Around the Mall & Beyond | People & Places | Smithsonian

Around the Mall & Beyond

Red-hot, beat-me-down, bring-you-up swing tunes' are just part of Radio Smithsonian's Black Radio...

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"Dr. King had his offices right under the radio station, and Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young and all of them would come there, and what they would do is take a broomstick and hit on the ceiling. I would announce a 'pause for a message from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,' and I'd let the mike out the window to the first floor, and Dr. King would bring the mike in his window and make the speech. . . ."

A landmark 13-part series, Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was, has recently been distributed by Public Radio International to radio stations around the country. Compiling vintage radio broadcasts by the first black disk jockeys, their music, their wonderful stories, their vital role in the civil rights movement, the series documents the struggle to gain influence over how blacks are portrayed on the air and to achieve station ownership. The Smithsonian has, with this monumental project, made a signal contribution to American history.

And it's funny.

Doug (Jocko) Henderson had a "rocketship" show in Philadelphia, featuring rocket whooshes and a rhyming patter that kids all over town picked up. Any black pop artist who wanted to be a star had to make friends with platter spinners like Jocko.

"One night about 4 in the morning," he recalls, "somebody was kicking on the front door. I was sound asleep. Said to my wife, 'Who in the world is that?' I put my bathrobe on, put my gun in my pocket, went down and hollered through the door, 'What you want?' He says, 'Jocko, my name is Sam Cooke and this is Bumps Blackwell, my manager, and we have a record we think is gonna be a big smash, and we wanted you to hear it.' Well, I heard it, and it was 'You Send Me,' and in three weeks it went to Number One in the country."

In the 1940s during the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the industrial cities of the North, disk jockeys rapidly turned themselves into a combination newspaper, mayor and minister.

They also promoted products to stay on the air. B. B. King tells of writing a jingle for a new tonic called Pepticon. It was amazingly popular with the elderly and especially with church folk. He couldn't understand the appeal of the stuff. Then he discovered the secret: it was 12 percent alcohol!

Announcers were sharply aware of their importance in the community. "We didn't know," says one DJ, "that we would be sent where preachers could not go, shaping the hearts and minds of people. But we did a good job." Along with the scat songs and ballads, along with Chuck Berry and James Brown and the Platters, the series presents the magnificent voice of Marian Anderson singing "My country, 'tis of thee . . ." and a docudrama about a noted African-American surgeon.

Black Radio was put together by the Smithsonian's Office of Telecommunications with the help of grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Smithson Society. Jacquie Gales Webb, a veteran producer at Radio Smithsonian and a DJ herself, spent three years gathering tapes of historical broadcasts from audio collectors and DJs around the country. "Thanks to our cutting-edge digital equipment, we were able to edit together the elements we wanted very quickly," says Webb.

"Black radio was very important," she explains. "In most cities there was only one black station, and it gave information, inspiration and education, in the sense of what was going on in the community. Some have even said that black radio was comparable in power to the black church. Radio was very big in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and in the South — Nashville, Memphis and Atlanta."

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