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.

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Play-Ask-It-Ball: Army vs. Navy on the Air, Pt. 2

Originally published in the Radio Listeners Lyceum, 2013.

            Play-Ask-It-Ball premiered on WGN on Saturday, May 3, 1941, at 7:00 in front of an enthusiastic live audience of over 1,500 sailors in the drill hall at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in North Chicago. During the debut broadcast the sailors managed four runs during the half-hour program.

Standings: Navy 4, Army 0

For the second show the WGN crew traveled to Fort Sheridan, just north of Chicago, for the 7:00 broadcast. Again an estimated 1,500 servicemen packed into a gymnasium to see five fellow soldiers compete in the contest. The team proved more than capable, tripling up the number of runs scored by the previous week’s team with twelve, giving the Army an eight run lead in the standings. After the quiz portion had ended Brig. Gen. John L. Homer, commandant at Fort Sheridan, spoke to listeners.

Standings: Navy 4, Army 12

The third episode aired May 17 from the Naval Reserve Aviation Training base at Glenview, IL. Following the quiz portion of the show Lieutentant-Commander R. K. Gaines, commanding officer of the aviation base, gave a short update to listeners on the base’s training activities. A prodigious output of scoring by the Navy men put them up by six runs over their Army counterparts.

Standings: Navy 18, Army 12

Episode four aired May 24 from Camp Grant, Rockford, IL. Camp Grant’s soldiers were up for the task and knocked in a whopping fourteen runs to leapfrog their Navy peers who had earned an impressive 18 runs in their first two outings. Notably, a female participant was chosen for the night’s broadcast and she proved her worth. Lieut. Dorothy Case, a nurse at the camp’s hospital and perhaps the series’ only female participant, went two for three on the night. Col. Joseph Hamilton Davidson, commanding officer, was the guest speaker at the end of the broadcast.

Standings: Navy 18, Army 26

The fifth broadcast was made from the only base outside the Chicago metropolitan area. For the May 31 show (originally scheduled for June 7), WGN’s team traveled all the way to Tullahoma, TN, where they set up at Camp Forrest to perform with members of the Illinois National Guard units. That evening the soldiers amassed a show-record eighteen runs during the half hour. Maj. Gen. Samuel T. Lawton, commanding officer of the 33rd division, discussed the role of the camp in national defense.

Standings: Navy 18, Army 44

Play-Ask-It-Ball: Army vs. Navy on the Air, pt. 1

Originally published in the Radio Listeners Lyceum, 2013.

            The radio quiz show was a staple of the airwaves during the 1940s and by the end of the decade the genre could claim enough listeners that Bert Park’s Stop the Music! is credited with knocking the number one show of the 1947-48 season, The Fred Allen Show, entirely out of the top 20 the next year. The earliest quiz program is unknown but John Dunning points to Professor Quiz in 1936, an assessment which Jim Cox, author of the authoritative guide to radio quiz and audience participation shows, does not dispute.

In 1941 staff at Chicago’s WGN developed a twist on the quiz show concept by pitting Naval seamen against Army soldiers. Though not yet engulfed in World War II, the eyes of America were warily watching Europe and East Asia erupting in war. The military services were gearing up in case the United States found itself dragged into the overseas conflicts and it seemed natural to bring the good-natured rivalry between service branches to the airwaves.

Whether Paul Fogarty originated the concept, he was called on to develop and act as producer of the new show, Play-Ask-It-Ball. Fogarty had been with WGN for over a decade, starting first as a writer and actor on local series such as Big Leaguers and Bushers and The Devil Bird in 1932. He had gradually been given more sports-related broadcasts and most of his responsibilities were off-mike by 1941.

The series would be broadcast from a number of military bases and at each location a five-person team would be chosen from audience members. They were brought up on a stage on which was laid out a replica of a baseball diamond. Despite its name, the game show was an adaptation of baseball, not basketball. Play-Ask-It-Ball required little physical movement; rather, hits and runs were earned not by athletic prowess but by correctly answering questions. Graded on four degrees of difficulty, questions from fifteen possible subjects could be worth either a singe, double, triple, or home run. Topics ranged from sports and movies to geography, the Army, and the Navy.

Jack Brickhouse, a Peoria, IL-born sports announcer was called upon to act as emcee and “pitch” questions to the participants. Brickhouse had arrived at WGN only the year before in 1940 primarily to serve as announcer for Cubs and White Sox baseball games. Jess Kirkpatrick, a local actor who went on to a long career first in radio and then in television, handled the new program’s announcing duties. He umpired the games and called all the plays.

Contestants were moved around the diamond as teammates answered additional questions correctly. A question assigned the difficulty of a single was worth one dollar to the answerer. A double earned the player two dollars, a triple three dollars, and a home run a whopping four dollars. An incorrect answer was rung up as an out.

Six sites were chosen to host the show, three representing the Navy and three representing the Army. At each site the host team earned runs for their respective service and the runs would accumulate week after week. Play-Ask-It-Ball was to rotate through the six-team circuit three times for a total of eighteen broadcasts. After all eighteen quiz shows the winning service branch would be determined by the accumulated number of runs scored over the successive weeks.