Friday, August 14, 2009

A Harlem Family

In an essay in The Radio Reader Judith E. Smith wrote:
"Any mention of race outside entertainment minstrelsy was considered by definition to invoke the unacceptably political. As a medium radio was nearly impenetrable for nonwhite performers... The whiteness of radio broadcasting grew out of unspoken, widely accepted and long-standing conventions, but it was carefully monitored and enforced."
It was true. As radio networks expanded their reach so did the white washing. If anything, by the end of the 1930s radio was more white than it had been in the 1920s. NBC flat out censored a show by the Southernaires because the white president of the NAACP, Arthur Spingarn mentioned discrimination. It made this program all the more extraordinary.

This was serious FUBU. In 1935, 570 WMCA-AM introduced "A Harlem Family" It was a 15 minute radio drama dealing with the issues a black family faced in the depression. The series was produced for the Adult Education Project of the New York City Board of Education. It was only on the air for a few months.

Though brief, it featured an all-black cast of voice actors, and an all-black set of writers. Even the director was black. The show ran on Sunday nights at 8:30 PM. There was a reason that the black dramatic series was short-lived. In that era a significant percentage of blacks liven in poverty. Simply put, Blacks owned fewer radios than whites. With a small set of potential listeners, and without a commercial sponsor, the series was doomed.

So "A Harlem Family" was cancelled and radio dramas continued to be very Caucasian. But black musicians were still performing on radio. Rock n' roll would eventually be the catalyst that pressed the issue. Some black musicians even had their own programs: Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, Nobel Sissle, and the Ink Spots. It was the latter half of the 1930s that the crack actually expanded. It exploited the flaw in conservative political thought. It's OK to love rock n' roll, and blues and jazz, and paintings, clothing, dance and food and the other cultural output of black people... but they're still inferior to whites. It was bogus and it's ultimate failure, inevitable. I cant say that "A Harlem Family" was any kind of tipping point but it's lack of overt political overtones is what got it on the air, past the censors, past the bigots, and past the rhetoric to present black people to suffer the same tribulations as everyone else.

I'd like to know why the New York City Board of Education sponsored it but presently that remains a mystery. The great irony is that when WMCA-AM launched in 1925, they were the 13th station in New York City and the official station of Broadway's Great White Way.