radio

Stride Toward Freedom: Blacks In
Radio Programming

The world of fantasy created by commercial radio programming was the most popular medium of entertainment in the United States from the 1920s until the 1950s. Tens of millions of citizens tuned in thousands of stations to hear news, sports, drama, comedy, and the various other formats by which broadcasters had adapted radio to aural entertainment. To staff such operations, moreover, the stations and networks employed countless numbers of writers, directors, actors, and technicians. Thus, aside from its popularity, the radio industry was a massive commercial operation.

Despite its tremendous need for personnel, however, the industry in its so-called Golden Age offered only limited opportunities for black men and women to develop. In fact, of all the popular arts, commercial radio possessed one of the more effective policies of discrimination along racial lines. It was manifested in the failure to employ black technical operators or actors, and it was evident in the strident stereotyping of black characters in actual broadcasts. That radio was a medium unfriendly to black talent was obvious to Carleton Moss, a black writer, who told an interviewer in 1950 that prejudice in broadcasting was only a reflection of its existence in the general society, that "all American radio takes its cue from the official government. We are automatically under a Jim Crow setup."'

It was also apparent to Professor L. S. Cottrell when he wrote in 1939 that the “totally unrealistic” image of blacks in radio was epitomized in “the stereotyped conception of the Negro as a simpleton, or a 'bad actor,' or a doglike creature with unbounded devotion to his master or mistress.” It was also the meaning of the bitter letter written in 1946 by William H. Tymous, secretary of the Washington Veterans' Congress, wherein lie criticized radio for depicting

 the American Negro as a buffoon, lazy, shiftless, superstitious, ignorant, loose and servile. If the Negro menial is a good workman, he is again caricatured as ignorant, cunning and servile. If lie has had any schooling, he becomes in many instances even more the target for the vicious, evil stupidity of our hate mongers. It goes without saying that this "typing" of the entire race is false and distorted. This is not the democratic way of life for which so many of our fallen comrades paid so clearly with their lives. This is the Hitler pattern. This is American fascism.

Nonetheless, the African-American was always a part of popular radio. He was there as a singer, instrumentalist, or bandleader. His music was there, played by the many small dance bands that flourished in the 1930s, and by the great white radio orchestras—like those of Paul Whiteman or B. A. Rolfe—throughout the Golden Age. Whether portrayed by black or white actors, the African-American was also there in the many comedies which caricatured members of the race as a butler, a maid, or a loafer. The point is that blacks were never completely excluded from radio as their talent and culture were too rich and compelling for advertising agencies to avoid totally. But what always did exist within the industry was a racist impulse which perpetuated familiar, pejorative stereotypes in which blacks were cast. It was a condition with which few black entertainers were satisfied. It was also unsettling for many white radio personalities who felt that such a policy was not only unjust, but a distortion of impressive talent.

Little scholarship exists on the subject of blacks in radio. That which does exist has been neither exhaustive in its research, nor comprehensive in its consideration of the issue. The common interpretation is that until the late 1930s, radio was not fully closed to black personalities. But, as Erik Barnouw contended, once the "lily white" dramas became popular, blacks faded in importance as actors and characterizations.' This is also the interpretation of Estelle Edmerson whose master's thesis at UCLA in 1954 is still the most significant study of the subject. Yet, taking into account the full history of radio broadcasting, as well as the development of blacks in radio and other popular arts, it appears that a re-evaluation is needed.

The study of blacks in radio is bifurcated. On one hand, it is the analysis of black professionals appearing in their own programs or as guests on white shows. It is also the study of white actors playing the roles of black characters. Because listeners could not see the racial identity of the actor speaking into a live microphone, and because most white Americans had preconceived notions of how a black voice sounded, it was possible to employ white actors to portray blacks. Thus, by studying these two categories—blacks as blacks and whites as blacks—a fuller picture and interpretation of the African-American and his struggle against prejudice emerges.

Continue Reading        Previous