Golden Age of Black Radio - Part 1: The Early Years

Archives of African American Music and Culture

For African Americans in the mid-20th century, radio was the most popular medium of mass-communication. Programs targeted specifically to Black audiences brought together their language, music, politics, and culture—creating a new sense of community. 

Early Years, 1920s-1940s
Our story begins in the 1920s, when networks began to sponsor a few hours of weekly programming for Black audiences, including live musical and theatrical performances. Radio comedies, however, were limited to minstrel-style shows performed by white artists. A major leap forward occurred in 1929 when "The All-Negro Hour" premiered on WSBC in Chicago, becoming the first weekly variety show featuring African American entertainers. America’s first Black radio announcer, Jack L. Cooper, produced and hosted the show. By the 1940s, Black radio programs began to thrive.

Jack Gibson recalls the first all-Negro radio soap opera, "Here Comes Tomorrow"

And I got in at that time in the '40s, Chicago was a big radio drama center, and we got involved in doing soap operas. And in fact, one stands out in mind. A writer [Richard Durham] came along in 1945 and wrote the first all-Negro - at that time was the word, but it's Black now - soap opera called "Here Comes Tomorrow." And it was such a controversial show that we were about 25 years before our time. There were times that the script was so strong they used to have to take us out of the studios by freight elevators and put us in taxicabs and go up the alley.

-- Jack Gibson, who began his career in Chicago as an actor on the radio soap opera "Here Comes Tomorrow."

Richard Durham [pictured at left], a legendary figure in Black radio, created two significant series in the 1940s. "Here Comes Tomorrow," the first radio soap opera with a black cast, starred Jack Gibson and Oscar Brown, Jr. and aired over WJJD in Chicago.

Durham's critically acclaimed weekly docudrama, "Destination Freedom," aired over NBC-affiliated station WMAQ in Chicago. His politically outspoken scripts highlighted historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and James Weldon Johnson, who stood up for their rights, championing freedom and equality.

________________________

He used the term "universal people" and he felt that the struggle of Blacks was so similar to the struggles of people all over the world who were exploited, who were oppressed. And he wanted people to feel pride in themselves, and to see themselves as heroic people and not as helpless victims. And I think that came across. You know, people were very proud of the show and what it was saying.

-- Clarice Durham, widow of Richard Durham

Clarice Davis Durham discusses her husband, Richard Durham, and his goals for his radio docudrama "Destination Freedom"

WJJD was a 50,000 watt Clear Channel station in Chicago and we used to reach places - that's why I said that the soap opera that we did, "Here Comes Tomorrow," probably raised the feathers of a lot of people that were in Iowa and downstate Illinois that didn't understand the race relationship that we was trying to build.

-- Jack Gibson, who began his career as an actor on the radio soap opera "Here Comes Tomorrow."

Jack Gibson recounts the expansive reach of WJJD and how it brought Black radio programs into other communities

I remember that I played Duke Ellington on a show one time. And I played Thurgood Marshall on a show. Those were good days. When I think about the parts that we had, and what we had to do with it. And we learned to use our voice to simulate the action that we were in. And I thought that that was fantastic. You know, people could hear, and through our voices they could picture the scene that we actually were in.

-- Jack Gibson, who began his career as an actor on the radio soap opera "Here Comes Tomorrow."

______________________

Pictured at left is Jack Gibson at WJJD-Chicago in the 1940s.

Jack Gibson remembers playing different roles on radio shows and how they influenced him

And you know, Chicago as I said was the mecca of radio drama. That's where Lux came from - the Lux Radio Theatre, Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, Orphan Annie, and all of those shows.

So there were only about four or five Black actors at that time. And one of them, who is now into what we call the "variety world" of entertainment - he's the only one left living of the gang that was back in those days - was Oscar Brown, Jr. And he played the part of - his voice was a light kind of a voice - so he played juvenile roles. I played, I guess, the heavies. And I was one of the brothers of the family. My name was Rex Redman.

It was a story about the ongoing saga of the family called the Redmans. We lived in a Southern town, and our father was a doctor, and my mother was a schoolteacher. And one of my sisters was a schoolteacher. And we had a brother who went away to war and came back. And he saw the injustices. He was fighting for his country, yet when he came back he still couldn't eat where he wanted to, and he couldn't sit in the bus where he wanted to, and things like that. So he was about to create some havoc in this little, Southern town. And my part of Rex Redman - I was the ne'er-to-do-well son who played trumpet in jazz joints all night and slept all day. And nothin' bothered me, but a good time and good women.

-- Jack Gibson, who began his career in as an actor on the radio soap opera "Here Comes Tomorrow."

_________________________________

Pictured at left is Jack Gibson in 1942.

Jack Gibson describes playing the role of Rex Redman on the radio

After WWII, announcer Al Benson took over the Chicago airwaves with a completely different sound that spoke to the southern roots of African Americans. Deejay "Jockey" Jack Gibson, who began his career in Chicago and was mentored by Al Benson, recalls Benson's immense popularity in Chicago during the 1940s. Benson used savvy business sense to build upon his popularity, becoming one of the most influential figures in Chicago's Black community.

______________________

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about Al Benson.

Lucky Cordell discusses Chicago radio pioneers Jack L. Cooper and Al Benson

Well, Jack L. Cooper was a classier kind of guy. Benson was a lot of flash. You know, I mean he wore the loud suits, and the flashy jewelry, and the big cars. And Jack L. was a more subdued kind of personality.

That of course was his downfall, because he refused to play what he referred to as "gut bucket blues." He wouldn't play the Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolfs, Little Walters, and the like. The closest he would come to that would be somebody like a Joe Williams, who sings like a blues ballad kind of thing. But most of his stuff was jazz. And that's how Benson beat him out.

There was a need. Jack L. was first on the scene, but he didn't fill it. Benson was shrewd enough to see that there was this need, and filled it.

-- Chicago deejay Lucky Cordell, who started his career in 1953 and was known as the "Baron of Bounce" on WVON.

Lucky Cordell recounts listening to Al Benson's radio show with his family

I think when Benson came on, I was far more exposed to him because my family, who all migrated from the South - I mean, when you came in the house, there was no TV and usually the radio was on. And if it was evening it was Al Benson.

Powerful position.

-- Chicago deejay Lucky Cordell.

Herb Kent recalls Al Benson's wide-ranging popularity

Everybody listened to Al Benson. He was the first really, really big Black jock. I think maybe in the country. I would say that he was, right out of here in Chicago. Everything else stemmed from Al Benson.

I don't think he's hardly been surpassed yet.

-- Chicago deejay Herb Kent

Lucky Cordell describes Al Benson's unique programming

Because remember, the main thing that he had going was he played music that nobody else was playing. There was nowhere else they could hear this music that they grew up with, than him. You see? It would be the same thing, someone coming from a foreign country and there was only one guy in town playing that music. And there was a lot of these people. You know? I mean, it would be instant. Instant. I tell you, he was an overnight success. He went on the air and word spread like wildfire. Have you heard this new guy? This Al Benson.

-- Chicago deejay Lucky Cordell

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about Al Benson.

Lucky Cordell discusses Al Benson's power and influence in Chicago

In my opinion, there wasn't before him, nor will there be after him, a Black air personality that will be as powerful as he was. Because at one time, in the entire city of Chicago, if you wanted to reach the Black community you had to go through Al Benson. That will never happen again because there's many personalities now. So no one person will have that ball game again.

-- Chicago deejay Lucky Cordell

Black-Oriented Radio Stations
By the end of the 1940s, white radio station owners and advertisers began to realize the vast untapped potential of the African American market, and "Negro appeal" programming expanded dramatically. Stations such as WLAC in Nashville began playing rhythm and blues records, and in 1948, Memphis radio station WDIA began its transition to an all-Black format. The following year, Atlanta’s WERD became the nation's first Black-owned and programmed radio station. Before long, stations around the country were offering Black-oriented programming, ushering in the Golden Age of Black Radio. 

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about Memphis radio station WDIA.

Martha Steinberg discusses the significance of WDIA in affirming African American culture

I think it gave somewhat of respect, and hope, and inspiration to the people. Because before that time, they were just hurtled into corners and the other radio stations played every music, but their music. And did not ever - they had never heard their name on the radio, or never saw their name in the paper, or no one ever recognized them. At 'DIA, they could feel akin because somebody recognized them and called their name, and told them they were important, and planned things where they could be a part of a large family gathering. So, from that point of view, I think the radio station - in fact, I think WDIA is one of - when we were there it was one of the greatest radio stations in this nation.

-- Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, who began her career as a WDIA deejay in 1954.

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about WERD.

__________________________

Atlanta's WERD-AM was purchased by J.B. Blayton, who became the first African American in the country to own a radio station.

J. B. Blayton, Jr., the owner's son, lured Chicago radio veteran Jack Gibson to Atlanta, where he became the program director and one of four Black announcers known as the "Four Horsemen." By 1951, WERD had become Atlanta's leading Black-appeal station, and "Jockey" Jack Gibson was Atlanta's favorite deejay.

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about Atlanta radio station WERD.

WERD advertisement (1960s)

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about WERD programming.

"The Lunch Call Show," hosted by Herb Gershon and Jack Gibson, featuring music and zany comedy routines, was one of the most popular programs on WERD (1950).

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about WERD.

WERD announcer Larry Dean in the studio in the 1950s.

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about WERD programming.

Indiana University ethnomusicologist Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and Alfred Wiggins interview Jack Gibson in 1981 about Gibson's move to WLOU Louisville.

Jack Gibson moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1951 where his "Jockey Jack" persona was a perfect match for a city that revolved around horse racing.

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
aaamc@indiana.edu
(812) 855-8547
www.indiana.edu/~aaamc

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
aaamc@indiana.edu
(812) 855-8547
www.indiana.edu/~aaamc

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.
Translate with Google
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile