African Americans and Radio - Overview Part 2
By Donna L. Halper
Assistant Professor of Communication
©2002. Donna L. Halper, Boston, Massachusetts
As I said, the 20s were a "good news/bad news" era for black people. The Harlem Renaissance was attracting favourable attention to black poets, authors, and artists, several of whom gave educational talks on the radio. Some records on Black Swan (one of the first black-owned record labels) and even a few of the so-called "race records" on other labels were sometimes played by a few Northern stations. Gospel music was featured on radio stations as far north as Boston, performed by several well-known choral groups, including a travelling ensemble from Fisk University in Tennessee. But despite the new exposure for a growing number of black entertainers, the majority of the jazz and dance music that got on the air was performed by white bands. It is ironic that in the 20s, jazz (which most historians agree has its roots in the black experience) was identified with band-leaders like the aptly named Paul Whiteman, who was referred to by the magazines as "The King of Jazz." We can only imagine how such greats as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, who were playing jazz to adoring audiences, felt about being ignored by the mainstream press while certain white bands with far less talent were praised. Still, it cannot be denied that early broadcasting played a major role in introducing black performers and black music to a wider audience than had ever been possible.
By the early 30s, even more black performers were being heard, and more had their own network shows, including Noble Sissle, the Mills Brothers, and Ethel Waters. Journalist Robert Vann, editor of the black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, tried to mount a petition drive to get "Amos 'n' Andy" taken off the air; he was one of the show's most vocal critics. Unfortunately for him, "Amos 'n' Andy" had very high ratings and his petition drive failed, although it probably raised some consciousness. Meanwhile, Jack Cooper's show on WSBC had been expanded and his popularity was continuing to grow. But there were not many other black announcers yet. In the late 30s, former athlete Jocko Maxwell became a sportscaster for WHOM in Jersey City NJ, one of the first black sports announcers. Occasionally, radio magazines, which had seldom shown a photo of any black performer during the 20s, now offered feature stories on black entertainers; to the modern reader, some of these stories were quite patronizing, even though they probably were intended to be complimentary back then. In November 1932, a Radio Digest feature about black entertainers paid tribute to the "Dark Town Harmonizers," in what they referred to as a "Special Colored Supplement." The article, referring to the most popular black performers on NBC and CBS, made mention of their "jungle rhythms", said African-Americans were inherently good natured and inclined to musical talent, praised black vocalist Cab Calloway for having the "grace of a white aristocrat", and referred to the three adult male vocalists, the Three Keys, as "colored boys". But not every article displayed such blatant stereotypes; some were genuinely respectful in their praise of the top black entertainers. But while it must have been gratifying to finally be taken seriously by the media, there is anecdotal evidence that few black artists were paid equally to what a white artist would make. And in many cities, even the musicians' unions were segregated.
In addition to black entertainers getting recognised in print, by the mid 30s Variety reported that several stations in Baltimore were selling blocks of time (usually an hour) on the weekend for programs aimed at the black audience; as more northern and midwestern cities developed a black middle class, advertising to them made sense to white station managers, and gradually, more stations in these cities began offering some special programs for black listeners. There were changes in the music industry too -- popular white band-leader Benny Goodman began using the arrangements of the widely respected Fletcher Henderson (who had worked with such luminaries as Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong); then, in 1935, Goodman became perhaps the first successful white bandleader to integrate, bringing Teddy Wilson on stage to perform with Gene Krupa as the Benny Goodman Trio. Goodman then added Lionel Hampton, and several years later, Fletcher Henderson into his band. The 30s also saw a number of black performers in the top 20 with hit records: vocalist Ella Fitzgerald had her first number one song in 1938, and other entertainers like Fats Waller, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday were popular with both black and white fans. But if there was one event in the 30s that forced the white audience to think about racism, it was probably what happened to the widely respected contralto Marian Anderson in 1939. A critically acclaimed classical vocalist who had performed all over Europe, she wanted to perform a concert in Washington DC, but the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow a black woman to use Constitution Hall. When the news of this got out, a number of high-profile people, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were horrified; it was swiftly arranged for Anderson to do her concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Over 75,000 people and a radio audience of millions more heard her give a stirring performance.
Another positive step during the 30s was that more black programming was finding its way onto the airwaves. What was then called "Negro History Week" was commemorated at some northern and midwestern stations, usually with a scholar who talked about a famous person in black history and then a black performer who entertained. These programs were short (15 minutes typically) but they taught some black history to the mass audience at a time when such information was still not readily available. An important figure in the black community, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, was a speaker on one of these programs in October 1932, as radio made it possible for a wider audience to hear his message. In Baltimore, there were plans in late 1935 for the NAACP to sponsor a magazine-style show that did dramatic versions of news events. In those days before TV, there was a popular radio show called "The March of Time"; sponsored by Time magazine, it presented the week's news events with actors and actresses playing the roles of the newsmakers. The NAACP wanted to do a similar show about events that affected the black audience. Unfortunately, station WCAO's white owners became concerned that the show might be too controversial, and it was not permitted to air. (One wonders what the average person made of the lyrics to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and how many stations refused to play it.) On the other hand, while radio was hesitant to address hot button issues that might offend listeners or advertisers (and in fairness to owners back then, it wasn't just racism they avoided discussing - there were a large number of forbidden topics, including birth control, feminism, Communism, etc) there were some educational programs for children that had begun to include occasional lessons about the achievements of minorities - again, much more needed to be done, but at least now and then, young people were introduced to important men and women of colour. But the most popular programs on radio, the dramas and the comedy shows, had not changed very much. While many of these network programs had a black character, that person was still portrayed as some kind of servant. But a few performers enhanced even the limited roles assigned to them, such as on the popular Jack Benny show, where Benny's comic foil was the respected black vaudevillian Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Rochester was a valet, still a subordinate position, yet he and Benny interacted in a way that was not demeaning, and sometimes the jokes were at Benny's expense.