End of an Era for Hal Jackson and Radio

The pioneering DJ's death at age 96 comes as the curtains close on a radio company that he helped found.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

(The Root) — Maybe he didn’t sport the deep, bottom-scraping tones of Jerry Bledsoe; the hollering, down-home hilarity of Jocko Henderson; or the aggressive, acid-tinged sophistication of Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker. But Hal Jackson — who was often dubbed the Godfather of Black Radio — had longevity. His radio style was there for the long term.

“He was the guy next door,” says Tony Gray, president of the Chicago-based broadcast consulting firm Gray Communications. “He was a regular guy who loved radio and loved his listeners.”

And somehow, while all the “big personalities with a lot of glitter” on black radio faded away, Jackson’s modest style translated into long-term success, Gray says.

And now Hal Jackson is gone. He died at age 96 on Wednesday after a career that lasted more than 70 years.

Even toward the end, Jackson kept plugging away on the radio. Up to three weeks before his death, says Deon Levingston, general manager of WBLS in New York, he showed up regularly to host his show of 28 years, Sunday Classics, from 3 to 6 p.m.

His voice had taken on a more gravelly quality, and the galloping pace had slowed a beat or two, but he continued spinning the records and reminiscing about all of the hundreds of artists he had crossed paths with.

In a twist of fate, the broadcasting company that he’d helped found in 1972, an institution that was intimately linked to his later success, dies with him. The Inner City Broadcasting Corp. — owner of WBLS-FM and WLIB-AM in New York, as well as 13 other stations around the nation — finally succumbs this week to its tangled business woes.

In a structured agreement, a coalition of former debtors, known in court documents as YMF Media, took ownership of the bankrupt company’s assets. The new owners include former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson. As part of the transaction, WBLS merged with its former competitor, WRKS (KISS-FM), in April, at the FM frequency of 107.5.

This week, Inner City Broadcasting’s licenses are being transferred to YMF Media, and the radio station’s studios are moving to the old WRKS office in lower Manhattan. Pierre Sutton, among others at Inner City Broadcasting, will stay on as consultant to YMF Media, according to WBLS Program Director Skip Dillard.

“Nobody could make this up,” Gray says, noting the irony of the demise of the corporation — once owned by an alliance of the elite of New York’s black community — a few days after the death of Jackson.