Monday, November 20, 2017

Who is Bill Branch?

On November 3rd of 1947, the Chicago Tribune quoted the legendary Ebony magazine article "Sixteen Sepia Spielers" and humble bragged about the pioneering black DJs fof the greater Chicago area: Jack L. Cooper, Al Benson, Jack Gibson and Bill Branch. That local and contemporary corroboration supports their existence. Benson, Gibson and Cooper are well documented DJs. But Bill Branch at WEAW-AM... let's just say there are difficulties with the Bill Branch story.

There are exceedingly few contemporary print references attesting to the existence of Mr. Branch.  Firstly, the call sign of the station appears to be incorrect. There appears to have been some confusion on the part of the writer between the AM and FM designations. The Ebony article clearly referred to WEAW as a "kilocycle" station, in other words... operating on the AM band. But 1330 WEAW-AM didn't sign on until 1953. However, 105.1 WEAW-FM was on air in 1947, and it was brokering airtime to all comers. Note: this FM novelty also makes the obscure Bill Branch possibly the first black DJ on FM radio.

The WEAW-AM station errantly referred to in that Ebony article, began to operate in the 1950s, as a daytime-only repeater of WEAW-FM.  By the early 1970s, the station primarily aired brokered ethnic and religious programs. Then by the late 70s it tried an Adult contemporary format before backsliding into brokered programming again. In 1979, the station tried out a Christian contemporary format as "Praise 1330" and changed call letters to WPRZ. They changed calls to WEAZ in 1981 then to WSSY in 1987 with a flip to AC as "Sunny 1330." In 1990 it became WKTA with a doomed attempt at hard rock on the AM dial.

The station founder, Ed A. Wheeler, was quoted in a 1951 issue of Broadcasting Magazine referring to the station's prior FIVE years of sales, listing the sign-on in February of 1947, which can only be the FM stick. He named that station after himself:  Edward A. Wheeler.

Somewhat arbitrarily I came to believe that DJ Bill Branch was none other than the playwright William Blackwell Branch. While he was born in Connecticut in 1927, he graduated from Northwestern University in 1949... in Evanston, IL.  He enrolled at Northwestern with scholarships won from the Elks and from Pepsi Cola for oratory. At first, my theory rested entirely on name, time and place, but in reading his bibliography, I increasingly found context. For example, especially early in his career, Branch wrote dramas for television... i.e. for broadcast. Here's a partial list:
  • This Way, ABC, 1955
  • What Is Conscience?, CBS, 1955
  • Let's Find Out, National Council of Church, 1956
  • Light in the Southern Sky, NBC, 1958
  • Legacy of a Prophet, Educational Broadcasting Corp., 1959
  • The City (documentary series), Educational Broadcasting Corp., 1962–64
  • Still a Brother: Inside the Black Middle Class, NET, 1968
  • The Case of Non-Working Workers, NBC, 1972
  • The 20 Billion-Dollar-Rip-Off, NBC, 1972
  • No Room to Run, No Place to Hide, NBC, 1972
  • The Black Church in New York, NBC, 1973.
  • Afro-American Perspectives (series), PBS, 1973-74.
  • A Letter from Booker T., PBS, 1987.
My best evidence is an article Branch wrote about his own studies for Opportunity magazine "The Journal of Negro Life" for the April-June 1947 issue. This was published in on or around the time he was supposedly on air. In his own words, Bill makes a passing reference to his radio resume. The reference is brief, but specific.
"I've been at Northwestern for a year and a half now and already my future is beginning to take shape. A six month's run with the famous stage hit "Anna Lucasta," first place in two nationally recognized college oratorical contests, and a berth on the growing radio show, "Democracy U.S.A." have helped to bring closer to meaning, that distant term, "the future."
And there is was. The Program "Democracy USA" was not only real, but utterly ground-breaking. It was a drama about black achievement, written primarily by Richard Durham.  (Robert Lucas also wrote for the program) Durham started out in the radio division of the WPA-sponsored Illinois Writers Project. He wrote for local Chicago radio shows in the 1940s while also working as an editor and journalist for the Chicago Defender newspaper and Ebony magazine. Interestingly, Durham is connected at both ends of this story, giving rise to the possibility that he planted the young Mr. Branch in the list. However, The only problem is that "Democracy USA"aired on WBBM-AM not WEAW. But, there is one last connection I unearthed. In 1947, Radio Daily magazine published the following verbage:
"WEAW Evanston FM station, carried more than 1,872 live remote broadcasts from Northwestern University during the station's first 52 weeks of operation and claims that was more live programs than were broadcast by all the other Chicago area stations combined." 
So Bill Branch didn't need to go to WEAW, perhaps WEAW came to him. We are left with a heap of inference. It is entirely possible that Branch was on air at WBBM on one or more episodes of Democracy USA. It is further possible that at some time in 1947 Branch bought some time on WEAW to host his own program, or that he appeared regularly on those remote broadcasts held at his own campus in 1947. But after all that context, we are left with no proof.

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