Dr. Roosevelt Rubin “Rick” Wright, Jr.
Roosevelt “Rick” Wright, Jr. is a professor in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where he teaches courses in radio and television announcing and performance, radio and television commercial and continuity writing, and radio station operations, management, programming, engineering, and finance. Before joining the Syracuse faculty in 1975, he was an adjunct professor of radio, television, and film at Howard University, assistant professor of educational media, radio and television at North Carolina Central University, director of educational media at Delaware State University, and instructor of educational media and associate director of the audiovisual center at Elizabeth City State University.
William Allen Taylor interviewed Dr. Wright for the Lost and Found Sound story "Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins," to find out more about the father he never knew.
THE RISE OF BLACK PROGRAMMING
Financial Potential of Black Radio
“In the late 1940s and early 50s, television assumed the format of radio. What I’m talking about is radio, which was network radio, with various programs like the Lone Ranger and soap operas and big musical variety shows and dramatic shows like Gang Busters and others — these were all moved to the arena of television. Everybody figured that radio was gonna die, and die a real quick death. And of course all of the money that radio had made went into the development of television. So radio really needed to find a new way and a new direction to go in regards to format and presentational styles. And historically we had a sociological revolution happening — i.e. music — and also a technological revolution happening — i.e. the thirty-three-and-a-third LP, the 45 RP record, and of course the 78s were already around — and coming out of WWII we electronically had better equipment.
“Radio had to find a new direction, and of course that new direction was the use of disc jockeys, people like Martin Block, ‘Make-Believe Ballroom,’ laid some of that foundation. So here we have a scenario now where records and DJs could provide an inexpensive programming approach for radio. So we have disc jockeys. Also coming into this evolution is the fact that everybody realizes that — ‘wow, let’s develop some other kinds of programming formats,’ and here we have the development of R & B, rhythm and blues formats, and stations like WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee, which was really the first full-time program black radio station.”
The Distinct Black Radio Style
“In the original ‘golden sixteen’ original African-American announcers, due to racism and all of the problems sociologically that we were running into in the United States at that particular time, these jocks really tried to sound colorless. In fact, Hal Jackson, who now works at WBLS in New York City, often talks about when he was in his first days in Washington DC back in the 1940s and everybody thought that he was white. So really what I’m getting at is that in order to handle the opportunity of being on-air, those early announcers were coming out of a school of thought of black announcers that sounded white; but of course, they had the opportunity to play African-American music and all kinds of music.
“But of course when the explosion occurred of realizing that ‘hey, we need to go with all-black radio stations cause there’s gold in them cotton fields,’ then of course, the evolution of the black announcer that was very personality-oriented exploded, and we find that kind of a jock like ‘Daddy-O With the Patty-O’ at Triple-A, WAAA in Winston-Salem North Carolina, or we think about people like Georgie Woods, ‘the Guy with the Goods,’ at WDAS in Philadelphia, or we think about E. Rodney Jones at WVON in Chicago. By the way, Sly, of the Family Stone, was a disc jockey at KDIA out there in Oakland, California — which exemplified the African-American jock, with personality and rhythmic patterns, and a very colorful, dynamic show.”
“What normally took place with many of the early pioneering announcers is that they did gospel first, and then made a move to what they called a blues or an R & B show, featuring the latest R & B artists of the era.
“But your father, Walking Talking Bill Hawkins, and people like Mr. Norflee Whitit, who was the first brother, African-American announcer in the South, were already in radio, and they were working at stations that were basically white program radio stations, but as a black disc jockey — and as a jock on the air doing an incredible style that just absolutely tore up the airwaves. So your father is in that particular kind of arena in the early development of what we call formula radio, and the use of disc jockeys and records. He was, of course, laying the foundation of what eventually became rhythm and blues, and all urban contemporary radio stations.”
The First DJ: Jack Cooper
“Mr. Jack L. Cooper really laid the foundation, as an African-American on-air. In fact, I think your father mentions the fact that he first heard Mr. Jack L. Cooper out of Chicago in his Pullman railroad days, and said that he was really fascinating.”
“Moon Dog”: Alan Freed
“The person who introduced your dad to me, through the historical archives, was the late great Jack Holmes, who was the morning announcer at WRAP radio in Norfolk, Virginia. Jack Holmes was a real historian. He always told me about some of the greats in the business of radio, especially those African-American announcers — and he talked a lot about your father, Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins, and people like Hal Jackson. And he talked about Jack L. Cooper, and also Jack the Rapper.
“But one of the key things that my early mentors told me about your father, is that he laid the entire legacy for a person who did get rich — I’m talking about ‘Moon Dog,’ Alan Freed, who was given credit for coining the term ‘Rock n’ Roll.’ But Alan Freed was in Cleveland Ohio, and technically learned everything about radio — his style and techniques — from your father.
“Alan Freed was going to record stores looking for R & B music. And I’m sure that a record store that he walked up to was Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins’ store. And of course, after listening to his style, then he goes over to his station and becomes one of the giants of radio today. And basically Alan Freed’s style is your father’s.”
“I’m really heartbroken with many of the directions that radio has taken here in the 1990s, as we get ready to go into the year 2000. Radio is still the most highly efficient but most inexpensive tool of mass communications to communicate with people. It is mobile, and radio’s ability to localize — I repeat, radio’s ability to localize — is its greatest attribute; that is, a disc jockey that is local, that knows the community on-air, and that is using radio and its formats to entertain, inform, and educate. That is the way it should go. But now we find in monopolies, where one group might own seven or eight stations in one town, and they bring a lot of stuff off of the satellite, and are using technology to make the station sound as if it is local — that is not radio broadcasting. I think we got a situation where we have technology leading the process today, and it should be just the reverse: we broadcasters have to lead the technology. Your father, and the African-American announcers — that’s what really was great about the African-American announcers in the early pioneering days of radio — they had that real sense of community.”
“Jack the Rapper, Jolly Jack, worked at WERD, which was the first black-owned radio station in America — that was in Atlanta, Georgia. And in fact, WERD was in the same building as the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, which was headed up by Dr. Martin Luther King. Jack the Rapper used to tell me that while on-air, they would basically talk to the audience and give them instructions on what to do, and where to go, and how to do it, and what not to do.
“Of course, on-air, the influence of your father and African-American announcers that were working in black radio was just absolutely incredible — because usually in a town, there were not a lot, there was just one or two, and of course they had the ability to basically say to an audience, ‘Stay away from ABC furniture store. Furniture’s bad there. But I got a better place for you…’ which might be another competing business, and they would give out the commercial for that business.
“Of course with the magnetism and incredible personality of your father, people wanted to meet him, people wanted to see him — and I’m sure if he drove around Cleveland, he probably could drive right up to a filling station and get his gas free of charge, because he was a very popular disc jockey.”