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.
A little-known aspect of the deal, Gray says, was the insistence at the last moment by WLIB's white owners, Harry and Morris S. Novik, that the buyers also pay for WLIB's weak sister station, WLIB-FM.
"Percy almost walked away," Gray says. "He said he didn't see the value of an FM station. But Hal Jackson told him to calm down and said, 'Let's find a way to piece it all together.' "
It was a fortunate piece of persuasion by Jackson. Within two or three years, the FM station, renamed WBLS, became one of the powerhouses of contemporary radio, a money machine whose sophisticated "urban contemporary" style was emulated by stations all around the country.
WBLS's Levingston describes Jackson, even in his later years, as "pure energy." "I never knew him when he didn't have a newspaper in his hand," Levingston says. "He kept up on everything. That's what made his show relevant. He could hold a discussion about any artist you'd want to talk about -- rap, contemporary hits ... or someone who had died 30 years ago."
Carlos Russell, who was an Inner City Broadcasting board member along with Jackson, says that Jackson's on-air personality was "warm and reassuring." "You felt that that this soft, mellow man was sharing his knowledge of the music that you liked, and that he was able to describe elements that you did not hear," says Russell. "He never lost his roots. He never appeared to want to revel in the sunlight of being a personality."
In a sense, his passing, along with that of Inner City, represents the "shrinkage of the kind of radio that attempts to reach our communities," Russell adds.
One of the secretaries at Inner City remarked on Thursday, as staff packed up for the imminent departure from the company's Manhattan office, "Maybe it's good that Hal isn't here to see this."
Pierre Sutton, who replaced his father as CEO of the company After Percy's death in 2009, wasn't able to talk to The Root. But he passed along a statement about Jackson: "He was a beautiful life, a friend, a mentor, a colleague. He's irreplaceable. He was a most significant black voice in radio over almost three quarters of a century. He will be missed."
Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.