Early Voices and Faces of Local Black Radio
By Bernie Hayes
Opportunities for African Americans in radio and other media have always been extremely limited, but St. Louis’ black deejays and announcers have played a special part. They were some of the nation’s greatest and most illustrious personalities who provided the area with information and entertainment that led to both social and civic change.
During the ‘40s and ‘50s, African Americans preferred radio over other types of media, except black publications such as the Chicago Defender and the St. Louis American. Black-oriented radio stations provided African Americans with a daily diet of news and factual information essential to the survival of the community.
In the St. Louis metropolitan area, generations of African Americans endured a system of hatred, exclusion and bigotry. However, they used a variety of means to fight segregation and racism, and their primary source was radio. During this period, many whites felt profoundly threatened by increasing demands by African Americans for social equality and economic opportunity.
In addition to creating advocacy organizations such as the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), blacks fought their own private battles through the newspapers and over the airways. Black radio had also been summoned by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
The African-American pioneers of St. Louis radio were labeled “race” announcers, but to the black community, they were celebrities. The stations they worked for usually devoted only a short segment of their broadcast day to programs designed for the African-American listener or consumer. And the announcers were never paid as much as their white counterparts because the industry was owned and managed exclusively by whites.
The major St. Louis stations that offered programs directed to the “Negro Market” in the early days were: KATZ-AM 1600, which began broadcasting on January 3, 1955; KXLW 1320 AM, which went on the air January 1, 1947; KWK 1380 AM, which began programming to the black community in August, 1969; and KIRL 1460 AM, which went on the air in 1972.
Across the river, in the early ‘50s, there were WTMV 1490 AM, which later became WBBR, WAMV, and WESL.
The first black disc jockey in St. Louis was Wiley Price, who began his broadcasting career in 1945…Price played big band sounds and the jazz music of the day, and he refused to play most secular rhythm and blues music.
In 1947, Jesse “Spider” Burks was hired by KXLW and later moved to KSTL and KATZ. While at KXLW, he was one of the highest-paid African-American disc jockeys in the country.
In 1952, Gabriel, a musician, began broadcasting from a facility in Alton, Ill. He later moved on to KATZ and other stations in the bi-state area, and eventually became known as an authority on the evolution of the blues and Negro folk music.
During this early period of St. Louis radio, Amos “Panyo” Dotson established himself as one of the finest personalities ever to adorn the airways.
On the East Side at WTMV were “Little Ole Young Roscoe” McCrary, Robert “BQ” Burris and Yvonne Daniels, the daughter of singer Billie Daniels was the first African-American female announcer in the bi-state area.
Willie Mae “Gracy” Lowery was the first African-American female deejay on the Missouri side when she began her broadcasting career at KATZ and KXLW in 1960.
These pioneers led the way and opened the doors for others such as Lou “Fatha” Thimes, George “The G” Logan, E. Rodney Jones, Dave and Jerome Dixon, Doug “The Leprechaun” Eason, “Gentleman” Jim Gates, Rod “Jockenstein” King, Curtis “Boogie Man” Brown, Charles “Sweet Charlie” Smith, Albert “Scoop Sanders” Gay, Steve Byrd, Michael Tyrone Key, Donn Johnson, Bill Moore, Alvin John Waples, Buster Jones, Donnie Brooks, Gary “Star” Perks, Otis Thomas, Gary “Tony-Silky” Stittum, Edie “Bee” Boatner, Cheryl Winston, Leo Cheers, Dorothy Shelly, Hank Spann, Shelly Pope, Shelly Stewart, Magnificent Montague, Denise Williams, Robin Boyce, Decatur Agnew, Bill Bailey, Jimmy Bishop, Gene Norman, Norman Bradley, Lee “Baby” Michaels, Mark Anthony, Bobby Knight, Bernie Hayes and many, many more.
Each station devoted a portion of its broadcast day to gospel and religious programming, and the personalities who led the way also played a significant role in the development of St. Louis black radio. In the early days, there were Leonard Morris, Wynnetta Lindsey, Columbus Gregory, Zella Jackson Price, Dean Strong, Ruby Summerville-Dickson and Steve Love. They were leaders who supported the genre with the finest presentations of the most popular artists and finest music in the field.
Circumstances for blacks in the radio industry have somewhat improved, because mainstream or white-programmed stations understand that reaching diverse communities has become increasingly important in today’s expanding marketplace. But equal opportunities and equal pay still do not exist in the industry.
Black men and women need to have leadership positions in order to create a medium that is truly free and democratic. Giving blacks equal power in media affects society in general. Perhaps someday, the playing field will become nearly level. Even then, we will need to thank and remember those pioneers who made so many sacrifices in the early years.
(Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally published in the St. Louis American 2/24/05.)