Throughout its history, American radio reflected the racial attitudes of the society within which it operated. In the early days that involved a racism that was expressed in the racially demeaning characters of radio comedies like Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah and in the fact that blacks were shutout of jobs in radio. But radio has also been a leader in bringing black music and culture to a larger audience and making it part of the American culture. Radio was also well ahead of other entertainment and sports industries in providing black performers with a voice and an audience.
Throughout the 20’s there was nary a black face to be seen in the radio studios. It is telling that the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, two laughable and gullible Southern blacks who migrated to Chicago, were actually voiced by white actors. By the end of the decade it was the most popular show on the air. But the 20’s was also the jazz age and jazz is rooted in the African-American community. Young people of all ages were attracted to this music and for many young whites, their first exposure was on the radio. While you may not have found a black actor, a black announcer or a black manager in radio, listeners began to hear musicians like Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson. In 1929 WSBC Chicago introduced the “All Negro Hour” a variety show that featured music, comedy and drama by all black performers. Jack Cooper, the emcee of the All Negro Hour, is considered the first black DJ.
In the early thirties, the CBS radio network signed a three-year contract with the Mills Brothers, the first African-American act to receive a network contract. And one black man who was a hero to all Americans, was the heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. In her radio history Listening In, author Susan B. Douglas notes, “For African-Americans some of the most important broadcasts of the 1930’s were the matches of Joe Louis, whose victories over white opponents galvanized black pride and spirit and suggested that, even in a deeply racist society, black men could occasionally embody the national will.” Much like Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, Louis’ 1938 rematch against the German champion Max Schmeling became a source of national pride for both black and white Americans. Hitler touted Schmeling as an example of the racial superiority of Aryans, but Louis knocked him out in a little over two minutes.
Back in 1922, ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, had been formed to license songs and collect royalties on the music. One of their goals was to keep recorded music off the air as a way to protect record sales. Another of their goals was to exclude blacks. This was still the case in 1939 when the National Association of Broadcasters created the rival BMI. The new organization built its membership with young, ethnic and black musicians. In Last Night a DJ Save My Life, author Bill Brewster writes, “With BMI’s close ties to radio and its more ethnic membership, this was great news for the rise of black music.”
We even had Jim Crow record charts. In 1942, Billboard started compiling a separate listing which it called the “Harlem Hit Parade.” It later changed the name to “Race Records” which of course means records by black artists. Brewster credits Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler with the advent of a more acceptable name, rhythm and blues. Billboard adopted that name in 1949 and most of the rest of us have gone along with it ever since.
It wasn’t until after World War II that radio began to lose its whiter shade of pale. Two things prompted that. One was the beginning of the emergence of a teen culture that would set the nation’s trends in music and style. And it was a culture that was fueled by rhythm and blues and later rock and roll. Like the younger audiences of the 20’s, it included both blacks and whites, but the music had in roots in the African-American communities. The other factor was that as the country emerged from a decade of Depression and a half-decade of war, prosperity was just around the corner and blacks, like teenagers, were an as yet unexploited but large market that all kinds of advertisers were anxious to reach.
The 50’s and the 60’s were probably the time in the history of radio when the music, the audience and the guys introducing the music to the audience were most integrated. Douglas says “As America became more repressive in the 1950’s with the grip of conformity and McCarthyism tightening, black music became especially attractive to the young.” Young whites were listening to black artists on the radio, buying their records and going to their concerts. By the mid-50’s about one quarter of the records sold in the U.S. were by black artists.
White audiences embrace of black music coincided with the emergence of the DJ. One of the early star deejays, Alan Freed of WJW Cleveland, played an important role in bringing rhythm and blues to mainstream radio, and hence to the attention of white listeners. And there was just as much interest in listening to black DJs as well as black singers. Brewster reports statistics compiled by Ebony that in 1947 there were only 16 black DJs. By 1955 there were 500.
As a medium, radio was well ahead of its competitors in integrating. But it also should be noted that some stations, while recognizing the attractiveness of the black sound to their audience, chose not to hire black DJs but instead to hire white DJs and encourage them to sound black. One is again reminded of the radio comedies of an earlier era in which the black characters who were being presented for laughs were actually voiced by white actors.
During the same time a more authentically black version of radio was also emerging. By the late 40’s the African-American market was estimated to be worth some $12 billion. That caught the attention of advertisers and station owners. WDIA in Memphis, Tenn., was the first station to move to exclusively black on-air talent in 1948. And in 1949 WERD in Atlanta became the first black owned commercial station. According to Jesse Walker, author of Rebels on the Air, there were four outlets that offered black-oriented programming in 1943. Ten years later there were 260.
In the 50’s both the programming and the audience for radio were more integrated than they were for any other media or entertainment business. And this at a time when American society was very substantially segregated. But it didn’t last. One reason is that DJ’s lost their freedom. The choice of music on popular stations was taken over by station managers who, following the rating services, narrowed playlists on Top 40 stations to as few as 20 songs, played over and over and over again. During the 60’s, radio DJ’s not only were restricted to a fixed list of songs, they were often given scripts telling them what to say.
There was an all too brief flurry of free-form radio in the late sixties with the emergence of the FM dial as the preferred place for music. Some of these stations might have played blues and jazz as well as folk music and rock bands. A few of these stations still exist but not enough to fill up even half of the presets on my car radio. With the consolidation of corporate ownership of the FM as well as the AM stations, the FM DJ’s, like the AM guys before them, lost their influence and instead we got narrowly defined formats with tight playlists. The effect was to re-segregate radio.