The Race to Preserve African American Radio

Rufus P. Turner a student at the Armstrong Technical High School became the first African American to operate a radio broadcast station when chosen to operate the radio facility at the St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, January 12, 1926. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

What are the sounds of African American history? And how can we preserve those sounds? Those are the central questions members of the African American and Civil Rights caucus of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) posed when they met at their biennial conference at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington this past November.

In 2014, the LOC commissioned the RPTF to pursue the ambitious goal of identifying and preserving the scattered, uncatalogued, and often endangered collections of historic radio recordings across the United States. Directed by Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of Media Studies at Catholic University of America, the RPTF has grown into a consortium of over 300 scholars, archivists, and curators, and 750 affiliate archives, working to preserve America’s historic recorded sound.

As one of the RPTF’s fourteen thematic working groups, the African American Civil Rights Caucus, headed by Sonja Williams, professor of Communications at Howard University, focuses on preserving the legacy of Black radio in the United States. African Americans appeared on radio almost since the medium’s inception. In major cities, African American announcers and religious leaders appeared on white-owned stations in scheduled blocks reserved for Black listeners in the 1930s and ‘40s. Then, after World War II, African American radio emerged as a broadcasting format, with the founding of the first Black-oriented (but white-owned) station in 1947, WDIA in Memphis, followed shortly by the first Black-owned station in 1949, WERD in Atlanta.

Black radio’s early decades, of course, coincided with the flowering of the civil rights and Black Power movements in America. Commercial African American stations covered the movement only cautiously at first, but civil rights organizations like the SCLC carefully courted broadcasters and favorable coverage, as Brian Ward has shown.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw civil rights and Black Power activists establish a number of stations across the station, including WAFR in Durham, WRFG in Atlanta, KPOO in San Francisco, and new stations in the Pacifica network such as WPFW in Washington. The result was a tremendous outpouring of radio programming that focused on the movements social justice and Black freedom.

Radio offers historians and archivists a large and virtually unexamined cache of primary source material. The of-the-moment, visceral, and often unscripted nature of recorded sound contrasts with more carefully edited print material composed with posterity in mind. Locally produced material represents the bulk of recordings of African American radio and as such provides researchers fine-grained, intensely local perspectives often omitted from narratives based on national or regional print sources.

At the same time, radio recordings pose considerable challenges for researchers and preservationists. First, unlike newspapers or books, most radio programs were never recorded in the first place. Of the small portion of programs that were recorded, most exist on out-of-date formats—especially quarter-inch tapes playable on reel-to-reel players, as well as cassettes. These tapes are incredibly fragile and prone to tears, decomposition, and the apocalyptic sounding sticky shed syndrome. Radio stations regularly changed ownership and recordings were regularly lost or thrown away. Extant collections of recordings are often squirreled away in the closets and basements of individuals who worked in broadcasting, not in public institutions. Consequently, we have far less recorded sound material than print material, and the material that we do have is not easily listened to, if not highly endangered, and historians have struggled to access this remarkable but largely untapped body of primary source material.

The RPTF’s African American Civil Rights Caucus is working to assess, process, and preserve these historic sounds before they are lost or they decompose to the point that they’re unsalvageable. The Caucus is comprised of faculty from eight universities as well as representatives from Pacifica/WPFW, WYSO, the Delaware Historical Society, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB). This cross-sector collaboration continues to grow, and welcomes archivists and scholars interested in contributing to the task force.

While the goal of preserving African American radio recordings remains daunting, RPTF members have recently made significant progress in saving major collections. Here’s a summary of those collections that are or soon will be available online to researchers, educators, and casual listeners.

WYSO Collection

WYSO commenced broadcasting as the student radio station of the left-leaning Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1958. In just the last few years, WYSO Digital Archives Fellow Jocelyn Robinson worked with Green County Public Library archivist Deanna Ulvestad to make nearly 200 recorded programs available online. The collection includes an astounding array of interviews with civil rights activists and African American thinkers and artists from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, including Cleveland Sellers, Alice Walker, Cecil Taylor, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Maya Angelou, and Dick Gregory.

Media and the Movement

Media and the Movement is a project preserving radio recordings of civil rights and Black Power activists who founded their own radio stations primarily in the American South. Founded by myself and Seth Kotch, an assistant professor of American Studies at UNC, this project has digitally preserved over 250 radio broadcasts from three different activist radio stations: WAFR in Durham, a black nationalist broadcaster from 1971 to 1976 that was the first independent, community-based noncommercial Black radio station in the country; WVSP in tiny Warrenton, North Carolina, a Black-led, multiracial station founded by veterans of Malcolm X Liberation University with programming centered on community organizing and jazz from 1977 to 1986; and WRFG in Atlanta, a station established by veterans of the civil rights, anti-war, and Black Power movements since 1971 still broadcasting today. This collections includes extensive on-air discussions of activism and local politics in these communities, as well as original, one-of-a-kind recordings of Bobby Seale, Ron Dellums, Anne Braden, Maynard Jackson, Joan Little and others. Along with over fifty oral history interviews with individuals involved in justice movement and media production, these recordings are being deposited at UNC’s Southern Historical Collection and are scheduled to be made available on the SHC’s website by May 2018.

Archives of African American Music and Culture

Along with its massive collections on music, Indiana University’s Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC) has developed a sizable collection of Black radio recordings and made them available online in recent years. At our caucus meeting, AAAMC Collections Director Brenda Nelson-Strauss highlighted several exciting radio holdings. Chief among them are the recordings of a remarkable radio series, The Afro-American in Indiana. Produced by the Indianapolis priest and civil rights activist Father Boniface Hardin from 1971 to 1983, the program produced an astounding 117 episodes covering such topics as the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction, African American religion, and “What Black Men in Indiana See in Africa.” The AAAMC has also digitized a 13-episode radio documentary series on racial inequality from 1968 called What Must Be Done. Moderated by later radio station-owner and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, the series features interviews with James Farmer, Whitney Young, and Floyd McKissick, among others. In addition to its digitized recordings, the AAAMC is the repository for the materials for the pioneering 1996 radio documentary, Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was, including over 300 cassettes created in the production of the series, all of which are available for researchers to use on site at the archive.

Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s Church of God’s Digital Archive

History Professor Suzanne Smith of George Mason University has worked with Walter Forsberg, Media Archivist of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to digitize an extraordinary collection of recordings from Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s Church of God broadcasts. In researching for her forthcoming book on Michaux, a pioneering radio evangelist whose listening audiences reached into the millions Smith discovered hundreds of tapes that Church of God deacon and studio engineer Dan Lyles had saved in his personal collection. Among the recordings are Michaux’s extensive comments on and (criticisms of) the civil rights movement, a speech Malcolm X delivered to a Church of God congregation, and a live debate between Michaux and Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. Along with a collection of roughly 30 reels of silent film footage, this collection is slated to be made available online in the near future.

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Joshua Clark Davis

Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how natural foods stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American booksellers emerged from social movements in the 1960s to advance the goals of political transformation and cultural liberation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshClarkDavis.