Radio and Black History

August 20th is National Radio Day, “it is a time for communities across the country to celebrate radio. The goal is to strengthen the radio ecosystem, highlighting all kinds of radio, but especially stations that focus on local service” (National Radio Day Website).

Radio was created in the late 1800s by Guglielmo Marconi, the purpose of his invention was to provide communities with the opportunity to communicate with one another. It was later used in different countries for that specific reason in mind. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, radio was used for broadcasting. According to Brittanica, “The first voice and music signals heard over radio waves were transmitted in December 1906 from Brant Rock, Massachusetts (just south of Boston), when Canadian experimenter Reginald Fessenden produced about an hour of talk and music for technical observers and any radio amateurs who might be listening” (Randy Skretvedt, Christopher H. Sterling).

Thus, radio broadcasting was born. The opportunity to be a part of the radio world wasn’t easy for African American, before the second World War, a mixture of positive and negative portrayals and stereotypes of black people flooded every American citizen’s radio. On November 3, 1929, things changed when a white owned radio station in Chicago produced and started The All-Negro Hour, “the first radio program to feature black performers exclusively. The program, hosted by former vaudeville performer Jack L. Cooper (left), featured music, comedy, and serial dramas” (Michael H. Burchett). This show provided society along with black people with the opportunity to control their own images in media. Shortly after The All-Negro Hour, ended in 1935, but history and change didn’t stop there.

By the 1940s, black radio began to thrive. Chicago was the center and heart for radio at the time.

Richard Durham (right), 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 (Google Art and Culture).

After the legend that was Durham, we had Al Benson. After the second World War, Benson came and gave a different approach and a different flare to radio broadcasting. Benson used his ‘savvy business sense’ to build upon popularity and became an influential figure in Chicago’s Black community. Jack L Cooper being the first, opened doors for African Americans in radio, but Al Benson set the standard, a standard that is still untouchable.

It was then, white owned radio stations from all over the nation, began to see the potential in the African American market and started playing more Rhythm and Blues, they began adopting the all-Black radio format, which is still used today, (news, public affairs, and music). In 1949, Atlanta’s WERD became the nation’s first Black-owned and programmed radio station. Years after, we had more black owned radio stations, producing and creating different opportunities for the black community. It’s amazing to see the amount of influence and impact black culture and black people had in almost everything. So on this National Radio Day, we encourage you to listen to some old radio shows or even listen to some of your favorites, my local favorite is Stichiz on 103.5 the beat.

Happy National Radio Day!

I do not have copyright ownership to the images used in this article.

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