the comic characters Amos 'n' Andy. While the show was extremely popular with both black and white audiences, it was also controversial, as some black journalists accused it of contributing to racial stereotypes.