From Mr. James E. Robinson’s personal collection. When he was seeking to form a relationship with NPR, they sent him a brochure introducing the network. Note on the last page there are two NPR affiliates in North Carolina: WFDD in Winston-Salem, and WAFR in Durham, a community oriented station founded and run by African Americans at and affiliated with North Carolina Central University.
Paul R. Pope, Jr. is a pioneer in broadcast media in North Carolina: among other firsts, he was the state’s first African American station manager at WJZY-TV in Charlotte and Capitol Broadcasting Corporation’s first African American Vice President. In this clip he remembers the rural Raleigh neighborhood in which he grew up, and the very concrete way in which the arrival of A.J. Fletcher’s WRAL-TV changed that neighborhood.
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In 1974, Jim Robinson Founded WBMU, Asheville’s first black-owned radio station. Robinson had long sensed that African Americans in Asheville did not have a radio station attuned to their needs, and he worked for years to establish such a station. He finally found success in 1974, when WBMU (“Where Black Means Unity”) started broadcasting at 91.3 FM on the dial.
Listeners heard a mix of community content, like town council meetings broadcast live and in their entirety, and music, from the Dramatics to Herbie Mann to the Star of Bethlehem Youth Choir. Take a look at their program brochure:
In the early 1970s, Jim Robinson, armed with an education from the Elkins Institute of Broadcasting and the Taylor School of Broadcasting, showed up for an interview at an Asheville radio station. Here’s what happened next.
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The Carolina Times and a couple of pages in the white newspaper was devoted to black folks. I thought there should be more than that. I thought they should have their own information structure, except the two pages in whatever, the Tribune, whatever, and the one Carolina Times. So, I thought we should have our own information structure, and that was my reason for getting involved in radio.
~Ralph Williams, interview with Joshua Clark Davis, March 29, 2013
WBMU (“Where Black Means Unity”) was Asheville’s first black-run and black-oriented radio station. Founded by Jim Robinson in 1974, WBMU was intended to meet the needs of Asheville’s black community “with pride and unity.”
WBMU’s disc jockeys–or “personalities,” in Mr. Robinson’s formulation–captured the region’s attention from 6am to midnight every day, playing the soundtrack to North Carolina’s urban renewal. Look for an interview with Mr. Robinson to join our collection soon.
Donald Baker, among the first staff members at Durham’s WAFR radio–also known as Wave Africa–reflects on the freedom afforded by the station’s format in a 2010 interview with Joshua Clark Davis:
One morning during the week I played Aretha Franklin’s “Holy, Holy,” and it was off of her double album, it was a gospel album, it’s a double album. It was a live recording. And I followed it with John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.” The thing about working at AFR is that you could experiment. And if you knew the music, if you knew much of the music: the R&B, the gospel, the jazz, you could mix. You could go a lot of places.
As historian William Barlow writes, “nothing else sounded remotely like WAFR on the Durham market.” (Voice Over, pg. 287) Mr. Baker’s interview will soon be available online via UNC’s Southern Historical Collection.
WAFR and WVSP were no ordinary radio stations. Amid a media landscape that was overwhelmingly commercial, both stations were non-commercial. They depended on neither advertising revenue nor funding from any established institution like a college or university.
Raising the funds needed for a non-commercial broadcasting was far from easy, however. These stations survived for years on a mix of modest federal funding, grants, and listener donations from regular fundraising campaigns. But WAFR and WVSP both eventually folded largely due to the overwhelming and constant challenges of raising adequate funds for maintaining station operations.
But as long as they were on the air, both stations never let their audiences forget that they were listening to non-commercial radio, as the audio clip from WAFR’s 1975 fundraising marathon demonstrates.
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WAFR and WVSP embodied a participatory vision of media based in local communities. At both stations, volunteers without any prior experience in media could complete the necessary FCC-mandated training that allowed them to host their own shows on the air. Volunteers accounted for a large majority of broadcasting hours at both stations.
The excerpt below from the April 1978 issue WVSP’s Dialogue invites listeners not only to underwrite programming, but to share recordings of meetings and lectures and even submit audio interviews of people on the street to the station, all to be played over the air.
When WAFR commenced broadcasting in September 1971, it didn’t take long for listeners to discern that the station’s staffers had chosen their call letters as an homage to Africa. Indeed, with programming that celebrated African history, politics, and culture, WAFR made Pan-Africanism a main component of its programming–something that no American radio station had done before. As Obataiye Akinwole, one of the station’s founders explained in an interview for the 1995 documentary Black Radio: Telling It Like It Is, “We wanted to have our heritage in our name.”
Deejays at WAFR also assumed on-air names that emphasized the group’s collective Pan-African identity, not unlike members of black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam or Maulana Karenga’s US Organization in Los Angeles. Announcers’ names included Mwanafunzi Shanga Sadiki, Baba Femi, Brother Ola, Brother Hassan, and Johnny X. The Community Radio Workshop, the non-profit organization that administered the station, also offered public seminars on African languages and culture for adults and children. In the audio clip below, a representative of the African Reparations and Relocation Committee offers his wholehearted endorsement of WAFR’s programming
When WVSP started broadcasting several years later in Warrenton, its staff members also made international news, especially reporting on Africa, mainstays of their programming. The station developed close ties with Durham’s Africa News Service, the U.S.’s first wire service devoted to news from the African continent (more on this in a future post), and became one of its most loyal distribution outlets. Interestingly, the station’s tenure between 1976 and 1986 coincided neatly with the Soweto Uprising and the ultimate passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of the U.S. Congress. Consequently, WVSP frequently featured reporting on the international movement against apartheid that gained unprecedented momentum in these years, both on the air and in its newsletter, Dialogue.
In 1976, Valeria and Jim Lee founded WVSP, a non-commercial radio station that broadcast from the small town of Warrenton, North Carolina, about one hour north of Durham on Interstate 85. Prior to founding the station, the Lees had already done extensive work with North Carolina activist organizations ranging from Malcolm X Liberation University, to Floyd McKissick’s Soul City, to their own rural empowerment program, Andamule. From 1976 until WVSP’s closing in 1986, however, the Lees focused their energies on using radio as a tool for political and cultural empowerment in rural northeastern North Carolina.
As Valeria explained in a 2007 interview with SOHP staffer Aidan Smith, she and Jim launched WVSP as a vehicle for “community development…[and] justice work.” The station devoted its programming to progressive reporting on political and social issues and a wide range of musics, most prominently African American genres like jazz and blues, which rarely received airtime on commercial radio in the 1970s and 1980s South. In addition, WVSP embraced a thoroughly democratic approach to programming by giving any local volunteers willing to put in the requisite time and work the chance to host their own programs.
In the following audio excerpt, longtime WVSP staffer and music director Jereann King Johnson introduces Tickle Me Think, a children’s educational show, in an episode focusing on folk songs.