Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Rise and Fall of WOOK

1340 WOOK-AM ceased to exist in 1975 following 7 to 0 vote by the FCC commission to shut down the station. It was one of the largest soul radio stations in America at the time and it owned the Washington D.C. market. The station was badass, and it went off air 35 years ago. Things were always tumultuous at the station, but that's what the making of history is always like. The station was essentially done in for blasphemy, Rev. Richard Eaton went down the same way that Lenny Bruce did.

Eaton had troubles form the very beginning. Take for example his antics in 1947. After a few employees were found to be unionizing he fired one and cut the pay of the other, the now famous Hal Jackson. AFRA called it "outrageous anti-union conduct"  and more or less blamed  Richard Eaton, the president of the United Broadcasting Company, owner of WOOK. So they called a strike. Eaton presented an entirely different version where Hal Jackson cut his own hours and the union was striking preemptively to pressure him to unionize his shop. Hal described it differently in his autobiography, The House That Jack Built:
"I tried to pressure Eaton to improve salaries and working conditions for others at the station, he couldn't understand why I bothered, since I was doing OK. My protest work with the NAACP made me more aware of labor unions and the good they could do in bettering conditions for workers. So I joined the AFRA, and got AFRA to start organizing the people at WOOK. When Eaton refused the unions demands, we called a strike... WOOK lost a lot of revenue during the strikeand Eaton eventualy had to give in and allow the union."
Hal had broken the color line as a black broadcaster on 1600 WINX-AM in 1937. He was one of the first black American DJs ever. But that is the story of the rise. This is the story of the fall. The unionization of WOOK cost Hal his job there. He and Eaton were unable to work together after Hal won out.
Things never really let up for WOOK. In 1966 they were fined$7,500 for "code violations." Then in 1969 WOOK first had their license challenged. The charge was that their gospel programming wasn't exactly by the book. Jet Magazine described it thus in 1975:
"The station had been litigating for more than six years since it was accused of permitting preachers to use numerical designations for chapters and verses in the bible as tips for listeners who played the D.C. numbers racket."
Now let's be clear, gambling is not illegal. By modern standards those antics border on comic, not criminal. That the gambling wasn't above board seems trivial. The "numerous" civic organizations were other religious groups competing for the license. They essentially accused WOOK of blasphemy, not obscenity or indecency. [Not that any of that was codified yet] But 1969 was a comic year. That year a college student, Bruce Willis of Howard University pulled the stunt of a lifetime at WOOK. He got naked and climbed their 339-foot tall radio tower. he'd had an altercation with Fred "Soul Finger" Correy and been ejected from the facility. In protest he dropped trou and sat at the top cross-legged. He was forcibly removed by an army helicopter after an hour.

In 1973, Judge McClenning found that United Broadcasting was unqualified for it's license and that WOOK aided and encouraged illegal gambling activity through its religious programing. He recommended the FCC grant of WCSC (now WYCB) the mutually exclusive application for 1340. Docket number 18562 was all bad news for Eaton.  Eaton fought the order all the way to the February 28th appeals deadline in 1976. He lost it all. Just a decade earlier  United Broadcasting had erected a new $150,000 WOOK radio station building. That same year the Advertising Club of Metropolitan Washington awarded Eaton an "Award of Achievement." It had been a long way down. In the end the Supreme Court gave the WOOK license to a religious group called "Community Broadcasting" that founded WYCB-AM in April 1977. Eaton died defeated at the age of 81 four years later.