radio

Postwar Radio

There can be no doubt that prejudice in broadcasting had been seriously challenged in wartime radio. Nevertheless, radio was slow to abandon older patterns. In the postwar period, this would create a climate of controversy as liberalizing forces sought to maintain the momentum of the early 1940s, and traditionalists acted to preserve much of the past.

Progressive spokesmen were not willing to forget the developments that had occurred during World War II. As early as Alay 1946, at the prestigious annual meeting of the Institute for Education by Radio at Ohio State University, several speakers enunciated a new militancy. In what Variety termed "one of the frankest meetings held here," several black and white critics attacked radio for failing to give a balanced picture of African-Americans as human beings. Speakers, such as Sidney Williams of the Cleveland Urban League, Gertrude Broderick of the U.S. Office of Education, and Walter N. Ridley of the American Teachers' Association, assailed the networks for continually placing blacks in menial positions in their programs. Specifically, they cited series such as The Great Gildersleeve, When a Girl Marries, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and The Jack Benny Program, all long-lasting and popular programs in which blacks appeared as maids, buffoons, or any of the other minstrel stereotypes. Beyond programming, however, the conferees assailed other forms of segregation within the industry, including the practice of trade unions and crafts in restricting black membership, and the inability of black technicians to find employment in radio. In all, it was a devastating critique of American broadcasting that placed the blame squarely on the networks, stations, and unions.

It was not without reason that reformers attacked national radio. Despite the lessons of the war, most networks and large advertising agencies, which produced many of the programs, persisted in airing shows that were demeaning to blacks. Networks and agencies explained their attitude as being dictated by economic realities. According to their spokesmen, sponsors were reluctant to finance all-black or racially-mixed programs if white listeners, the bulk of the audience and the potential customers for the sponsor's product, would be alienated.

This was especially true in the southern region of the nation where for several generations whites had maintained effective control of a segregated society. In the South, network broadcasts from New York City or Hollywood that did not conform to "acceptable" standards, tended to offend white supremacists. Thus, a program like Night Life, a CBS summer series in 1946 which featured black comedian Willie Bryant and a racially-mixed cast, was dropped early because Southern affiliates objected. According to Frank Silvera, the failure of blacks to mature in network programming was a "touchy question," the answer to which lay in the fear by advertising agencies and network officials of offending the "Southern markets."

Where there was sympathy for the plight of black actors, as well as an understanding of the economic imperatives of broadcasting, some suggested segregation as the inevitable answer. In 1950, for example, John Asher, research director for CBS in Los Angeles, told an interviewer that the problem of African-Americans in radio emanated from a lack of purchasing power. "Once the sponsors realize the Negro's purchasing power is great," he asserted, "programs will be designed to appeal to Negroes.” Although such "separate but equal" status might have been preferable to exclusion, most reformers desired an integrated situation in which not only were blacks portrayed with dignity, but mixed casts performed, and African-American actors were not necessarily assigned only to black roles.

During the struggle for equality by black actors in the late 1940s, the slightest defeat brought forth stinging rebuke by the proponents of change. To those entertainers, the thought of retreat to traditional stereotypes meant a loss for all blacks. No one better epitomized this bitterness born of desperation than Canada Lee when in 1949 he attacked the "giggling maids, Rochesters, Aunt Jemimas, and shiftless, lazy individuals" usually portrayed by blacks. According to Lee:

A virtual Iron Curtain exists against the entire Negro people as far as radio is concerned. Where is the story of our lives in terms of the ghetto slums in which we must live? Where is the story in terms of jobs not available? Who would know us only by listening to Amos and Andy, Beulah, Rochester, and minstrel shows?

Quick to defend the stereotyping of racial characters were several of the steadily-employed black actors in radio. Ernestine Wade felt that African-American artists were actually broadening the way for future actors. She maintained that the stereotypes were nothing more than type-casting roles with as much meaning as that of a villain or miser. She contended, furthermore, that cliché-ridden characters had no real effect upon blacks.

To Lillian Randolph, the traditional roles allotted to African-Americans did not affect the past, present, or future of blacks. Often a delegate to the conventions of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Randolph always spoke and voted against reformist resolutions that condemned racial stereotypes. She argued that whites proposing such resolutions were trying to stop blacks from playing these parts, not trying to stop the roles themselves. Since white listeners would always demand such characterizations, she argued, white actors would inevitably fill the roles.

Most defensive, however, was Eddie Anderson. To justify his character, Rochester, he basically denied that there was discrimination in radio, contending, "I believe those who have shown they have something to offer have been given an equal opportunity." According to Anderson:

 I haven't seen anything objectionable. I don't see why certain characters are called stereotypes.... The Negro characters being presented are not labelling the Negro race any more than "Luigi" is labeling the Italian people as a whole. The same goes for "Beulah" who is not playing the part of thousands of Negroes, but only the part of one person, Beulah. They're not saying here is the portrait of the Negro, but here is Beulah.

Despite the controversy, there were important improvements for blacks in postwar radio. Established talent, like the spiritual group, Wings Over Jordan, returned to CBS in 1946 after a hiatus of several years. The same year King Cole Trio Time, sponsored by Wildroot hair tonic, introduced Nat "King" Cole to a national audience on NBC. Other black musical talents with new programs in this period included Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, Duke Ellington, and singer Una Mae Carlisle. In late 1948, Jackie Robinson began his first radio series on the local station, WMCA; and in little more than a year he was hosting The Jackie Robinson Show before a national audience on ABC. Yet, in searching for programming which was more in line with the progressive thrust of radio during the war, one must turn to the many special broadcasts aired at this time.

The year 1948 was proclaimed, nationally, as the "Year of Rededication" in which citizens were asked to recommit themselves to American ideals. Throughout that year radio carried special programs and series on racial tolerance that met this request. One of the most controversial presentations occurred in March, 1948, when Mutual presented a four-part series, To Secure These Rights, which dramatized the findings of the President's Committee on Civil Rights. Even before the first program, southern politicians and station owners cautioned the network about possible reactions in their region.

Though Mutual modified its original scripts, the series was received adversely in the South. During one broadcast, for example, the Mutual affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi, left the air and re turned when the network transmission ended. The Conference of Southern Governors, and a group of twenty southern senators, led by Senator Richard D. Russell of Georgia, demanded from the network and received three half-hour periods in which to rebut the charges and implications of the series.

More indicative of postwar attitudes toward blacks in radio was a special series, Freedom Theater, produced in 1948 at WSM (Nashville). In this thirteen-part public service show, music was provided by a traditional country-western ensemble, Roy Acuff and His Smokey Mountain Boys, as well as by a black chorus, the Fisk University Choir. The series represented the first time racially-mixed programs had been broadcast from the same studio of that important southern station.

If Freedom Theater was a breakthrough for racial change in radio, the appearance of an all-black dramatic theater series on WPWA (Chester, Pennsylvania) in April 1948, was another advancement for black actors. These were all small achievements, however. So, too, were the spot announcements for Brotherhood Week aired by Mutual in 1948. For example, listeners to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on February 29 were informed at the conclusion of that program:

This is Brotherhood Week. Let's make it work. Judge every man by his individual worth, not by some label. Don't spread any rumor against any race or religion, and don't listen to them either. Speak up against prejudice, and for understanding.

Yet, as minor as these accomplishments may appear, they still represent an amazing change of attitude relative to prewar standards. While they certainly do not reveal a massive shift in national sentiment toward blacks, they do suggest that the liberalization realized during World War II was struggling to survive in peacetime.

There were many local programs in the postwar period which affected significantly the role of blacks in broadcasting. In 1945, WNEW (New York City) produced several musical programs featuring black entertainers such as Josh White, Mary Lou Williams, Pat Flowers, and the popular trio, Day, Dawn, and Dusk. That same station also broadcast the prestigious American Negro Theater. This series was produced by Ted Cott, a respected white veteran of radio, and introduced black actors like James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee in legitimate dramas, adaptations of grand opera, and plays drawn from great fiction.

By the late 1940s, local black news and culture shows were aired for the African-American community. Notable in this regard were Tales from Harlem over WMCA, and The Bon Bon Show, hosted by George "Bon Bon" Tunnell on WDAS (Philadelphia). Other programs and series at this time took a more distinctively political orientation, exposing and attacking the root causes of injustice in American society. In 1945, for example, WIP broadcast for the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission a series that assailed anti-democratic institutions, and strongly advocated tolerance, unity, and racial harmony. In 1947, both WSB (Atlanta) through its series The Harbor We Seek, and WINX (Washington, D.C.) with its Bright Tomorrow, produced memorable attacks upon the Ku Klux Klan and its fanatical ideals. As an expose of injustice in America, however, the most striking accomplishments occurred in Chicago.

Richard Durham was the most prolific and successful black writer in radio. Formerly an editor with the Chicago Defender newspaper and Ebony magazine, throughout the second half of the 1940s Durham wrote several distinctive series. Democracy, U.S.A. appeared in July 1946, as a local show on WBBM, the CBS-owned station in Chicago. This weekly fifteen-minute series for more than a year dramatized the lives of outstanding black citizens.

In October 1947, Durham wrote and produced the first authentic serial on the life of an African-American family, Here Comes Tomorrow. This soap opera was aired three times weekly on WJJD, and it featured the tribulations of the Redmond family. In the series, however, Durham became more politically specific than he had been in his first program. Now, blending entertainment and indictment, he attacked prejudice. Thus, for example, he caused one character—a black veteran who had downed several enemy airplanes—to comment ironically, "I thought I could shoot down Jim Crow in the same way."

With the premier in June 1948 of Destination Freedom, Richard Durham wrote his most mature and sophisticated radio series. This weekly half-hour series was heard in Chicago on the NBC-owned station, WMAQ, for two years. Durham prepared more than eighty scripts for it. The programs examined the careers of prominent black social achievers, focusing upon the manner in which they came to grips with American racism, and earned fame.

Drawing from black history as well as contemporary events, Durham dramatized the accomplishments of historic figures such as Crispus Attucks, Denmark Vesey, and Sojourner Truth, as well as current celebrities like Dr. Ralph Bunche, Joe Louis, and Adam Clayton Powell.

The series was given an award by the Institute for Education by Radio, and it received approval from leading state political officials in the late 1940s. Yet, the best commendation of this remarkable series and its writer came from Durham, himself, who, when dramatizing the life of Carter G. Woodson—the man largely responsible for Negro History Week—caused his principal character to say, “I am the historian who looked to uncover the treasure of Negro life so that America's goal of equality and justice may be strengthened by the knowledge of their struggle for freedom in the past."

Throughout the last half of the 1940s, then, Richard Durham wrote and produced what undoubtedly was the most consistent and prolonged protest against racial injustice by a single talent in all the popular arts. The modest gains by African-Americans in radio were not anomalies. In the popular arts—and in films, particularly—mature images of blacks appeared with frequency in the immediate postwar years. In motion pictures such as Lost Boundaries, Pinky, and No Way Out, liberal writers and directors revealed the consequences of racism. In popular literature and even television at this time, black themes and entertainers also were noticeable.

Yet, by the end of the 1940s, the liberal movement was stifled and proponents of further democratization were in retreat. Speaking in September 1950, before the metropolitan New York Council of B'nai B'rith, Joseph Mankiewicz, the noted film director and president of the Screen Directors Guild, summarized the position of American liberals, "the new minority," as they entered a new decade. According to him:

The American liberal—the new minority—is being hounded, persecuted, and annihilated today—deliberately destroyed by an organized enemy as evil in practice and purpose—and indistinguishable from—the Communist menace that fosters and encourages that destruction.... Remember that it is the hope of this new minority, too, that this world will someday become a world of human beings and for human beings who live together in decency and dignity. Let this new minority be destroyed—and this hope will die with it.

The threat which Mankiewicz denounced came from the American political right. Even before World War II, the House Committee on Un-American Activities chaired by Martin Dies had been investigating alleged Communist infiltration in the motion picture industry. When the war ended, that committee, now headed by J. Parnell Thomas, plus other governmental committees and bureaucracies, resumed with greater purpose the anti-Communist crusade. In the process, many prominent radio personalities had their careers thwarted because of allegations and rumors of affiliations with the Communist Party. Two prominent black spokesmen for change in radio, Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, were among those so affected. What was more significant, however, was that the Congressional probes effectively arrested the progressive reform movement. In the early 1950s, as the anti-Communist mentality gained increasing momentum, fear replaced confidence in many who desired greater social change.

By 1950, a person as prestigious as Eleanor Roosevelt felt compelled to cancel an appearance by Robeson on her television panel show. And several months later, even the unity of black performers was shaken when Josh White appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs as a voluntary witness and denounce Paul Robeson and those "groups fixed up to look like noble causes which later were found to be subversive." White apparently welcomed the investigation of his fellow entertainers, as he told the committee how he regretted that "an effective exposure of Communistic activities in the theatrical and musical fields had not been made long before now.”

In spite of the policies of anti-Communism and its deleterious effects upon political liberalism, the condition of blacks in radio continued to make gains in the 1950s. Impressive in this regard were the efforts of NBC to improve its relationship with the African-American community. In 1950 the network employed Joseph V. Baker Associates, a public relations agency from Philadelphia that specialized in relations with black society. By October of the same year, top executives of NBC and the Radio Corporation of America were meeting with racial leaders—including representatives of the NAACP and the National Urban League—to explain their new efforts in hiring black personnel and in carefully guarding against stereotyping in program content.

Three months later a second meeting was held in Chicago, this one attended by three NBC vice-presidents. Following a third meeting in early 1951, NBC released a new code of standards and practices which stated that:

 All program materials present with dignity and objectivity the varying aspects of race, creed, color, and national origin. The history, institutions and citizens of all nations are fairly represented.... Defamatory statements or derogatory references expressed or implied, toward an individual, nationality, race, group, trade, profession, industry, or institution are not permitted.

NBC moved to implement its new posture in January 1952, when Jackie Robinson was appointed director of community activities at WNBC, the network's key station in New York City. The network also instituted a policy of "integration without identification" in its programming. This meant the regular use of black talent in non-racial roles, an example being Meredith Howard, who in her regular role in Pete Kelly's Blues neither played an African-American nor was she identified as one.

By the end of 1952, NBC officials were able to announce the results of their new policy: 1) a 200 percent increase in the use of black talent over the figure for 1951; 2) including musicians and members of performing groups, a total of 1,540 performances in radio by African-Americans.

The positive changes produced by new policies at NBC and other networks were partially the result of the education of American society by black and white critics of biased broadcasting. Just as surely, the changes were influenced by meaningful economic changes that emerged within African-American society. The development by the late 1940s of a sizable black consumer market made black society commercially attractive to radio. As early as October 1949, Sponsor Magazine editorialized about the forgotten fifteen million black consumers in America, urging radio business concerns to consider servicing them.

The burgeoning African-American market was especially important in New York City where several independent stations—among them, WLIB, WWRL, WNEW, and WMCA—were by 1950 locating their studios in Harlem and broadcasting as many as twenty-two hours each week of black-oriented programming. In the South, the new awareness of minority consumers was noticeable in the number of radio stations in which black businessmen owned stock. According to one study, until 1949 there were no stations in which shares were owned by blacks; but by 1954, there were several such stations in the South—these being WEDR (Birmingham), WDIA (Memphis), WNOE (New Orleans), WSOK (Nashville), WERD (Atlanta), and WBCO (Birmingham/Bessemer).

The development of black consumer potential was impressive to radio executives. In New York City by early 1952, for instance, a survey conducted by station WLIB called that potential a "billion dollar plus" market. This was made possible, in part, because the black population in New York City had risen 63.1 percent during the preceding decade. National figures, however, suggested that the economic strength of blacks was not localized. Between 1940 and the date of the WLIB survey, the average income of African-American families in the United States had tripled, compared to an increase of only 100 percent among the general population. Figures showed a high percentage of employable blacks were working, and high school and college enrollments were at record levels.

In this light, local stations moved rapidly to attract minority listeners. In New York City, this was noticeable in the new dimensions in programming being offered. WNEW presented Kitchen Kapers and a sports series aimed directly at black consumers. Station WLIB directed its efforts toward black political issues, offering such programs as The Negro World (a weekly news round-up), The Walter White Show (hosted by the national secretary of the NAACP), and The Editors Speak (a panel discussion series featuring editors of black newspapers). New talent like Nipsey Russell was brought into radio, and many established black stars, like Herb Jeffries and Juanita Hall, also emerged as radio personalities.

The competition for African-American listeners became so intense that WLIB in June 1954 was broadcasting sixty-eight hours of black-oriented programs weekly. While in 1943 only four stations throughout the country were programming specifically for blacks, ten years later 260 stations were attracting national and local sponsors to their broadcasts aimed specifically at African-American audiences. And throughout the country many stations that traditionally had been directed toward white consumers now switched their formats and became all-black outlets. Among these stations were WMRY (New Orleans) in 1950, WEFC (Miami) in 1952, WCIN (Cincinnati) in 1953, and WNJR (Newark/New York City) in 1954.

By early 1954, radio executives were estimating the black marketplace to be worth $515 billion. Even network stations were attracted to this resource and by the mid-1950s had developed black announcers—such as Wallace Roy at KNBC (San Francisco) and William H. Luke at KECA (Los Angeles), an ABC outlet—as well as new programming, and technical assistants. In March 1955, for instance, when ABC introduced its first all-black network series, Rhythm & Blues on Parade, it not only had a black host, Willie Bryant, introducing black acts and conducting interviews, but, Variety reported, the network converted one of its TV cameramen into an audio engineer in order to keep the program totally black.

Black entrepreneurs also tried to appeal to the new consumer demands. In January 1954, the National Negro Network commenced its service to radio with the premier of The Story of Ruby Valentine, a soap opera starring Juanita Hall and sponsored by Pet Milk and Phillip Morris. This network also set up several other short-lived series, including It's a Mystery, Man, featuring Cab Calloway; The Life of Anna Lewis, starring Hilda Simms; and it planned for a fourth serial to star Ethel Waters.

Two other companies were formed at this time also seeking to appeal to African-Americans. Negro Radio Stories planned to introduce four new all-black soap operas: My Man, Ada Grant's Neighbors, The Romance of Julia Davis, and Rebeccah Turner's Front Porch Stories. And Broadcast Productions, a Chicago-based organization, sought to have Jesse Owens host a radio series.

Clearly, blacks had experienced by 1955 a tremendous alteration in their relationship to American radio. The combination of liberal politics, a declining radio audience, and the lure of the multi-billion dollar black economy after World War 11 had produced a significant change of attitude on all levels of broadcasting. Yet, in terms of program impact the most significant development was the appearance in the mid-1950s of rhythm and blues as a national musical phenomenon relying upon radio for its mass dissemination through scores of radio disk jockeys.

Rhythm and blues was nothing more than the most recent emergence of race music—the name applied since the 1920s to the blues and jazz recordings performed by, and produced for, black consumers—that had developed following the war. The music was based primarily upon blues structures, offering simple variations and interpretations. Yet, the emotionalism of the music, in terms of the pulsing rhythms and the manner in which singers and instrumentalists performed it, proved irresistible with younger black listeners and soon with a generation of white urban youth.

The importance of rhythm and blues music on radio was that it was heard by integrated audiences. While the increase in black programming was impressive in the 1950s, it still represented segregated radio. Black radio was a form of exclusion of African-Americans from the mainstream of American popular culture. But rhythm and blues was a black-and-white enterprise. Until white singers began to copy their hit recordings, all rhythm and blues artists were blacks, and their records were primarily distributed in African-American communities. The small independent companies for which most recorded, however, were owned primarily by whites. And white teenagers who purchased these records helped to change the course of American cultural and social development.

Between 1948 and 1955, dozens of radio stations in the metropolitan areas of the United States developed a new breed of disk jockey to play and promote this new black music. Typical of the new breed was Hunter Hancock on KFVD (Los Angeles) who aired the records, answered requests, read the commercials, and carried on a running conversation with his audience, all in an animated, fast-paced, and informal manner.

In a similar fashion, by the 1950s rhythm and blues music was being purveyed by "deejays" like Phil "Dr. Jive" Gordon on WLIB and WWRL; Al Benson on WAAF, WGES, and WJJD (all Chicago); Zenas "Daddy" Sears on WOK (Atlanta); Alan Freed on WJW (Cleveland) and later WINS (New York City). The music they broadcast—until in the second half of the decade it was toned down, generally performed by white entertainers, and renamed "rock and roll"—was the first consistent glimpse of black culture that many white youngsters had ever experienced. Even after the more commercialized rock and roll music appeared on radio, listeners could not escape the fact that the new popular music was a product of African-American society.

This was a crucial development for it occurred simultaneously with the first victories of black civic leaders in their fight against school segregation and racial injustice. Legal achievements, such as the case of Brown versus the Board of Education in which the Supreme Court struck down the notion of separate-but-equal education, and the use of federal troops to insure the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, would have been milestones in the history of the civil rights struggle in America. But coming as they did during the radio-produced era of rhythm and blues and rock and roll, they were received by young people with more understanding than might have been expected. As early as 1955, Howard Lewis, a promoter of teenage dances throughout the Southwest, reported that rhythm and blues "has become a potent force in breaking down racial barriers."

Through the new black music that was introduced almost totally through radio, a generation of white youngsters, protected from black realities by a tradition of segregation and bigotry, learned to appreciate African-American attitudes and realities. Dancing, working, relaxing, and singing to rhythm and blues, white listeners of radio in the 1950s came to know better than their parents the illogical nature of racism. Within a few years it would be this generation that would join with youthful blacks to form the idealistic vanguard of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

By the 1960s, with the diminishing importance of radio in American society, the issue of blacks in the popular arts shifted to television. Yet, during the course of the three decades since 1930, important achievements in equality had occurred in radio. There remained many areas from which blacks were excluded in broadcasting. But relative to the rank stereotyping and the obvious discrimination that abounded in early radio, the patterns of prejudice by 1960 were not debilitating to black talent. Also, by the latter date the weight of federal law was being applied throughout the society to effect equitable treatment of African-Americans. That law would become a strong weapon for change within radio and television.

The posture of blacks in radio—be it the image of blacks, the issue of race discrimination, or the employment picture for actors and technicians—improved throughout the postwar period. By the early 1950s, however, success was actually leading to segregation in broadcasting as all-black programs and stations lost sight of the more idealistic integrated possibilities. Yet, with the emergence of black music through rhythm and blues and, eventually, rock and roll, a healthier balance was achieved.

Certainly, there was a need for all-black programming, just as there was a demand for other ethnic groups to have their own broadcasts. The problem was to prevent such esoteric broadcasting from becoming irretrievably segregated. But by 1960, the potential for a balance between integrated and all-black programming, free from the open bigotry of the past, had been achieved in radio.

 

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