Thursday, June 28, 2012

The First Black Radio Announcer (Part 5)

That radio tower to the left is on the roof of the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. [source]  Like many posts this one starts with an intriguing side note from an article about something else. In this case it's a piece [link] by Dale Patterson about early black disc jockeys.
"Other black radio pioneers included Atlanta's WJTL, which in 1935 offered a daily 15-minute newscast about the black community and delivered by black announcers."
1370 WJTL-AM was not a long-lived station. In fact it only existed from 1931 to 1935 under those calls. The station signed on as 1310 WRBI-AM in Tifton, Georgia in 1928 owned by the Kents Furniture & Music Store. In 1930 they changed the frequency to 1350.  It became Oglethorpe University's first radio station in 1931. Initially they shifted the frequency to 810 and operated as a daytimer at 100 watts. In June they shifted to 1370 where they were granted unlimited hours at 250 watts. A 1973 history text on Atlanta claims that in the early years of the station it aired only educational programming and extramural instruction. Students could enroll at Oglethorpe via radio and were charged and each course was broadcast 1 hour three days a week for a semester. Texts and general requirements were handled by mail. Students had to mail their notes to their professors to validate their listening. Professors could also answer the questions of radio students by mail or by phone.

In 1935 the school sold the station to the Atlanta Broadcasting Co. who changed the calls to WATL-AM. The station appears in Erik Barnouw's canonical radio book A History of Broadcasting in the United States: A Tower in Babel because, anachronistically, it sold advertising. The laws that forbid advertising on non-commercial stations today didn't exist in 1933. They were one of 12 educational stations that were known to be selling ads in that year. This was ostensibly to "defray the cost of scholarly journals."  The others were: WGST, KOOW, KOB, KFJM, WESG, WHAZ, WJBU, WEHC, WWL and WHAD. It might have led to the City of Atlanta v. Oglethorpe University case wherein Atlanta was trying to levy taxes on WJTL.

So why was this school, in the segregated South airing a black community newscast? The programming was mixed and the aired a lot of what was then called "hillbilly music."  They hosted performers such as Fiddlin' John Carson, The Bill Childers Strong Band, Riley Puckett, The Dixie String Band, Ted Hawin's Mountaineers, the North Georgia Buggy Riders, The Skillet Lickers, but Of the names I've seen only Carl Talton aka Cowboy Jack, was a regular and began his career there with a daily 15-minute spot. They were even home to the Fulton Country Jamboree program.

Despite all the country music they were a fairly forward-thinking station. A local Mormon church had a program. They even rebroadcast programs from WOSU.  The Oglethorpe University website merely states that the station was " dedicated to the broadcast of educational programming designed for the public to take additional instruction on various University subjects."  If true that must have been changing by 1933 as they were taking in musicians off the street by that time. In his book Fireside Politics, author Douglas B. Craig posits that this was the first systematic attempt to use radio as a medium of civic information and education for black listeners. That might even be true, even if it's impossible to prove. As a source he cites the book Don't Touch That Dial by J. Fred MacDonald who makes no such claim.

Unfortunately I've never been able to find a name of a single announcer from that news program. Whoever they were, they were some of the very first black voices in broadcasting. I've found some staff names: Station Manager David Brinkmoeller, Staff Director Lynne Brannen, Engineer Frank Parkins, Program Director Robert McConnell, and Rex Dantzler selling those dubious ads. But I have never connected the dots as to who begat the program. Despite the time elapsed since then the station still serves the black community of Atlanta.  It's calls today are 1380 WAOK-AM and it's airs a black gospel format.  

*****If any reader has a copy of Step down, Dr. Jacobs: the Autobiography of an Autocrat by Thornwell Jacobs I'd like to hear from them. It is rare and is supposed to have detailed information on WJTL.