Friday, June 03, 2011

The Night Call Experiment.

I was at a junk shop thumbing a book titled In Black America. Since it had an index I checked it for radio. There was one entry on page 315 and it regarded the program Night Calls on 106.7 WRVR-FM. There were only two relating sentences... but one was was a brutal run-on.(editors please!) Little did I know how big a deal this was.
"Stations found that ghetto residents were willing to express their opinions on every issue concerning them, oftentimes most eloquently, and subsequently many stations started audience participation shows in which callers could express their grievances over the air. One of the most successful of such shows is Night Call, broadcast over WRVR-FM in New York and syndicated to more than twenty-eight other stations throughout the nation."
The program was hosted by Dell Shields and ran Monday through Friday. The program was released in co-operation with the Television Radio and Film Commission (TRAFCO), National Council of Churches, and the National Catholic Office for Radio and television.Kind of an odd cabal in the production room there for a call in show that in 1969 was taking live calls about the plight of "10 million colonial Mexican American people" in Texas, New Mexico and California. The same program aired an interview with Huey Newton, once leader of the Black Panthers. An issue of Cue Magazine described it in brief. "...nationwide show gives Negros and whites a chance to communicate with one another on the air. Anyone may take part by phoning "Night Call" collect from anywhere in the country..."
A number of radio publications make passing references to it. A 1968 issue of Billboard states that the program has 20 affiliates as of June 3rd. Those stations included: KUOW, KLIQ, WLIB, WERE, WBUR, WOSU, KSJR, WSRC, WAMO, WRUN and KERI. Listeners called in collect, a big difference from today. It ran for only 20 months based out of the Riverside Church in Manhattan. An issue of Educational Broadcasting Review wrote that it was terminated because there was no proper equipment yet invented to handle a nationally syndicated call-in program. It seems dubious to me, and as I often do in these types of situations, I suspect a racial motivation. Del Shields was a lightning rod for that exact kind of situation too. He was the executive secretary of NATRA, the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers.

It was not Del Shields only attempt at a black-oriented talk program. In 1961, Del actually was the host of the first television talk show hosted by an African American. It debuted on WRCV-TV in Philadelphia and was canceled in just a few weeks. It had been sponsored by a brewery and in Del's own words "It only took 50 letters saying 'Get that nigger off your show or we'll stop drinking your beer' to make the sponsor drop the program..." Previous to that he had worked as a radio disc jockey starting in the late 1950s. His time had included airtime at WLIB and WDAS.

In 1970, he resigned, then was retroactively fired by NATRA in a highly combative departure. He'd been very vocal in fighting for racial equality in broadcasting, something we take for granted today. In 1968 only 8 radio stations were owned by African Americans, and three of them belonged to James Brown. As Del put it "We are not begging the record companies for anything, but they will have to make us a part of it if they wish to stay in business." In response to his hot buttered rhetoric, the FCC investigated the organization. After their parting both NATRA and Del Shields fell from the public eye. Del went to work for Bill Cosby in 1970. NATRA lasted about another 5 years.
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