Golden Age of Black Radio - Part 3: Community Engagement

Archives of African American Music and Culture

The close relationship between Black radio and its audiences extended beyond the airwaves. Stations such as WDIA in Memphis, known as the Goodwill Station, raised money for charities, broadcast live church services, read the news, and organized music and dance contests. Deejays were cultural programmers for the Black community and served as agents for empowerment.

Martha Steinberg recalls WDIA's role in serving the Black community

WDIA played a very, very important role in the Black community because they mixed entertainment with serving the community. They could have done that because they were white owners and maybe it was a demand to get more into the Black community - to the Negro community at that particular time what it was called - and it could be from the goodness of their hearts. Or it could be making so much money on the Black community. Just by chance they hit something that was different and felt had somewhat of a conscience and wanted to put something back.

But, whatever it was at that particular time there were no - no one was interested in the crippled children of Memphis. And WDIA, through Bert Ferguson and David James, who was the program director, and David James was a German guy. He was very bright. He taught us what all we knew. He was very smart. And he knew radio. But he also had some - he was a Catholic and I think he had somewhat of a conscience of wanting to give something back. And I think he encouraged Bert Ferguson to want to give something. And Bert Ferguson might of - I can't read to say whether they wanted to do it or they didn't want to do it, but they did do it. We had Goodwill Revues, Starlight Revues, and the money raised would buy buses and also pay the driver of the bus to take the Black, crippled children to the hospitals and to school and back home. And we formed Little League teams and I think that at WDIA when I learned - I was exposed to what being involved in the community - what a business could do to bring things to some kind of semblance of respect and an acceptance in the community.

I think we were more a community radio station because we really didn't have that much competition. We had some of the best disc jockeys, and it was all just beginning for Black radio anyway. We beamed throughout - we had 50,000 watts - so we beamed throughout most of the Southern states. So we were just a phenomenon, and we didn't have anything to worry about because there was not much to compare with us. So we were great. We got national business. A national person could buy one shot at DIA and hit 'em all. And nobody was interested in Black radio and so there was no competition. So we had no competition so far as ratings, so we just did what we thought was best to do - was being the best we could on the radio, and then serving the community.

Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, who began her career as a deejay at Memphis radio station WDIA in 1954.

Gibson and Castleberry standing with owner of Cleveland's Play-mor Ballroom on 10626 Cedar Ave. in Cleveland, Ohio. On the wall behind them is a sign advertising the "Teen Hoppers Ball" (1961).

Novella Smith addresses the need for broadcast news on Black radio

Black people read newspapers. We wanted to know what was going on in our community, as well as in the world. And I convinced the owners that's what we needed to do in here. And they bought it. And then I sold it to beer companies, car dealers, what have you. Sold the concept of sponsorship.

So they had to do it. If somebody paid for it, they'd have to do it. And you always did that. You'd say, "Well, if it's bought, they'll have to put it on the air." And then I convinced the sponsors this was something they should do because it's something that consumers liked.

-- Novella Smith, Houston deejay

Black people never had a chance to have anybody that they could rely on and listen to every day, and who could entertain them every day. So, again, we were the ones that they looked up to. And we were their newspapers. We were their informers. We informed them of what was happening in other parts of the world. They believed in us.

-- "Jockey" Jack Gibson, personality deejay


Pictured at left are two unidentified men connected with WLOU Louisville standing in alley in front of billboard reading "Jockey Jack, Man on the Street, Radio Broadcast, WLOU" (1940s).

Jack Gibson describes how the Black community saw Black Radio as their trusted news source

Celebration of 23rd National Book Week at Clark College. "Jockey Jack" Gibson seated at desk with microphones, WERD banner in background (1950).

Martha Steinberg salutes the Black working class on her radio show

I realized what Detroit needed. And I started with my blue collar worker salute. I was going to Inkster one day, and I saw all the men in the hole on Ecorse Road. They were diggin'. They always workin' doin' something on those expressway out there.

So when I got to the radio station that day, I said, "To all my men in the hole on Ecorse Road. The Queen is touching you today."

And from that, then the next day somebody called and said, "Well, you talked about the men on the - what about us, the men over here at this plant?"

So, I had a blue collar worker salute that we play on the station right today saluting all of my - we play the blues and we say, "To all of my blue collar workers. All of you who earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. I want you to know that you are somebody. You are responsible for the wheels of this world going around, and don't you ever forget it."

And then I'd say, "For my truck-drivin' friends, and for my fellows at Ford, and Dodge Main, for my pantry girls."

So we would have that salute and it became very popular.

-- Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, Detroit deejay

1965 KYOK publicity flyer with eight captioned photographic images.

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about the role of deejays in the Black community.

WERD back to school record hop display (1960).

Black-oriented radio stations built relationships with the local community through such promotional events as contests, concerts, and giveaways. Deejays were instrumental in organizing these events, which increased the size of their audience and demonstrated that African Americans represented a viable consumer market.


Pictured at left is a 1972 radio station contest promotional flyer for KYOK Houston.

KYOK deejays Chester McDowell (aka "Hotsy Totsy") and Novella Smith (aka "Dizzy Lizzy") handing a radio to the winner (unidentified young man) of a KYOK dance contest at the Pilgrim Auditorium in 1968.

Jack Gibson and Eddie Castleberry at Cincinnati Battle of the Bands in 1959.

This exhibit compliments the landmark 13-part radio series "Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was" (1996).

The series, produced by Jacquie Gales Webb for Smithsonian Productions and hosted by Lou Rawls, garnered the George Foster Peabody Award and Columbia University Alfred I Dupont silver baton.

For more information about the series, or Black radio in general, please contact The Archives of African American Music and Culture. The AAAMC holds the interviews and production materials related to the "Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was" radio series, along with other archival collections related to Black radio.


Archives of African American Music and Culture
Indiana University
2805 E. 10th, Suite 180
Bloomington, IN 47408
(812) 855-8547

Credits: Story

Produced by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

Curators: Brenda Nelson-Strauss, William R. Vanden Dries

Editor: Dr. Mellonee V. Burnim, Director, Archives of African American Music and Culture

Assistants: Matthew Alley, Douglas Dowling Peach, Allison Bohm

Audio interviews (1995) from the collection “Black Radio: Telling It Like it Was,” a radio series produced by Jacquie Gales Webb for Smithsonian Productions; Sonja Williams and Alexis Gillespie, Associate Producers; Matt Sakakeeny, John Paulson and John Tyler, editors; Wesley Horner, Executive Producer; courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Video interview (1981) from the Portia K. Maultsby Collection.

Images from the Jack Gibson, Johnny Otis, Katherine Lewis, Ed Castleberry, Rick Roberts, George Nelson, Travis Gardner, Doug "Jocko" Henderson, and William Barlow collections at the AAAMC. Additional images provided by Clarice Durham, Sonja Williams, Jacquie Gales Webb, Vy Higginsen, and Tim Fabrizio.

Audio and video content digitized courtesy of the Indiana University Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative.

Archives of African American Music and Culture
Indiana University
2805 E. 10th, Suite 180
Bloomington, IN 47408
(812) 855-8547

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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