The Radio Career of Carlton Moss, pt. 2

Perhaps the first black-centric radio series that didn’t consist entirely of music was the Pittsburgh Courier Radio Hour heard over WGBS, New York, beginning in November 1927. Hosted by the Courier’s New York writer Floyd Calvin, it was an hour of musical performances surrounding a ten-minute talk on a topic of African-American interest. The Courier Hour began as a monthly broadcast and eventually received a weekly slot after moving to another New York station, WCGU, in early 1928 where it was renamed the Floyd Calvin Program (or Hour). Two months after the unveiling of the Courier’s hour, The Negro Achievement Hour broadcast debuted over WABC (also New York City) on January 26, 1928. It too was a mix of music and presentations on matters of interest to African-American listeners. Sponsored by various African-American businesses, topics included the history of black newspapers, the growth of Harlem, and black members of the Elks Fraternal Organization. A year later in 1929 The All Negro Hour, perhaps the most frequently cited example of early African-American radio, went on the air over WSBC in Chicago. The series was produced and hosted by Jack Cooper. Accounts describe it as a variety show with skits, interviews and plenty of musical numbers. This effort has earned Cooper recognition as the first African-American to make a career in radio; indeed, he was on the air for decades to come. The program did feature what may have been the first ongoing sketch performed by black actors, Luke and Timber. Basically a song-and-patter show, contemporary reviews indicate there was some degree of continuing storyline from performance to performance. Notably, none of these shows are known to have received network distribution.

In addition to The Floyd Calvin Hour, The Negro Achievement Hour, and The All Negro Hour, there were occasional one-shot broadcasts that were more than musical concerts. These included Ridgely Torrence’s play Rider of Dreams presented over WOR by the New Art Theatre, Harlem, and stage shows like the first successful all-black musical “Shuffle Along”. Still, these pioneering African-American series and one-shot broadcasts rarely offered dramatic fare that reflected a serious introspection of black life in America. The few dramas that were broadcast, such as Rider of Dreams, were not original creations for radio. The closest such feature was Amos ‘n’ Andy, the story of Harlem African-Americans as written and played by two white men. Amos ‘n’ Andy was a daily (except Sundays) program that debuted March 19, 1928, after a two-year run as Sam ‘n’ Henry. The merits of the program, which was alternately a comedy and drama, have been debated practically since its aural inauguration, and need not be reviewed here.

When a young black actor named Carlton Moss arrived in New York City sometime in the summer or early fall of 1929, there was little indication that he would become the first African-American dramatic writer for radio. The first record contemporary scholars have of Moss’ artistic inclinations are reviews of his theater work while a student at Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore. There he found notable success in theater productions during the late ’20s. The Baltimore Afro-American gave some ink to Morgan College’s dramatic productions, several of which featured producer-turned-actor Moss. Under the leadership of Randolph Edmunds, Moss played in the College’s productions of “The Goose Hangs High” and “Nothing But Truth,” both during the spring of 1928. By his last year of school Moss was the drama club’s vice-president and starred as the title character in “Aaron Boggs, Freshman” (fall 1928). During the spring of 1929 the Morgan troupe played in New York, performing three plays as a fundraiser: “The Man Who Died at 12 o’clock”, “The House of Shame,” and “Shirlock Bones.”

Sometime between finishing at Morgan College after the spring semester and October 1929, Moss returned to New York (having been raised in nearby Newark, New Jersey) where he got a job working with the Alhambra stock company. For the time being he continued to be referred to as “Ritz” Carlton Moss (presumably after the hotel), a moniker he’d acquired in college. Though details of these early days in New York have yet to be uncovered, within a year of his arrival the aspiring dramatist had worked his way into a radio gig. By May 1930, Moss was appearing on WEVD’s Intercollegiate Dramatics, a Sunday afternoon program. Unfortunately, radio listings from the era generally don’t include smaller stations like WEVD so it is virtually impossible to reconstruct a broadcast record for the show that would make clearer how long it ran and what its content may have been. This appears to be Moss’ first work in radio.

After toiling away in theater for a year upon arriving in New York and working the aforementioned stint on WEVD, Carlton Moss was hired by WEAF (NBC Red network’s New York City affiliate) to write, produce, and act on a weekly series entitled Careless Love, an all-black dramatic radio production. One of the very few contemporary accounts of the series during its earliest days claimed “the themes for the sketches were suggested by W. C. Handy’s ‘blues’ and Negro plantation life.” The title surely reflected the classic blues tune of the same name, the melody of which was used by Handy in his song “Loveless Love.”

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The Radio Career of Carlton Moss, pt. 1

Carlton Moss:

Radio’s First Black Dramatist

Originally published in the Old Radio Times, September/October, 2009.

 

The 1920s witnessed explosive growth in the American commercial radio industry. Within the decade the technology grew from the crude homemade apparatus of a small niche hobby group of amateur radio operators to a full-fledged industry that rivaled motion pictures for the American entertainment dollar. Stations proliferated across the country and fortunes were made many times over. NBC and CBS emerged as national networks bringing high quality performers into the living rooms of America. Radio’s first true hit, Amos ‘n’ Andy, debuted in 1928 and inaugurated a 30-year span in which comedy, drama, mystery, romance, and adventure programming would grace the airwaves before succumbing to the narrow diet of call-in talk shows, music, sports and news constitutes contemporary broadcasting in the United States.

Unfortunately, when African-American contributions to the first decade of the first true electronic mass medium are recounted, they are stunningly few, at least according to the radio history literature. These few recognized contributions were primarily musical broadcasts by popular African-American singers and jazz bands such as Ethyl Waters and Duke Ellington. There is no evidence so far to point to an African-American radio series that was not primarily musical in nature during the 1920s. Nevertheless, even this limited success with musical programs during the ’20s was more than black performers would experience on the air for two decades to come. Radio historians J. Fred MacDonald and William Barlow attribute the closing of this brief window of success to the increasing dominance of two networks by decade’s end, the Depression’s toll on black entertainment ventures, and the power of white musicians unions. These three factors would virtually shut African-Americans out of the radio industry during the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

Before the rise of networks in the late 1920s, radio was fragmented, with stations focusing primarily on local audiences. This allowed increased opportunities for black performers because more local programming was aimed at black audiences, especially in urban markets. As more stations joined the major networks, NBC (owner of two networks, the so-called Red network and Blue network) and CBS, content had to be increasingly aimed at the largest possible audience to maximize benefit for the national sponsor, and that meant appealing as much as possible to middle class whites who made up the vast majority of the radio audience at the time.

From the late ’20s to mid-’30s NBC and CBS seized control of 97% of nighttime broadcasting. It was a whiteout: neither network was interested in hiring African-Americans in any capacity other than performer, and even those instances were rare. That none of the networks’ affiliates had black ownership only exacerbated the situation. Further detrimental to black programming was a low rate of radio-set ownership by African-Americans, about 14% in urban areas compared to 56% of whites in similar areas.

Advertisers naturally wanted to stay clear of scandal at any cost lest it cost them sales. Therefore, they actively avoided sponsoring any content that might raise the spectre of race. To avoid offending the Southern audience advertisers minimized the black presence and ensured what presence there was was appropriately servile and inoffensive.

Larger macro-economic forces were working against African-American performers through the onset of the Great Depression, as well. A strong base of black talent developed during the teens and twenties through the black recording studios and Theatre Owners’ Booking Association (a black vaudeville circuit) supplied a strong professional class of black musicians and actors across the country. Both of these industries were devastated by the nation’s economic woes and virtually disappeared by the thirties, depleting the pipeline of first-rate talent available to radio.

A third roadblock to African-American participation in radio was their white co-workers. Since much of radio’s content during the 1920s was live music, this offered an ideal opening for black musicians. Indeed, some, including Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, and Louis Armstrong, were prominent staples of the broadcast schedule. But beyond the headliners it was difficult for blacks to make inroads on the music programs. Many of the early radio bands were made up of members of the American Federation of Musicians that did not encourage African-American membership. Since union musicians booked most of the major hotels and theaters (from where many musical broadcasts originated), they increased their presence with radio as it grew and effectively blocked entrance to this area of radio to blacks.

The extent of local black-oriented programming aired during the 1920s may never be fully realized due to the paucity of surviving documentation from radio’s first decade. While most published accounts of African-Americans in radio begin with the handful of black actors and actresses in the 1930s and the disc jockeys and few black dramatic series of the 1940s, at least three black variety programs were on the air between 1927 and 1929. Though consisting mostly of music, there was additional content that differentiated them from the black jazz performances found across the radio spectrum.

KMBC 1929

Here are some artists’ pictures from Kansas City’s KMBC ca. 1929.

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George C. Biggar, program director and announcer.

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The Side-By-Side Harmonizers.

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Jock, the Wee Scotchmen, dialectician.

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Luther “Arkansas Woodchopper” Ossenbrink (March 2, 1906 – June 23, 1981), Western/country/hillbilly performer who went on to a long career on Chicago’s WLS and records.

KMBC 1928

One of my most passionate radio history interests is Kansas City’s KMBC. I’ve written a number of articles and presented on several KMBC performers, productions, and personalities. Eventually some of that research will be reprinted here at Wistful Vistas. For now, however, here are two artist photos from 1928 about whom I actually know nothing at this point. They were not with the station by 1930 or so when the bulk of my research begins.

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