Bill Barlow

Discussing The Early Days of Black Radio

Listen: Barlow's Full Remarks

Listen: Excerpt 1: Barlow on Two Pioneer Black DJs

Listen: Excerpt 2: More on Al Benson and His Role in Chicago

Listen: Excerpt 3: The Payola Scandal

Listen: Excerpt 4: Rufus Thomas Doing an Ad for Wine.

Listen: Excerpt 5: More about Advertisers and the Black Community

Dr. William Barlow is author of "Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture" and "Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio," (Temple University Press), among other books. He serves as a Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at Howard University, teaching courses in radio production, history of broadcasting and film, African Americans in broadcasting and the recording industry. Dr. Barlow also hosts a music show, Don't Forget the Blues, on Pacifica's WPFW in Washington, DC.

William Allen Taylor interviewed Dr. Barlow for the Lost and Found Sound story Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins, to find out more about the father he never knew.


Discovering the Black Market

"I think that, first and foremost, you have to look at what was going on in terms of the radio industry. The radio industry was going through significant changes after World War II, when the networks switched over to television. That left radio stations without their major source of programming, without their major source of advertising, and also without their audiences. And it made radio into a local phenomenon again. It had been a local phenomenon in the '20s until the rise of the networks; after World War II it became a local phenomenon again. And the stations, in the various markets, began to look around for an alternative source of programming, and an alternative listener base.

"Lo and behold, in many cities, both in the North and the South - although it tended to play out a little different in those two regions - they began to discover the so-called 'Negro market'… In these urban areas, African Americans represented fifteen to forty-five percent of the population.

"One of the more prominent success stories was a station in Memphis, WDIA. It tried a classical format; there was another classical station in town; it didn't do too well against that. They tried a country sort of format; there were a couple of other country stations in town; it didn't do too well there. They were in the red; they were about ready to have to sell the station, and as sort of a desperation move, they tried a black program. It was an overnight success. They went to an entire black format, and the station, within a year, was the number one station on the market. This happened all over the North and the South, with DJs coming on the air, and, after they became successful, entire stations beginning to format for black audiences."

The DJs and Their Divergent Styles — Al Benson and Jack Cooper

"Like your father, Al Benson promoted shows and MC'd rhythm & blues shows at clubs and theaters in Chicago; he also even had his own blues record label there for a couple of years. And also like your father, he worked on what were called 'ethnic stations'; these were stations where the time was brokered so that a person like Benson would go in and buy three hours of time a day, and then it was up to him to go out and solicit the advertising that would make money for him in terms of doing the show. And Benson got so proficient at this that he would even have to hire what were called 'satellite DJs' to do some of his shows because he couldn't spread himself all around.

"Your father went on the air in '49. In my research, I found two other rhymers, who went on the air in '48, one in Chicago whose air name was Daddy-O Daylie. He had been a bartender, and was known on the south side as the 'rhyming bartender.' A lot of celebrities like Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens would hang out there and he'd mix up their drinks while he was rhyming about different people and different events going on. And somebody, a record executive, heard him and said, 'I want to sponsor a radio show for you.'

"Then there was another guy, Levada Durst, in Austin, Texas. He was a sports announcer for the Austin Negro Baseball League team, and he would rhyme up his sports announcing. He was heard by John Connally, who at the time was an owner of an AM radio station in Austin, and later went on to be governor of Texas. Connally was so amused by his rhyming that he gave him an R&B show on the station, even though he was the first black on the station, and he said the other white DJs reacted with consternation when he went on the air.

"Those were the first rhyming DJs I had heard about. But by, as you said, '49, '50, '51, it seemed like everybody was rhyming. So it spread very quickly. And obviously it came out of the black community; there was this old tradition of rhyming and signifying that goes back to slavery, and certainly that is one of the things that we see in terms of that propensity for rhyming and signifying on black radio. Of course, they had to take out all the scatological references when they were rhyming on the airwaves - but you still have that oral tradition feeding into black radio."

We were the mayors

"Your father was the black radio personality in Cleveland in the late '40s into the '50s, and certainly would have been known and recognized by black people in Cleveland because of that. As Martha Jean 'the Queen' Steinberg back in Detroit said, 'We were the mayors back then… We were the people that got the information out to the black community about what was happening. We were always out' - you mention your father out at the political rallies - 'doing the charity, helping raise money for the schools, and things of that nature. We were even mediating any kinds of racial conflicts that arose in local cities.' The mayor, the chiefs of police, would call people like Martha Jean if there was some kind of problem. So these people were very well known, were very popular, and were very important during that particular period of time when they first were on the airwaves, and were seen as civic and community leaders."

Listen to more on Al Benson and his role in the Chicago black community. 14.4 or 28.8.

The Payola Scandal — Paying for Airplay

"Back in that era [the 1940s and '50s], the disc jockeys still controlled their own playlists. And so if you were coming into Cleveland, and you wanted people in town to get out there and buy your latest record, then you needed to make sure you got in touch with Bill Hawkins, and get him to do an interview with you on the radio, and play your records - for some sort of compensation. Now, back then, payola, as it was called, was not illegal. It was perfectly legal for a record company to come in and pay a DJ for playing their music on the air. DJs in general were pretty underpaid in the early days, and black DJs even more so. So in order to be able to work full time in radio, it was inevitable that you had to take payola."

Post-Payola Radio

"What [the scandal] led to in the industry was the emergence of the Top 40 format. Now, many of the radio station owners saw Top 40 and proclaimed it as the cure to payola, because on Top 40, everything was done 'scientifically' on the Billboard ratings. But what it really did is it just redirected the payola from the DJs back into the hands of the station owners and the program directors. In fact, the guy that created Top 40 - a guy by the name of Todd Stolz -said it was just an inspiration, but many of his colleagues say he came up with it because he was trying to figure out a way to get the payola into his coffers rather than the pockets of the DJs. And he figured out that the way to do that was to regain control over the playlists."

Advertising on Black Radio

"In 1949, a magazine called the Sponsor, which was a major radio and television trade magazine in the late '40s up through the early '60s, wrote an article called 'The Forgotten 15,000,000,' which basically talked about how radio had primarily ignored the black listener and also the black consumer up until that point in time. And it talked about some of the changes that were beginning to take place at that particular period in 1949, when this whole new 'Negro appeal radio' began to open up, both in the North and in the South. "The first concern [of the advertisers] was whether their products would become black-identified. That was some of the first stuff that came up in the discussions in the Sponsor in 1949 and 1950. But by 1952 and '53, they were talking about what a great conspicuous consumer the black radio audience was - that they really went after the brand-name products. And so this whole fear about becoming black-identified had totally gone by the wayside." "Initially, of course, it was the local advertisers who took advantage of black-appeal stations. But by the mid-'50s, even the national advertisers were seeing that there was a lot of money to be made here, and were getting in on it. And you even see national advertisers, with people like Al Benson, back in the late '40s and early '50s. So in some markets, their power was recognized earlier."

Related NPR Stories



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from