Radio Journalism and Civil Rights

Guest being interviewed on live radio talk show, Johannesburg, South Africa, September 03, 2010 (Shutter Stock)

The first radio stations that targeted all of their programming toward African Americans in Chicago and New Orleans disseminated different types and quality of journalism during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-1960s. This essay compares news, commentary, and socio-political justice programming broadcast via Chicago radio station WVON 1450 AM, “the Voice of the Negro,” and New Orleans’s WYLD 940 AM. It also presents reasons for the differences. The period covered is 1957 to 1970. WYLD began in 1957, WVON launched in 1963, and WVON’s founders sold the station in 1970.

Radio remains important to African Americans because Black people, more than white people, obtain greater utility from the medium. Black people rely on Black-focused radio to fulfill their information and entertainment needs that television does not satisfy. Radio with an African American emphasis provides news about Black-specific issues and events, music that resonates with their tastes, air personalities who host community programs, and commentary that builds community. Market research demonstrates that radio is one of the strongest media to reach African Americans.

This essay illuminates the factors that contributed to the differences in journalism quantity and quality at the WVON and WYLD. Among factors were the: size of the audience, opportunities for gainful employment, behavior of management toward Black people, and the qualifications of the news staff. Quality journalism means a content creator’s dissemination of a newsworthy message that is original, provides critical information, and focuses on the local community, according to Philip M. Napoli, et al., in “Local Journalism and the Information Needs of Local Communities.”

One determinant of quality arises from the size of the target population. In 1960, Black people in Chicago comprised 837,656 residents representing 24 percent of a total of 3,550,404 Chicagoans. There were more African Americans living in Chicago in 1960 than the total population of New Orleans, which contained 627,525 residents. African Americans in New Orleans represented 38 percent or 238,459 of the residents.

According to Steven Quinn, author of “An Intersection of Ideals: Journalism, Profits, Technology and Convergence,” a relationship exists between quality journalism and advertising sales, “Journalism needs advertising and advertising needs journalism. Advertising pays for good reporting just as good reporting attracts customers for advertising.”1 With a larger African-American market, WVON generated considerably more advertising sales than WYLD.

WVON owners Leonard and his brother Phil Chess also owned Chess Records, the Chicago-based rhythm and blues recording studio that churned out songs by artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. The Chests paid $1,000.000 in 1963 to purchase the station. In its first year, the station earned approximately $600,000 from nearly $5,000,000 in advertising sales. While the station broadcast all-Black programming, it maintained a white sales force. Colgate-Palmolive, Bristol Myers, and General Foods were among the national advertisers. The disk jockeys solicited advertising from grocery stores, television repair shops, and other local Black-owned businesses.

Five years earlier, in 1957, Robert W. Rounsaville paid $250,000 to purchase WYLD. He terminated all of the Caucasian air personalities but kept the white salesmen and engineers. The station hired all Black air personalities and converted its programming to appeal to African Americans. The local sellers and makers of food products, household goods, packaged drugs, appliances, and beer were among advertisers.

Consumers with disposable income from gainful employment epitomized a market wherein which quality journalism could exist. The Chicago area was home to 1,481 manufactures, according to a 1963 U.S. Department of Labor report. Conversely, 153 manufactures operated in the New Orleans region. Chicagoans had access to 89.6 percent more manufacturing employers. Jobs in the steel mills, packinghouses, and stockyards were among the industries that hired a steady influx of unskilled workers. During the height of the Great Migration circa 1940, Black Americans in the North earned on average approximately $5,400 annually or 130 percent more than their African American counterparts in the South. New Orleans was a tourist destination offering an abundance of low-paying seasonal, service-oriented jobs.

Internal factors also mattered. The behavior of the white management towards Black people indicated the extent to which the station broadcast progressive, militant, and Afrocentric news and commentary. If a station’s leadership identified with the struggles of African Americans, management tolerated liberation perspectives other than the southern, non-violent, “turn the other cheek” mentality.  The Chess brothers were Jewish and grew up impoverished. They had to contend with anti-Semitism. Leonard’s son, Marshall, said his father strongly identified with African Americans. “He has a real affinity and sensitivity to black people. I think in some way, all of the Chesses were blacks in white bodies.”2 The liberal white management at WVON recognized that progressive programming resonated among Black people and induced more African-Americans to listen to the station.

On the other hand, management at WYLD, required their air personalities to offer news, sports, and information akin to community affairs, but not radical politics or commentary that strayed away from mainstream civil rights thought, such as pursuing integration through non-violent civil disobedience. WYLD broadcast journalism that was at best moderate. In contrast, WVON’s programming validated the real-life experiences of Black people in Chicago, and prominent opinion leaders centered Afrocentric topics among discourse that staunchly denounced the racist status quo. Afrocentricity places an African perspective at the center of an analysis. For example, an Afrocentric view of female beauty would prioritize Afro-diasporic standards, such as natural kinky hair, instead of Eurocentric features, such as straight blond hair and blue eyes.

Finally, quality journalism required an adequate and talented staff. WVON employed two full-time and one part-time newsmen. WYLD’s operation employed one individual, Larry McKinley, as news director, but he also carried the responsibilities of station director and disk jockey. Other air personalities who read news reports on-air were part-time. The Chesses hired the 48-year-old veteran newsman Roy Wood, who served as news director, editorialist, and reporterWood earned a bachelor’s degree at Morehouse College and a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City. The owners also hired 47-year-old Wesley South and assigned him to the news department. South earned a bachelor’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Wood hired Don Cornelius, a part-time newsman, after the 30-year-old completed a three-month broadcasting course. Besides reporting, writing, and delivering news, South hosted Hotline, a nightly call-in news talk show on which major figures discussed issues relevant to the struggles of Black Chicagoans.

For example, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black nationalist organization, the Nation of Islam, discussed self-reliance among African Americans. He told WVON listeners that Black people must be financially independent:

We can start here in the South Side where there are nearly a million people of our kind… that if we worked and save twenty-five cents a week, a dollar a week, whatever we could save and fill up and save up and build homes for our people here instead of waiting for the government to build them up and pay high rent… We could do these things for ourselves if we were intelligent enough to try to do something for ourselves instead of trying to have the white man from the North Side come down to the South Side and build all our businesses for us and take the profit back to the North Side and live like a king.3

On the other hand, WYLD’s news operation employed the disk jockeys who occasionally conducted original reporting. Rounsaville in 1960 owned six Black-oriented radio stations that he advertised as the first “U.S. Negro-Programmed Chain.” The other stations broadcast in Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, Miami, and Tampa. Unlike WVON, WYLD failed to hire full-time or part-time journalists to produce quality journalism. In the mid-1960s, WYLD lacked a regularly scheduled, locally produced call-in talk show that gave voice to Black nationalists, militants, or radicals. Listeners therefore were without in-depth discussion of civil rights strategies and ideology that differed from the traditional non-violent narrative. WYLD failed to provide opportunities for its listeners to be able to question the proponents of varying political ideologies. Instead, the station broadcast two weekly syndicated 15-minute shows produced by the National Urban League, an accommodationist organization with a board that was 50 percent white. Hosts of the shows, “Leaders Speak” and “Civil Rights Roundup,” interviewed moderates such as Bayard Rustin and Whitney M. Young, Jr. The programs covered national issues, not those particularly involving Black New Orleanians. 

WVON broadcast news frequently, at the start of the hour, 24-hours-a-day, every day. The station also reported news bulletins on the half hour during the day, presented a community-focused editorial each hour during days, and broadcast a regularly scheduled one-hour call-in talk show nightly at 11 o’clock. WYLD’s journalism informed, but infrequently broadcast non-traditional commentary explaining the critical needs of the local Black population and offering approaches to solutions. In contrast WVON broadcast critical, radical, Afrocentric journalism and commentary that provided alternative strategies to confront white supremacy.

  1. Stephen Quinn, “An Intersection of Ideals: Journalism, Profits, Technology and Convergence,” Convergence, vol. 10, no. 4, December 2004, p. 1 (109-123)
  2. Jennifer Searcy, The Voice of the Negro, African American Radio, WVOM, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Chicago, dissertation, Loyola University Chicago, 2012, p. 3.
  3. Hotline, December 27, 1965, quoted in Searcy, p. 149.
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Bala James Baptiste

Bala James Baptiste is a professor of mass communication and chair of the Division of Communication at Miles College. He has published articles in Black Perspectives and journals such as Louisiana and Journal of Radio and Audio Media. His book, Race and Radio: Pioneering Black Broadcasters in New Orleans (2019) was published by the University Press of Mississippi and his research interests intersect race, mass media, and history.

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