African Americans and Radio - Overview Part 4
By Donna L. Halper
Assistant Professor of Communication
©2002. Donna L. Halper, Boston, Massachusetts
When black businessman Jesse B. Blayton Sr. purchased WERD in Atlanta in October 1949, becoming the first African-American station owner, he installed his son J.B. Junior as General Manager, and hired a Chicago d.j. named Jack Gibson to be the Program Director. It was Gibson who instituted a daily news broadcast, using information from Atlanta's black newspaper, and he also brought in an Atlanta University professor to do news commentary. This in itself was unique, since at many black stations run by white owners, there was a code of silence when it came to discussing racism. In Jackson TN, for example, Alex Leech, who with his brother William, owned the only black station in town during the mid-50s, gave an interview to the Jackson Sun as part of an October 2000 series about how the media had suppressed news of the civil rights movement during the 50s and 60s. Leech acknowledged that at station WJAK, just like at the Jackson Sun, coverage of anything controversial was not allowed. Although the station's staff was black, the two white owners (one of whom went on to become mayor) felt that any talk about white people attacking the protesters or coverage of black people holding sit-ins wouldn't be good for the business community, a majority of whom still favored segregation. "We had news every hour," he told the Sun, "but it was mainly church news and news of meetings... Times were just different then. We tried to keep the trouble down." Meanwhile, the black format continued to increase in popularity, but without many black owners, the stations mainly concentrated on black music and did little meaningful public affairs or news for the black community. Still, the spread of black radio resulted in more black announcers and black managers getting jobs, and more black entertainers having hit records. Among the black announcers whose careers took off in the 50s was Eddie O'Jay, who worked for stations in Milwaukee, Cleveland and New York, and was so adept at picking hits and guiding young performers that one grateful group changed their name from the Mascots to the O'Jays to thank him for all of his help. There was also Doug "Jocko" Henderson, whose career started in Baltimore and then took him to Philadelphia and New York, where he was known for his use of rhyming slang and his unique style of announcing; he also hosted shows at New York's Apollo Theater.
By 1954, 200 stations did music and programming aimed at the black audience. That was probably what encouraged black entrepreneur W. Leonard Evans to create a new network especially for this format. The National Negro Network was a promising concept; it offered not only news broadcasts but syndicated features, and black soap operas, such as "The Story of Ruby Valentine" (this had at one time been a white soap opera, "We Love and Learn," when it first aired in 1941; it eventually changed several more times before being set in Harlem as an all-black radio drama). More than 40 stations signed up, but unfortunately, the new network lacked advertiser support, and without enough funding, it soon went out of business. There would not be another black network till 1972. As for news coverage, some black-oriented stations were expanding it during the 50s, as important civil rights stories made the news. For example, New York's WLIB had an arrangement with the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper and aired live reports during the Montgomery bus strike and the Emmet Till trial in Mississippi. In the 60s, WLIB would further distinguish itself with award-winning talk shows like "Community Opinion," hosted by station news director Leon Lewis. While today we take such things as issues-oriented talk shows for granted, in the 50s and early 60s, serious discussion of racism was still rare. This only began to change when more stations were owned by people of colour.
Black music continued to move into the mainstream throughout the 1960s and early 70s, as nearly every top-40 station played songs by Motown artists (who worked for the black-owned record company in Detroit) like Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder. Most top-40 d.j.'s were white, but a few announcers from black radio had found work in top-40. Still, a sort of job segregation continued: top-40, although it played hits by black artists, was mostly owned by whites and the majority of the announcers were white; so-called "black radio" was where the majority of black announcers found jobs. And top-40 tended to pay better than black radio did. Interestingly, a few black artists had hit songs that addressed subjects like racism and income inequality - stations may have been reticent to talk about the hot button issues, but songs like "Livin' for the City" by Stevie Wonder, "Ball of Confusion" by the Temptations and "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye delivered a strong message.
In the 70s, things changed again for black radio: stations with black music formats began moving to the FM band, where they would be eventually be known as "Urban Contemporary," a euphemism meant to persuade advertisers that black music was popular with both white and black listeners (old stereotypes about the black audience had persisted at advertising agencies, with the most common belief being that black listeners were mostly poor and couldn't afford to buy very much). Urban stations often featured both white and black d.j.'s., and played music that was danceable and often heard in clubs or discos. By this time, there were more black owners; unfortunately, many of them operated AM daytime only stations with weaker signals. But some owners were able to buy FM stations or own a station in a top-10 market. By 1980, there were close to 90 stations with black owners. One of the most influential was a well-known Harlem politician, Percy Sutton. He bought WLIB (which was now both an AM and FM) in 1972, and created the Inner City Broadcasting Company. WLIB-AM continued with its commitment to news and public affairs, and won praise for its willingness to take on even the most controversial issues. The FM changed its name to WBLS, hired a popular black announcer named Frankie Crocker to be its program director, and Crocker created an urban format which combined the hits, some long versions of dance music, and even a little jazz. The station's ratings soared, and led to other stations emulating its music mix.
In addition to the success of WBLS in New York during the 70s and the gradual spread of the urban/dance format on other FM stations, another FM that did extremely well for its owners was at Howard University in Washington DC; WHUR went on the air in 1972 with a jazz format and a heavy amount of community-oriented news. This won critical acclaim, but by the mid-70s, the station placed Kathy Liggins Hughes in charge; she had been the station's sales manager and she decided to make the station more mass-appeal. WHUR's educational mission was minimized, and the station turned much more into a commercial enterprise, with an emphasis on hit music by black superstars. Students who missed the cutting edge news and some of the previous programs protested, but the station began to make money and get higher ratings; Ms. Hughes was able to parlay this success into purchasing her first station, WOL in Washington in 1980. Also in 1976, Jack Gibson, who had been a successful program director and announcer in black radio for several decades, started a publication for black radio, and under the name "Jack the Rapper," organized a series of conventions to bring black radio personnel together to meet and network. His tireless advocacy for black radio continued till his death in late January 2000 at the age of 79.
One of the most interesting success stories in black radio during the 80s was that of Tom Joyner, who was written up in numerous magazines because he did two airshifts-- one for a station is Dallas TX (KKDA), for whom he did mornings, and the other at WGCI in Chicago where he did afternoons. The thousands of miles he flew every week got him nicknamed the "Fly Jock." In 1994, he decided to syndicate his show; the ABC Radio Network agreed, and over 90 stations began airing the Tom Joyner show, making him perhaps the most listened to black announcer in America. And another 80s success story that continued into the 90s was the growth of Cathy Hughes' radio empire. By 1999, her company, Radio One, owned 28 stations, all doing black-oriented programming, many in large or major markets.
Today, African-Americans are no longer restricted to d.j. jobs, although many are still doing on-air work. There are black men and women in every aspect of radio-- among the best known are Larry Elder and Alan Keyes, two conservative talk show hosts; and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who joined CNN as a news correspondent after working for National Public Radio as their chief correspondent in Africa. (And in the early 70s, in the formative years of her career, Oprah Winfrey was on the radio doing news.) Today, more managers, engineers, and program directors are black, and many black stations are profitable. But since 1996 when the Telecommunications Act was passed and the radio industry consolidated, black ownership of stations has declined: of more than 11,000 commercial radio and TV stations in the United States, FCC records show that only 337 are owned by African-Americans. But the popularity of black formats, which now include oldies in addition to top-40, rap, hip-hop, and r&b, continues to be impressive: a 1999 survey for Airplay Monitor showed that black-formatted stations stations were number one in 95 of the largest U.S. cities. Critics say that most black stations are mainstream and commercial, preferring to play the hits and not address serious issues that are still present in American society; but there are some public radio stations and college stations that do spend time on these issues, and there are certainly black stations that have call-in talk shows.
Another issue facing black radio today is that some stations still pay their air talent far less than they would make if they worked at high profile white or urban/top 40 stations; this especially seems to hold true for black women announcers. In one contentious case in Chicago in 1993, Shannon Dell of WGCI-FM sued because she felt that despite high ratings, she was not being paid anywhere near what the male announcers at the station were. Unfortunately, she lost her suit and was ultimately fired. But the problem of pay equity has not gone away. Nor have complaints about the lyrics of some rap songs: a number of politicians have joined with crusading media critic C. Dolores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, to accuse certain rap songs of degrading and insulting women, using vulgar language, and glorifying violence. And while it would be easy to dismiss such criticism in light of how popular rap music is, the effect of so-called "gangsta rap" on children continues to be debated. As for what the future holds for black radio and for black people who want to go into broadcasting, in this era of consolidation, it is difficult to predict. There are fewer stations doing live programming and competition in all areas of radio is more intense. But overall, it is certainly true that African-Americans are far better represented in broadcasting and in the music industry than they were in years past.
Donna L. Halper is an educator, media historian, and radio consultant. She is Assistant Professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge Massachusetts, and is the author of three books and numerous essays. Her most recent book is "Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.