Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The First Black Radio Announcer (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2.  Feel Free to review Part One if you need to.  The answer seems black and white if you can forgive the idiom.  The dates seem to be firm, but I'll get to the confusion in a second. Most historians name  Jack L. Cooper as the first black American radio announcer. Cooper was called in one article "The God-Father of Black Radio."  It's well deserved. His program, "The All Negro Hour ", debuted November 3, 1929 on WSBC-AM in Chicago. This late 1929 start is where the debate begins. There is no firm start date on Joe Bostic.  It's just dated usually to after his college graduation and assumed to be in early 1930. It's close to Cooper, but probably about six  months after.

WSBC has the oldest call letters in all of Chicago. It's pretty sad that it's now relegated as a brokered ethnic station.  This really could have been a heritage brand. W.S.B.C. stands for World Storage Battery Company. the station began broadcasting in 1925 from the hotel Crillion. It was founded by Joseph Silverstein.  It began as an ethnic station with various slots playing Greek, Polish, Italian or other programming for first generation immigrant groups.  Silverstein just wanted to sell batteries, race was irrelevant. It's why he hired Cooper.  To a pure capitalist it was just another demographic. it sounds cynical now, but at the time it was a very liberal position. In 1930 racial discrimination was a civic duty.

In the 1930s it was located at 2400 W. Madison St. in Chicago with co-owned WGRB-AM and WCDB-AM. The All Negro Hour ran at 5:00 PM on Sunday nights. It ran once a week initially but expanded to a Weekday 2-hour program. The program aired until 1935. Over his career, Cooper also broadcast over WHFC-AM,WWAE-AM,WBEE-AM, and WAAF-AM all in Chicago.Cooper had previously done advertising and sales for the Chicago Defender newspaper, a daily that targeted African-American readership.

It's interesting to note that Cooper's first radio gig wasn't in Chicago.  It's the Chicago gig that gets him the certified credit for first black radio announcer but he was on air before that. But that gig has a questionable date.  Most sources cite  a year between 1922 and 1925. but the station is always 640 WCAP-AM in Washington D.C.  But that gig wasn't as successful as the Negro Hour.  WCAP, like much of the nation at that time was segregated. He actually had to enter the station from a rear door.WCAP was a share-time with WRC-AM and was founded by the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company.  It only existed from about 1923 to July 1926.Occam's razor trims off the early 1922 date.. but the rest are still possible. (I favor the 1924 date.)

Cooper certainly didn't go straight for radio.  He was born in 1888 in Memphis, TN. He quit school in the 5th grade to support his family. Similar to Bostic, Cooper was big on sports. He boxed as a welterweight and played amateur baseball. He even spent some time in vaudeville as a song and dance man. It was that vaudeville material that got him on the air at WCAP doing comedy skits. It also was probably that experience that got him into the Chicago Defender initially as a theater critic.

In his mid sixties health problems led to a case of permanent blindness. He retired from radio in 1959. he died in January 1970 at the age of 81.  In 1975, the Chicago Park District declared 4.3 acres of land in the West Pullman neighborhood as Cooper Park, named for the first black radio announcer: Jack L. Cooper.