Monday, November 04, 2019

The History of LGBT Radio (Part 1)

The program The Gay '90s aired on 1420 WHK-AM in Cleveland, OH starting in 1993 and lasting over 6 years. Clevelandhistorical.org goes as far as to call it "The nation’s first gay and lesbian talk radio show."  It was certainly one of the earliest, but probably not the very first. But some of the nuance here may be ontological.

One of the most famous homosexual authors of all time is William Burroughs, who famously said “I have never been gay a day in my life." But host Buck Harris opened the program with the following words “Good evening Cleveland… Welcome to The Gay 90s, the voice of Northeast Ohio’s gay and lesbian community. It is the intent of this show to provide programming that represents the diversity of our gay and lesbian community..." This was a LGBT focused radio program. There was no ambiguity.

The name was a pun. The Gay Nineties is an nostalgic term which refers to the decade of the 1890s, though popularized only retroactively in the 1920s. (The modern usage of the word gay shows up around the same time in a work by Gertrude Stein.) The book Queer Airwaves: The Story of Gay and Lesbian Broadcasting by Phylis W. Johnson and Michael C. Keith had only a little to say about the The Gay '90s.
"In March 1993 another commercial outlet began to experiment with gay talk. Cleveland's talk radio WHK-FM initially aired The Gay '90s on Friday nights, 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM, but soon moved it to Monday nights to reach more young people. Despite the shows success with listeners and advertisers, Program Director Paul Cox believed that syndication was not in it's near future. Cox didn't think America was ready for a gay talk show, adding that "it would take a lot of GMs and PDs with a hell of a lot of courage" to syndicate a gay talk show in the United States."
Mr. Keith also mentioned the program in his book Radio Cultures: The Sound Medium in American Life but sadly the call sign is typoed in the one line reference of my 2008 printing as WHF. The program aired on Friday nights, starting at 9:00 PM. The two-hour show later moved to Mondays. Buck Harris had a background in public health policy, not broadcasting. In 1984 he was appointed by Cleveland Governor Dick Celeste as a Gay Health Consultant to the Department of Health. As he set up AIDS programs in the state, he did radio and TV interviews which elevated his public profile, and also gave him the experience he would later need for his own show. He certainly had the voice for it. More here and here.

Harris did some fill in at WHK-AM and liked it so much that he offered to buy airtime and get his own advertisers. When the show debuted on March 26th, 1993 the radio station was greeted with a bomb threat. The threat was taken seriously, after the broadcast, police escorted Harris and station staff to their vehicles. There was no bomb, though Harris continued to get death threats. The radio program continued uninterrupted for another 6 years. Except for in 1995, when the show was pre-empted twice when the Cleveland Indians made the World Series. Subsequently Harris moved the show to 1300 WERE-AM. More here.

The final program was on July 11th, 1999. The program had hosted Congressmen, Grammy Award winners, singers, songwriters, artists, civil rights activists, and radio call in talk like no program ever before. I think what distinguishes the show the most is what a commercial success it was. Buck said in a 1996 interview that he didn't make money on the program. But The Gay 90s proved that the potential was there. The show was one bold syndication away from national success. Buck Harris died in September of 2018 from complications of lung cancer. He was 70 years old.

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