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.
Posts tagged ‘WAFR’
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.
(Don’t see the audio player? Try Safari or Firefox. Or use the QR code below.)
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 1971, several young African Americans in Durham, North Carolina founded WAFR–the nation’s first ever public, community-based black radio station. WAFR catered to Durham’s black listeners with politically engaged, Black Power programming that included jazz, funk, African music, selected local and national news, and even an African American take on Sesame Street’s Children’s Radio Workshop, called the Community Radio Workshop, whose staff is seen in the photograph above. Key WAFR staffers included Robert Spruill, Obataiye Akinwole, Ralph Williams, Donald Baker, and Kwame and Mary McDonald. Although the station ceased broadcasting after just five years, it left an indelible influence on activist media in North Carolina for years to come.
In the coming year-and-a-half, the Media and the Movement site will share interviews, photographs, audio recordings, and commentary on the media outlets and activists that our project examines. Our preliminary work with WAFR of Durham, North Carolina and WVSP of Warrenton, North Carolina (both of which inspired the larger Media and the Movement project) gives us a perfect starting point for this undertaking.