“Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was” is the story of radio’s role in the 20th-century transformation of the African American community. The series reveals the remarkable correlation between Black radio programming and African American culture milestones through interviews, historical airchecks, comedy, drama, and music. It explores radio during the great migration of Blacks from the South, trail-blazing Black DJs and stations, and Black radio during the Civil Rights movement.
The series first aired in 1996 as 13 half-hour specials produced by Radio Smithsonian. That same year Black Radio and its producers were recognized with several prestigious awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award for Significant & Meritorious Achievement, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, and New York Festival’s International Programming Gold Award for Best Documentary Series And Best Series Narration.
When production was complete, Senior Producer Jacquie Gales Webb donated materials to the Archive of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University. The collection of over 400 hours of interviews, archival audio, articles, and transcripts is still available to researchers. It was also Jacquie — and original episode producer Sonja Williams — who approached PRX with the idea to bring new life into the series for 2021. Though 25 years have passed, Black Radio’s existence as historical documentation of African American and American radio is as important as ever, offering today’s listeners first-person anecdotes from radio pioneers that have since passed on.
Our producers transformed Black Radio’s 13 parts into six newshole compatible hours and bonus drop-ins to fit with present-day radio formats. Original host Lou Rawls guides us with new narration from Jacquie through the otherwise untouched 25th Anniversary edition “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was.” PRX talked with the original producers Jacquie Gales Webb, Sonja Williams, and Lex Gillespie about the significance of the project and to the PRX producers Genevieve Sponsler and Se’era Spragley Ricks about bringing it into 2021.
This series is being offered free to all public radio stations.
Why was now the right time to bring this story back?
Sonja Williams: For a little more than 20 years, the Smithsonian Institution’s “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was” series has been sitting on a shelf, safely archived but primarily only accessible to researchers interested in this historical resource. When this project got underway in earnest in 1994, our goal was to document the expansive Black radio experience and make it available as widely as possible. Thankfully, that happened since more than 300 public radio stations nationwide aired the series throughout 1996.
Twenty-five years is a quarter-of-a-century milestone, and much of the information contained in the series is still relevant today. What better time to rerelease the gems contained in Black Radio?
Lex Gillespie: We need to hear stories that appeal to our better angels. These last few years are a sad reminder that racism remains a big part of the American experience. Our radio series told the mostly untold stories of African American pioneers who fought to have their voices heard in a media that historically excluded them. We can’t hear stories like this enough.
Jacquie Gales Webb: After 25 years, it is an excellent time to bring the series back. I am extremely thankful that we were able to preserve the stories, voices, and memories of many giants of radio who are no longer with us. It will always be the right time to tell their stories and honor their contributions.
The original broadcast aired on hundreds of radio stations all over the country. What gives this piece such expansive appeal?
Sonja Williams: At a basic level, the Black Radio production team was fortunate in that Senior Producer Jacquie Gales Webb conceived of and secured the necessary funding for this project. The series would not have existed without her vision, fundraising abilities, and managerial skills. It was no easy task to create what, in 1996, was a series of 13 half-hour documentary radio programs spanning 70 years of American and African American broadcast and cultural history.
The project came together during a time when many of our featured interviewees were still alive. Had we attempted to undertake such a project today, we would not have been able to personally sit down and interact with several Black men and women radio pioneers because in the years since the mid-1990s, several of them, including our series host Lou Rawls, have passed on — and their insights could have well been lost. Additionally, our small research team was able to track down archival tapes and airchecks of radio personalities or programs that were already part of history.
Conceiving and executing a historical series like Black Radio required intense forethought, funding, and nationwide research footwork, along with an untold number of hours (and months) of listening, editing, writing, rewriting, and studio recording and mixing sessions.
Vison and teamwork were the key. There would have been no Black Radio series without it.
Jacquie Gales Webb: “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was” has a timeless personality. People are drawn to the stories and the people who are telling them.
How is this rebroadcast different from the original piece in 1996?
Se’era Spragley Ricks and Genevieve Sponsler: The shows were originally released as 13 half-hours from Radio Smithsonian. Since public radio stations find it easier to air hour-long programs these days, we made six hours out of 12 of the original half-hours, and the original 13th half-hour became shorter pieces for stations to drop into other programs.
Other than being combined into hours, the programs are largely the same as they were in ’96. We have new intros by Jacquie Gales Webb, original executive producer, to give context to what listeners are hearing since the host, Lou Rawls, is no longer with us.
What is your favorite moment of the series?
Sonja Williams: There were way too many favorite moments for me to pinpoint one. However, two of my favorite shows of the five I wrote and produced were “Pride and Enlightenment” (in Hour One of the Smithsonian/PRX 25th Anniversary Black Radio series) and “A Woman’s Touch” (in Hour Four).
The research for “Pride and Enlightenment” introduced me to radio dramas of the 1940s I had never heard of before. One dramatic series, in particular, changed my life. The Chicago-based Destination Freedom (1948–50) series dramatized the lives of African American heroes and heroines during a time when few dignified representations of Black Americans existed on the radio. I soon discovered that the life of Richard Durham, who had created and wrote every episode of this weekly series, was as fascinating as his radio work. This fascination with Durham, the radio and TV dramatist, journalist, activist, and political strategist, propelled me to write his biography, published in 2015, as “Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom.”
And as a radio announcer, DJ, reporter, and producer, I have long been interested in the stories of the women who paved the way for those of us who skipped along in their footsteps. “A Woman’s Touch” was designed to shine a light on the role that women played in radio, both in front of the microphone as well as in the office — as station managers and owners. Interviewing trailblazing women and even my contemporaries who were holding court as movers and shakers at radio stations in the Midwest, the South, the Northeast, and the West Coast was inspiring.
Lex Gillespie: My favorite moment in the series occurred in another program I produced — on Memphis station WDIA, the first radio station in the nation with an all-African American, on-air staff. The station wasn’t owned by African Americans; that would come later. Nonetheless, it was a bold move in the segregated South of the late 1940s for its White owners to offer programming for an African-American audience. It never happened before. When the station went on the air for the first time with Nat D. Williams, there were fears of violence. But when Nat D. flipped on his microphone, there were no bombs going off; it was simply his trademark laugh that filled the airwaves. For the first time, Memphis listeners could hear a full roster of their own voices on the radio dial.
Jacquie Gales Webb: The series won many awards. Among them were the Alfred I. Dupont silver baton from Columbia University and the George Foster Peabody Award from the University of Georgia. I am proud of all of the awards, but the Peabody Award stands out for several reasons. Among them are my parents. My mother, Indiana Gales, was the maid, and my father, Wesley David Gales, was the chauffeur for an administrator at the University of Georgia before they left Athens to head to Harlem, New York, where I was born. They would have been proud to see their daughter honored by that particular university at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
Se’era Spragley Ricks: My favorite moment of the series is from Hour Four that dives into the integral role women played in the development of Black radio and the importance of Black people owning radio stations. As a young Black woman in a white-male dominated space, it’s important for me to hear and learn other women’s stories who opened the door for me in this industry.
Also, I love this episode because it speaks to the importance of Black people owning and taking agency of our voices and stories. Stories like this one and others are important but very seldom do we have spaces to create and share the stories that are authentic to us. The latter part of Hour Four speaks to that importance.
What did you want people to take away from the piece when it first aired compared to what you want people to take away from it now?
Jacquie Gales Webb: In 1996, I wanted listeners to learn and be moved by the history and inspired by the stories. In 2021, I want the same.
What impact have you seen the piece have since its original airing?
Jacquie Gales Webb: I am so thankful to Indiana University’s Archives of African American Music and Culture for preserving the material and making it accessible to researchers, authors, and interested enthusiasts. Books and essays have quoted the material, and I hope that more people will explore the work. Yes, digital use is growing today, but radio is still vitally important to many communities who still rely on it as their lifeline to information and culture. The type of content that was inspired by the early days of radio continues to serve communities online and digitally. Content and talent will always be king.
Do you have any tips for radio producers to create timeless pieces?
Sonja Williams: Stay curious, conduct as much in-depth early research as possible — and listen. Fascinating stories are everywhere if you’re open to hearing them. And many of those stories may be evergreen and timeless.
Lex Gillespie: I like the democracy of radio. You can tell stories from the perspective of ordinary people, at the grassroots, from the “bottom-up,” as opposed to the “top-down.” I try to tell a small story that, in fact, tells a much bigger one. It’s important to think about context — to see how the story you tell fits into the broad sweep of history.
Jacquie Gales Webb: No. Only this. When you are passionate about a topic or a story, don’t try to shape it. Let it flow through you. Inspired work will always be timeless.