How African Americans Entered Mainstream Radio

“Roi Ottley on radio quiz program,” circa 1945 -1959 (Schomburg Center/ NYPL)

For nearly 50 years, commercial radio companies only employed white broadcasters to target information and entertainment to mainstream America. The exclusion of African Americans in broadcasting began with the emergence of the first commercial radio station in the United States, KDKA, in Pittsburgh on November 2, 1920. As radio advanced, some Northern radio stations featured Black broadcasters. However, the primary depiction of African Americans on-air came from white radio personalities who portrayed them as comical, non-intellectual, and without virtue. Blacks could only obtain realistic, relevant, and empowering mass-mediated information from intellectuals whose thoughts radiated from Black newspapers and magazines. Black mass media options shifted when, in 1969, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibited racial discrimination in employment. Gradually, media companies began to end discriminatory hiring practices, and Black full-time broadcasters started to change the type and utility of broadcast content.

Several factors converged to bring about the transformation of American radio, among which were the profit motive, civil rights and movement leaders, urban uprisings, and the federal government. Arguably, federal intervention through policies, findings, mandates, and laws reformed racist hiring practices in American radio companies. The FCC, Kerner Commission, and Federal Employment Opportunity Commission were the three major federal entities that integrated radio broadcasting.

The profit motive remains at the core of decision-making in a capitalist milieu. Still, profits did not usher in substantial racial integration historically at the major network-affiliated stations, such as NBC (Blue and Red) and CBS. The networks overlooked Black listeners as inconsequential. Broadcast stations obtained revenue from entities that purchased time during which broadcasters mentioned or advertised their products or services. The larger the audience, the more money the stations could charge. To increase profits, a station needed to enlarge its audience; then, it could justify raising advertising rates. A station could increase the size of its audience by convincing the FCC to improve its signal strength or broadcast content that attracted more listeners. The network-affiliated stations attracted large audiences by broadcasting shows featuring mega-stars on big-budget programs, including dramas, comedies, variety shows, and news. Network stations did not need Black listeners, who represented a small slice of the national population, roughly 10 percent. Black people were relatively poor, and many did not own radio sets before World War II. After the war, the socioeconomic status of Blacks trended upward, and their media consumption became more diversified.

Conversely, the small, non-network stations eyed Black people differently. Plagued by under-capitalization, the radio stations turned increasingly to African Americans for new programming and listeners. Yet, where white broadcasters were typically employed full-time, stations procured the services of Black hosts part-time. For example, the country’s first Black-focused radio station, WDIA in Memphis, was staffed by Black on-air personnel who worked full-time as teachers, postal workers, mechanics, and other professional jobs. Other small, white-oriented stations that employed Africans used the brokerage system.

Under this arrangement, a broadcast outlet sold blocks of time to individuals or organizations. The purchaser would sell smaller blocks of time within his larger block to local entrepreneurs or any organization that wanted to broadcast information about their goods or services. Initially, aspiring Black men, such as Jack L. Cooper, used the brokerage system. Cooper hosted the first ever African American radio show, “The All-Negro Hour,” on WSBC in Chicago on November 3, 1929. On the other end, Vernon “Dr. Daddy-O” Winslow was one of the first African Americans in the South to work as a full-time radio personality at WWEZ in New Orleans beginning May 29, 1949. Besides playing unique music recordings of boogie-woogie, blues, and bebop, Winslow marketed Jax Beer to Black people on behalf of the Fitzgerald Advertising Agency that purchased the broadcast time from WWEZ.

Before the mid-1950s, government-endorsed systemic racism, institutional racism, and racial segregation infested all quadrants of American society. Change trickled down on May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the racist policy that permitted K-12 public officials to assign white children to attend well-funded schools but relegate Black students to poorly funded institutions. The court ruled in Brown v. Board that the practice of separate but equal schools denied Black families equal legal protection and were unconstitutional. The decision became one of the modern precedents that prohibited state and local jurisdictions from depriving Black people of equal rights.

While the ruling arrived after a few Black full-time air personalities emerged, the decision preceded the late-1960s FCC mandate that stations could not racially discriminate and offered another federal intervention in opening radio broadcasting to African Americans broadcasters and audiences.

President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to influence Americans to act against racial inequity. On July 2, the president signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the Act established the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), formalized precisely one year after the president signed the bill. The independent agency received, investigated, and addressed discrimination complaints. The commission projected 2,000 complaints in the first year. Instead, nearly 8,800 filed charges. Initially, the EEOC held no prosecutorial power, but on March 24, 1972, Congress approved giving the EEOC authority to enforce federal law and independently file lawsuits against employers accused of illegality.

Another impetus that led to integration in employment, particularly in mass media, was the nationwide civil unrest by Black people in 1967 and after the murder of Rev. Martin L. King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. As a result of the first round of disruptions in more than 100 cities, President Johnson empaneled the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders on July 28, 1967. Johnson appointed the Illinois Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr., as chair of the body, popularly known as the Kerner Commission. The president charged the 11-member commission to respond to three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And what can be done to prevent it from happening again? The commission spent seven months investigating, including visiting hotspots like Newark, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

The commission documented its findings in the “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” Published on February 10, 1968, one note in Chapter 15 of the 426-page document revealed that the under-employment of people of color and the lack of Black perspectives in the news media exacerbated rioting in African American communities. The note reads, “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.”1 The Kerner Report said local news media rarely reported positive images of African Americans, ideas of Black intellectuals, or realistic portrayals. The report further said the omissions must stop. Its findings, and the riots themselves, motivated mass media to hire Black, full-time broadcast and print journalists.

In 1968, the FCC required broadcasters to stop dismissing the employment of Black professionals as trivial. The independent agency also required license holders to promote racial diversity in programming. On May 21, 1968, 36 years after the Communications Act of 1934 established the FCC, Secretary Ben F. Waple released a report in which he wrote that the mass media failed African Americans and the nation by omitting people of color from sourcing and reporting that was fair and accurate. Waple wrote that the entire country needed to join efforts to bring the thoughts, opinions, and actions of people of color into the mainstream. He vowed that the FCC was ready “to cooperate, as appropriate, in industry endeavors to achieve this important goal.”2 Waple added that the commission would mail a copy of the Kerner Report’s Chapter 15 to every broadcast licensee in the United States.

On July 16, 1969, the FCC announced rules that directly forbade licensees from discriminating in hiring based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The agency also required licensees to develop and file policies that articulated how they would ensure equal employment practices. On May 20, 1970, the FCC adopted broader rules that required stations to file an annual report documenting their efforts to hire Black people. The oversight powers continued until the early 1980s when the FCC reduced its regulatory authority and withdrew its mandates.

Over time, racial change visited broadcasting because of profitability for small stations, rights agitators, urban rebellions, the Supreme Court, and federal law and agencies. Notwithstanding, the EEOC, Kerner, and FCC were the three most important entities that directly affected the employment of Black full-time media professionals. Each commission played a part in injecting its authority into combating discrimination. The federal entities suggested, encouraged, mandated, or otherwise caused broadcasters and public and private employers to stop overlooking Black people. Gradually, discriminatory practices diminished, and the media offered African Americans opportunities to work as full-time journalists, announcers, and disk jockeys. Those new entrants into broadcasting began voicing the Black communities’ issues, concerns, and noteworthy affairs with intelligence, professionalism, and rigor.

  1. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (National Institute of Justice, Rockville, Md.: 1968).
  2. Federal Communications Commission Reports, vol. 13 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970), p. 775. The reports cover FCC actions and deliberations from June 14, 1968, through July 26, 1968.
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Bala James Baptiste

Bala James Baptiste, Ph.D., a professor of mass communication and the chair of the Division of Communications at Miles College, earned a doctorate at Indiana University. The University Press of Mississippi published in 2019 his book Race and Radio: Pioneering Black Broadcasters in New Orleans. The journals: American Journalism, Journal of Radio and Audio Media, Louisiana History, and New Review of Film and Television Studies published his scholarship focusing within the intersection of black people, mass media, and history. Contact him at bbaptiste@miles.edu.

Comments on “How African Americans Entered Mainstream Radio

  • Thank you for sharing this unknown African American radio history.

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  • Sharing information is key in telling ” His Story.” Hampton University radio, WHOV-FM, provided the nugget about KDKA and the Black Information Network (BIN) has reinforced the story. As a teenager in North Carolina during the 1960s we listened to Soul music and Black advertising on weekends from WLEC-AM, Nashville, Tennessee.

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