Destination: Radio, A Look at Some of Chicago’s African-American Radio Pioneers, Pt. 1

Originally published in The Nostalgia Digest, Winter, 2013

Few cities have a history as intertwined with early radio as Chicago. Such legendary stations as WMAQ, WLS, and WGN all date to the early 1920s and the city’s stations were second only to those of New York in producing original broadcast dramas during the 1930s. Less well known is the contribution that African Americans made to the city’s broadcasting scene as writers, producers, actors and newsmen. In addition to the countless musicians who filled Chicago’s airwaves with legendary jazz tunes nearly from the beginning of the era of commercial radio, the city could boast of a number of dramatic, variety, news, and talent programs through the 1930s and 1940s aimed at a black audience.

Black Chicagoans, in fact, were on the air even before commercial radio emerged after 1920, communicating with Morse code over the airwaves as professional and amateur operators. History may never reveal the very first Chicago-area African American wireless (as radio was referred to then) user, but Harry Daily must be among the earliest. Daily honed his radio skills while serving in the navy and then in 1914, after multiple rejections for government radio jobs due to his race, he applied successfully for a wireless job with the Red Star Line. Daily was subsequently denied the position when he showed up for work and the Atlantic liner discovered he was black, a fact which had not been clarified on the job application.

Another early operator who broadcast as an amateur and not a professional like Daily was 17-year-old Robert Crawford. While a student at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago he built a fully functioning wireless station which included a homemade transmitter, receiver, and telegraph key. In 1916 he was identified as the only black member of the local Wireless Club.

Chicago’s first black broadcaster of the post-1920 commercial era was Jack Cooper, widely regarded as the dean of African American radio professionals. Considered the first African American to make a career in the radio industry, Cooper spent most of his years on the airwaves creating and promoting radio content aimed at black listeners for their enjoyment and edification. After a short job with Washington, D.C.’s WCAE Cooper returned to Chicago where he debuted The All-Negro Hour over WGBS on November 3, 1929. Drawing on his years in vaudeville, Cooper created one of the first black-oriented entertainment programs for the medium. Audiences approved and the series ran weekly until 1935.

Building on the success of The All-Negro Hour, Cooper began creating additional shows by 1933. His formula was so successful that by 1935 Cooper was responsible for the content of 1/6th of WGBS’ broadcasting time. Nevertheless, Cooper biographer Mark Newman emphasizes that the would-be radio mogul struggled for years to get programmed on the station’s prime time hours. He was consistently relegated to late night and weekend slots. Among his numerous creations in addition to The All-Negro Hour during the early to mid-1930s were The Colored Children’s Hour, The Defender Newsreel, Midnite Accomodation, Timely Tunes, Midnite Ramble, and Nite in Harlem.

Cooper managed to produce so much programming by using prerecorded music instead of live performers, a gimmick he didn’t originate but one that he eventually used to his immense benefit. As early as 1931 he came to the realization that playing so-called race records (which were exempt from the ASCAP ban on playing such recordings) was considerably cheaper than paying live talent. The format was so successful that even his flagship show, The All-Negro Hour, cut most of its live singing, skits, and serials (only “Horseradish and Fertilizer” lived on).

Despite Jack Cooper’s apparent success as measured by airtime, financial security was elusive as long as he was blocked out of the best broadcasting times. In 1938, fourteen years after his first radio work and celebrating his 50th birthday, Cooper finally caught a break and had the opportunity to buy mid-afternoon time on WSBC and WHFC. He immediately programmed some new disc jockey shows called Rug Cutter’s Special, Gloom Chasers, and Jump, Jive, and Jam.

In June, 1947 he debuted Wardrobe Derby on WAAF sponsored by National Credit Clothiers. Participants competed for items of clothing including a complete wardrobe for the grand prize winner. He had two other shows at the time including Jivin’ With Jack, a daily record program. That year, according to Newman, represented the highpoint of Cooper’s radio enterprise whereupon he was weekly selling 40 hours of air time across four stations. Between 1946 and 1952 he produced Listen Chicago over WAAF, a public affairs program focused on topics of interest to black listeners. Other series created by Cooper over the years included Bible Time, Know Your Bible, Song of Zion, Songs By Request, Tomp Time, Evening Heat Wave, and Tips and Tunes with Trudy. Your Legal Rights offered legal advice to listeners. Another show, Missing Persons, claimed to have helped reunite thousands of black families separated during the migrations of the early 20th century. It took two decades but his tireless work paid off and in the final years of his career Cooper enjoyed a new level of financial prosperity, pulling in a reported $200,000 per year.

Though not known to have appeared on any of Jack Cooper’s programs, James Mitchell is recognized as one of the very few black child actors during this era. While a student at Chicago’s Dunbar Junior High School he used his radio paycheck to support his family during the mid-1930s. Mitchell made his broadcast debut on Uncle Quin’s Day Dreamers in January, 1933, as the character Wishbone. A group of children (all white except Mitchell) would make a wish on Wishbone’s magic wishbone and were then whisked anywhere they wanted to go. The program was aimed at children and featured historical stories while being aired from Chicago’s WGN.