By Donna L. Halper
Associate Professor of Media Studies
CAMBRIDGE, Mass — If you ask the average person to name a current black talk radio host, there are many to choose from. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, until the 1960s, African-American talkers found it nearly impossible to get on the air. Since it’s Black History Month, it’s a good time to remember a few of the pioneering black announcers who overcame the obstacles and carved out a niche for themselves.
But first, a little context. During the 1920s, radio’s formative decade, there were no call-in talk shows, nor did anyone expect them. For one thing, putting callers on the air would have been technologically challenging. For another, about 60% of Americans still didn’t have their own phone. But because radio was new, most people were happy to just “listen in.” When they wanted to contact a station, they generally sent postcards (if they wanted to praise an announcer or a program, there were special “applause cards” for that purpose); wealthier members of the audience phoned the station or sent telegrams.
Another thing that wasn’t around back then — formats. While today we can enjoy all-news, or all-sports, or all-music, or all-talk, early radio meant variety, usually in fifteen-minute increments. You might hear a soprano, or a jazz band, or a sports commentator, or a comedian. Most radio shows were live and stations relied on guest entertainers or studio orchestras. But while some of the performers were black, the announcers were always white, and so were the station’s managers and owners. (There would not be a black station owner till Jesse B. Blayton at WERD in Atlanta in 1949.)
In 1948, white-owned WDIA in Memphis went on the air, with a format aimed at the black audience. But long before that, black community leaders in many cities saw the benefit of having a black-formatted station. America was still segregated, and with no black radio stations, black listeners seldom heard anything positive about their community, nor did they hear discussions of issues they cared about. And African-Americans who sought a career in broadcasting had very limited options: in the mid-1930s, there were no more than five black announcers in the entire country.
As early as January 1930, William J. Thompkins, a Kansas City doctor and newspaper publisher, tried to persuade the Federal Radio Commission (precursor to the FCC) that the time was right for a black radio station; but his application was turned down a month later. Meanwhile, young black men and women who saw no chance to become announcers or newscasters went into print journalism instead, usually working for black newspapers.
But there were a few exceptions. Perhaps the first to break through on radio was Sherman “Jocko” Maxwell (pictured here). Jocko was a former high school baseball star in Newark, New Jersey, as well as the manager of a semi-pro team. In 1929, only a year after graduating high school, he persuaded the owner of local station WNJ to let him do a sports program once a week. Most media historians believe Jocko Maxwell was the first black sports announcer, as well as the first black talk show host. His programs on WNJ were mainly scores and highlights. But around 1932, he was hired by WHOM, licensed to Jersey City, and he expanded his sports show to include commentary and interviews — including conversations with numerous white major league baseball players.
Jocko went on to have a radio career that lasted nearly four decades, at stations in New Jersey and New York. While he does not seem to have taken calls from listeners, he did answer questions that were mailed to him.
Around the time that Jocko Maxwell was breaking the color barrier in talk, other African-Americans were finding ways to get on the air, even if they didn’t have their own shows. Because there was a requirement to broadcast a certain amount of educational and public affairs programming, a few stations in cities with large minority populations provided airtime for prominent black community leaders to give informational talks. For example, in October 1927, Floyd J. Calvin, the features editor at the Pittsburgh Courier, gave a presentation on New York station WGBS (owned by the Gimbel Brothers, of department store fame), about the accomplishments of some contemporary black men; a separate talk about the accomplishments of black women had been given several weeks earlier. Calvin went on to give a series of educational talks in 1928, all of which were enthusiastically received by black listeners.
In February 1928, the “Negro Achievement Hour” made its debut on WABC in New York. While most of the program was music, black business leaders, educators, and journalists sometimes gave talks on current events. For the most part, these programs tried to avoid controversy (or anything that might get the program taken off the air). Instead, as Floyd J. Calvin had done, speakers focused on showcasing black men and women who were achieving big things in the arts, science, medicine, law, and other professions.
The national talk show, “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” airing on NBC, debuted in 1935. It was perhaps the first network program to allow members of the audience to participate. Host George V. Denny Jr. and his panel of experts were generally all-white; but given the program’s focus on current events, “Town Meeting” occasionally touched on the topic of race, or included a black guest speaker. For example, on November 23, 1939, the noted black educator and advocate Mary McLeod Bethune spoke about “What Democracy Means to Me.” Audio of that speech has survived, and you can listen to it here. In addition, “Town Meeting” broadcast its May 28, 1942 program live from Howard University in Washington, DC. It featured faculty members from the historically black college, including Alain Locke, a well-known philosopher and author. And speaking of people who were well-known, another African-American scholar, Carter G. Woodson, the man credited with creating what was then called “Negro History Week” (and is now Black History Month), spoke at Harvard in November 1938, and the NBC Radio Network broadcast that speech.
Two other African-Americans who hosted talk shows were Hal Jackson and Del Shields. Jackson was best known as a DJ, first in the Washington-Baltimore market and then in New York City, as well as for his role in the founding of Inner City Broadcasting Corp. But his radio career began in talk, first as host of a 1940 public affairs program called “The Bronze Review” on WINX in Washington, DC. In addition to playing music, he interviewed black celebrities and political figures. From the mid-1940s into the early 1950s, when he wasn’t doing DJ work for several stations, Jackson hosted a sports program.
Del Shields may have been the first African-American to host a nationally broadcast talk show; in 1968-1969, he broadcast “Night Call,” from the studios of WRVR-FM in New York. Shields took phone calls from listeners and interviewed a wide range of guests, including civil rights activists and advocates for social justice. The program was heard mainly on educational FM stations, and at one point, it had more than 50 affiliates. Shields had been a DJ on several black radio stations in Philadelphia, but he believed radio could be a vehicle for getting black and white listeners to have a conversation about race. Some audio of “Night Call” has also survived, and you can listen here.
And a word should be said about black female talk show hosts, although in that era, there were not many. Among the first was Willa Monroe on WDIA in Memphis, beginning in 1949. Her “Tan Town Homemakers” was a traditional women’s show aimed at housewives, but it may have been the first to be specifically directed at women in the black community. Monroe featured music by black pop singers, along with recipes, society news, and homemaking tips, as well as interviews with black female newsmakers. She paved the way for other black women to host similar shows and to eventually branch out into programs about current issues.
Unfortunately, most of the black talk hosts who were on the air during radio’s first four decades have long since been forgotten; and in most cases, all that survives is newspaper and magazine articles about them. But as a media historian, I want to make sure their stories are told, because their efforts to reach out to the black audience were unique for their era, and they led to the more diverse broadcasting landscape we have today.
Donna L. Halper is a former broadcaster and radio consultant. She has written six books and many articles on media history and is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Lesley University in Cambridge MA. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org