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.