(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.
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.
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.