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

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Carlos Russell, a colleague of Jackson’s who once hosted the talk program Talking It Through on WLIB, compares the dual disappearances to one of the oddities of the life of Mark Twain. “You remember, Halley’s Comet appeared the night Mark Twain was born,” Russell says. “Then, when he died 75 years later, the comet appeared again.”

The dual events are sad, Russell says. “But hopefully it also means that a new generation is about to bring the same kind of light and melody that Jackson brought to the airwaves.”

A Modest Superstar and Strong Advocate

Jackson was born in 1915 in Charleston, S.C., but moved to Washington, D.C., after his parents died. He attended Howard University, and his first radio experience was as announcer and commentator on the college station for Howard baseball games and for American Negro League games. Jackson is generally considered to be the first black sports announcer in American radio. (In 1995, in another of many “firsts” that he racked up, he became the first black radio personality to be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.)

But his real entry into broadcasting came in 1939, after he was denied access to the airwaves at Washington’s WINX because he was black. Never one to give up easily, Jackson convinced the owner of a string of barbecue restaurants to buy 15 minutes of airtime on the station six nights a week. Jackson showed up a few minutes before the first broadcast of his new show, called The Bronze Review. The show electrified its audience, and Jackson was in.

A few years later, he started his popular music-and-talk program The House That Jack Built on WOOK. And in 1949 he moved to the Big Apple, where he hosted a daily show for WLIB. He bounced around from station to station for a few years before settling in at New York’s WMCA — but still pursuing some side gigs.

“I’d start the day at WMCA, then go across the street to Birdland,” he told Broadcasting magazine, “then back to WLIB. And on Sundays I was doing a kid’s show on Channel 11 featuring Uncle Hal, the Kiddies’ Pal.”

In an era of quirky radio personalities, Jackson was something of a straight arrow. He was a fervent promoter of young artists (in recent years, Alicia Keys became one of the beneficiaries of his on-air enthusiasm) and a promoter of good causes.

Over the years he raised money for scholarships for teenagers through his Talented Teen contest. He helped found the Whitney M. Young Football Classic, again to benefit scholarships, and was a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the civil rights era. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968, Jackson used his influence on the airwaves to develop support for a national holiday in the civil rights leader’s name.

The Origins of WBLS

A pivotal moment in Jackson’s career came in 1972, when Manhattan Borough President Percy E. Sutton enlisted friends and associates to help him buy WLIB-AM, a white-owned station that did black programming. Turned down for loans by 22 banks, Sutton appealed to an assortment of black political, media and entertainment figures to help finance the sale. Thus, Inner City Broadcasting was born.