William Barrow. Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1999.
Barrow argues that black radio has extended the popularity and influence of black music nationwide, helped shape black vernacular, mobilized African Americans around political and cultural issues, and galvanized a sense of community among African Americans. He’s intervening in the general lack of scholarship regarding the roles of Black Americans in radio.
He provides some reasons for this dearth of scholarship on Black radio: Until the post-World War I era, record labels ignored black consumers and potential black recording artists. Those that did, so called “race-records” exploited black artists such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Blind Willie Johnson, and Louis Armstrong by paying them less than their white counterpoints and cheating them out of their royalties. Because the American Federation of Musicians remained segregated and held controllable sway over musicians appearing on radio, few African American musicians, with the exception of Duke Ellington and Kid Ory, played in early radio bands. If they appeared at all, it was as guests on a handful of variety shows such as the Rudy Vallee Show. Likewise, although Chicago and New York provided opportunities for comedy teams such as Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and black religious music such as Jack Cooper’s The Negro Hour. However, following the 1927 Radio Act and 1934 Federal Communications Act, large networks ran their stations with Jim Crow policies: neither NBC nor CBS hired blacks as announcers while shows like Amos ’n’ Andy portrayed Blacks on radio in a racist type of “racial ventriloquism." The Great Depression followed soon after and any chance of an independent radio station showcasing Black stars diminished significantly.
A number of DJs, however, such Jack Cooper, for instance, was able to broadcast on radio by his own “racial ventriloquism” (sounding white) and acceptability politics by playing jazz and swing, but avoiding urban blues.
Just like Elaine Tyler May argues regarding women, World War II provided many opportunities for Black Americans. The War Department mad a number of friendly interventions into network broadcasting to rehabilitative the image of African Americans and stimulate the war effort. The Armed Forces Radio Services not only included black military personnel in its broadcast operations but also developed special programs targeting African American troops stationed abroad. Jubilee, for instance, featured such of the most talented Black entertainers like Lionel Hampton and Joe Louis.
But just like women’s financial and working liberation would not survive the war, neither would racial harmony. After World War II, McCarthyism and newsletters such as Red Channels removed any left-leaning stars, such as Paul Robeson and Harry Belefonte, in a story that Nikhil Paul Singh calls “Americanizing the Negro” (Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom (Chicago WMAQ) survived World War II and was a docudrama format which described the black experience in America. Durham constructed narratives about Crispus Attucks and made international connections with colonialist struggles in Africa and Asia.
While early Black DJs who broke the color line before WWII, such as Jack Cooper, relied on upscale form of racial ventriloquy, postwar DJs such as Al Benson began to speak with black Southern accents and black street slang on the air as well as popular urban blues hits of the era. His interest in slang, urban blues, and later R&B influenced a whole host of Black DJs committed to Black musical and cultural vernacular. While the shows of Benson, “Doctor Hep Cat” and “Daddy-O Dailie” were popular, Black-serving radio stations such as WDIA in Memphis still only hired Whites in upper management and advertisers were still reluctant to invest in Black appeal programs, mostly because they did not want their products to be identified with Black audiences.
White DJs began to adopt the slang and musical preferences of Black DJs. They became Norman Mailer’s “White Hipster” and Nashville, TN’s WLAC William Allen, a White man, was able to toe a slippery line between Jim Crow-hiring practices and racial ventriloquism to appeal to both Black and White listeners. Some, crossover DJs such as John R and Zenas Sears even crossed the color line to join Black political struggles.
But the success of these Black and White DJs, promoting R&B and rock and roll diminished due to the payola scandal. Stations did not like DJs, as opposed to executives, being the “stars” of the show, and owners ultimately curbed their influence by implementing Top 40 programming.
The activism of Black and White DJs reached an apex during the 1960s soul era, a mixture Suzanne E. Smith calls “dancing in the street” (Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street: The Cultural Politics of Detroit. Harvard University Press, 2001). DJs such as Georgie Woods joined the front lines of civil rights marches and after Martin Luther King’s assassination played the role Samuel L. Jackson (as DJ Señor Love) played in Do the Right Thing: calming a disgruntled Black populace.
By the end of the 1960s, most White rock fans were switching to FM to listen to The Beatles and most Black fans were switching to FM as well. On WLIB in New York, Del Shields hosted The Total Black Experience in Sound which did not play only Black soul and r&b but avant-garde jazz of Coltrane and poetry of Nikki Giovanni. With help from a President Carter-led FCC in the late 1970s, the FCC issued tax credits to station owners who sold their stations to minorities in order to alleviate the problem of minority under-representation in radio ownership and between 1978 and 1981 close to one hundred new black-owned radio stations went on the air. One owner, Cathy Liggins of WHUR in DC developed the “Quiet Storm” format which catered to African American women by playing the music of Smokey Robinson.
However, with Reagan’s deregulation in the 1980s, the prospect of Black-owned radio seemed very grim. Additionally, the popularity of Black music in urban markets led to a crossover genre of “Urban Contemporary” that increasingly introduced White artists into previously “all Black” programming.