In the volatile world of radio, almost nothing lasts half a century.
But a great Chicago radio station — WVON-AM 1690 — has managed the feat: The institution marks its 50th anniversary Monday and celebrates with a concert featuring Toni Braxton at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday.
Not that the journey has been easy or predictable.
When brothers Leonard and Phil Chess bought WHFC-AM 1450 in 1963, their goal was to promote Chess Records, renaming the outlet WVON — for Voice of the Negro. With just 1,000 watts of power, the station surprised everyone by becoming a broadcast sensation, indeed giving voice to a culture and community otherwise marginalized on the airwaves. Though music dominated — thanks to blues records from Pervis Spann and R&B tracks from Herb Kent and others — Wesley South's legendary “Hot Line” talk show crackled with political discussion.
The rise of FM radio in the 1970s, however, reduced WVON's audience and clout, precipitating several changes of ownership and shifts of position on the dial. WVON never quite recaptured the enormous audience of its past, but in 1986 it switched to a talk format that reclaimed Chicago's imagination.
And WVON remained a sociopolitical powerhouse. Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke into its microphones. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called the station to report King's assassination. State Sen. Barack Obama filled in for vacationing announcer Cliff Kelley.
Along the way, the Voice of the Negro became the Voice of the Nation.
“We had a monthlong debate over the word ‘Negro,'” says Melody Spann-Cooper, daughter of Pervis Spann and chairman of Midway Broadcasting Corp., which owns WVON.
“Quite frankly, as 'VON continues to evolve, we get away from the psychological segmentation of who we are. … Us having a voice, although it's a different voice, but feeling it doesn't need to be clarified down to the nth degree.
“We are part of this nation, so we are the voice of a nation.”
Perhaps there's no better way to understand the value and history of WVON than to hear from the voices that know it best. Following is an edited, brief oral history from five Chicagoans long in tune with an irreplaceable Chicago radio station.
Chairman of Midway Broadcasting Corp., which owns WVON
That an organic, independently owned operation could exist and be able to play in this wonderful world of multiple radio stations and television stations and media companies in the city of Chicago is amazing. It tells an incredible story about the graciousness of this city and how it really embraces its iconic things.
I know why people were so upset when Marshall Field's became Macy's. This city loves its institutions, those that it grows up with. And it grew up with 'VON.
My difficulty has been no more than anybody else's difficulty, considering what this world has gone through in the last five years. So if we were in an economic recession in the mainstream, I was in a tsunami.
It has been incredibly difficult. But we've had wonderful partners who have weathered the (economic) storm with us, who have been very patient, very understanding, very cooperative — our banking partners.
You've got to remember something: I experienced our largest growth right before the world collapsed (economically). So I've been to hell and back financially.
But I like the ‘back' part of that. I like coming back.
And we all went through it. No one escaped this. This was not personal, right? And so when you wrapped your brain around that and the fact that we survived it with less resources, less capital, with all these things against us, (it) means that we're here for the long haul.
I'm very clear that while 'VON is a radio station, quote unquote, (that's) not what keeps us in business. It's the tool that we use to deliver our special brand of enrichment and empowerment to this community. This station is more than a radio station to our legions of listeners.
There are very few stations that can say they have chronicled the progress of black people in this country from the '60s to now. Martin Luther King Jr. used this station as his bully pulpit in the latter part of his life, in the years he spent in Chicago, between '66 to '68.
And then look at a very young Barack Obama, who cut his teeth and grew his brand at this station as a community activist and as a state senator, and on to (being) a U.S. senator, and look at him now. Who has that depth and breadth?
People keep asking me, “What will the next 50 years look like?” I don't know. What will the next 50 years of black America look like?
Whatever (the station) is, it needs to do one thing: to tell the story, the authentic story. It's this place that they can come to and feel like they're in a living room having a conversation with their family. It's the station they get their information from.
It's the station that talks about what is really going on in this community, unabashedly, unashamedly.
There's not many places that an urban talk station can survive. What makes for a good urban talk station? It's got to have a vibrant community, a vibrant audience.
If it's going on in black politics, if it's going on in Chicago and it's impacting the African-American community, or you want to know what's going on, this is the station that you go to.
I think about so many different times that the news media has barraged this place. If it was the O.J. trial. If it was when President Barack Obama was elected the first time. They know the benchmarks that are important, and where you can get the authentic word. When Harold Washington was elected (mayor). They know where they're going to come to get the real deal.
I remember when Harold Washington ran for mayor. Many people in the black community knew he was going to win. There was this feeling, there was this undercurrent that just ran throughout our community (that) the mainstream media kind of missed.
This is the undercurrent. It's the movement. I always tell people Chicago is such fertile ground for our people, great movements. Think about it: three U.S. senators (Barack Obama, Carol Moseley Braun and Roland Burris) and a president. Listen, where else can a Barack Obama, an Oprah Winfrey and a Michael Jordan, three of America's biggest phenomena of our generation — (where else) could they have been had they not touched this soil? Had they not shared whatever this special thing we have here?
I'm not so arrogant as to believe that 'VON is a larger portion of it, but I'll tell you this: We are better because we are here. We are able to survive because it is here. There's something about this place.
I tell people 'VON today is an acquired listenership. I may not get you at 20, but I'm going to get you by the time you turn 45, 50.
There are so many other stations with so many more listeners, right? And I tell my sales staff, “We're not counting the people we reach, we're reaching the people that really count.”
Legendary Chicago broadcaster; was one of WVON's original disc jockeys
When we first went on, we were absolutely the most listened-to radio station in the city of Chicago. And I remember WLS and WCFL calling us, and they were saying: “Who the hell are you guys?” They didn't know we were all black. We took the market by storm.
In a major market, it was the first 24-hour R&B station, and it had tons and tons and tons of listeners. Everybody listened to it. And we were 1,000 watts in the daytime, 250 watts at night, that's all! And dominated.
They finally caught up with us. But when we hit, we hit like a ton of bricks. Leonard (Chess) was a genius. Although he had Chess Records, he was smart enough to know we had to play more than Chess records; we played Atlantic records. We played the hit R&B songs 24 hours a day. And he marketed us. We went out in the street, made appearances at a lot of community centers. We were just the hottest thing in Chicago.
Not only did we play good R&B music, and a lot of white pop music too. We mixed that in there. But we were in the food markets, vegetable markets, community centers, just everywhere. One of the big things we did, we gave away Christmas baskets. That was huge. Thousands of baskets we gave to the poor and the needy.
Telephones for the first time were portable, and we rode around in the neighborhoods and talked to people (on the air).
Of course, when the riots came (after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), we were instrumental in quelling those riots. We were out in the midst of that. Stayed on the air, didn't play music but took telephone calls from people all over Chicago, the suburbs.
And they were saying how we should stop the riots. And we were staying: “Stop rioting. Don't tear up your own home. It doesn't make sense.”
Many people attributed WVON as the main (reason) our riots weren't as bad as they were in some parts of the country. We asked for cooler heads. We were given credit for putting a lid on that.
We broke most of the R&B records for the country at WVON. Everybody fought to get on the air at WVON because we had so many listeners. We could put a record on and play it a couple of days, it would start selling like crazy, if it was a good record. A lot of the Motown records broke here in Chicago. Not in Motown, at WVON.
What killed us was FM radio, and people are so fickle. Here we were, a big radio station, and we couldn't combat FM. FM had this great sound: stereo. And our ratings, when we were doing Arbitron (were) 20, 23, 24, we slowly dropped down to a 1, 2 share, 0.5.
You just couldn't fight FM. Although stations like WLS, the big 50,000-watt stations, powerhouse stations, managed to survive, the little black stations didn't.
So in the confusion and everything, I think the talk radio thing was born here at WVON. We needed a black talk-radio station, because they got into all kinds of things. Race riots, racism, food stamps, poverty, civil rights — from a black point of view, which we never had before. Just absolutely phenomenal.
Because the white radio stations never gave us that much time. I'm sure they were fair, but it was always a white talk show, not completely black like this.
It meant everything: a way to air your views. Politics. Helped different black politicians get elected. Really an educational outlet for black people, and also an educational outlet for white people, to let them know what black people are like.
I'm sure this will go down as one of the great black talk stations of all time, just as it was one of the great music stations.
Without it, we wouldn't have hardly any voice at all.
Professor at Northeastern Illinois University and former host on WVON
I grew up on 'VON. From when I came out of the army, in 1964, I was introduced to WVON. It was a music station at that time, but there was a talk show called “Hot Line.” And for a young person just coming out of the Army and returning to school — and the civil rights movement was at a fever pitch — I used to listen to “Hot Line,” which was hosted by Wesley South. He always had guests who represented different aspects of what was going on in the black community at that time.
And two important guests I remember listening to were Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King. And it was very inspiring in this short period of time, an hour format, that Mr. South was able to interview two of our giants in the black movement in this country.
Herb Kent and that whole entourage of personalities were very impactful in getting the word out through music and through our culture on WVON. So this whole idea of black talk radio was really an extension of Mr. South's influence.
I think the black media in general, and WVON specifically, played a profound role in history and, in one case I can cite, the election of Chicago's first black mayor (Harold Washington). But I think, overall, it has given the black community an opportunity to have our own voice, our own analysis of issues, from our own unique perspective, given the dynamics of the American society.
Although WVON has not been without controversy. I heard a caller today say: “You know, sometimes I don't like you, but it's like I'm married to you, and I can't get rid of you. … Sometimes I don't like your changes. Sometimes I don't like your hosts. Sometimes I don't like your hosts' opinions. But I can't live without you.”
Historian and author of “Bridges of Memory”
WVON came into play during the days of the continuing struggle for civil rights. And one of the reasons was to give a different view of black life to the general public, the radio-listening public.
(It was) very, very, very important; because all of (the hosts) had names that were well-known, there was a great listening audience. (Journalist) Lu Palmer would bring in the message as related to race and the struggle. It was meaningful because it gave to the listener the kind of (broadcast) that was inspirational as well as informational. For the listener, it not only was encouraging, but it came closer to giving the truth, the reason for the struggle, the importance of participating in the struggle to bring about change.
So it was listened to by almost everyone in Chicago who was African and American, and I'm sure whites and others listened, too, because of the music.
That was important, because at that time the (other) stations had very, very few African-Americans that were participating.
The music was an inspiration. Sometimes people turned it on to hear the music, but along the way they got the message. They were attracted by some good jazz and blues, and along with that would be the story.
I think it is still (important). Of course, with new areas of communication, and with all the new gadgets that I don't know very much about, it doesn't have quite the support that it did. But that's true of most of the reading and listening areas of communication.
But even more so in the African-American community, because so many of the earlier listeners are now older people. It doesn't have the kind of clamorous support that existed in those early days of '60s and '70s.
But the dynamics of black culture embodied in the music of jazz and blues and gospel continue to be very, very much embraced by even younger generations.
State representative in the 5th District, and frequent WVON guest
You want to know the pulse of what's happening in our community, what we're thinking on particular issues? You want to learn about what matters, what impacts us directly or indirectly? That's the source you go to. It's been playing a critical role since the '60s.
Mainstream media takes a mainstream approach on most subject matters, meaning a predominantly Eurocentric mindset, which is OK. But the black community has unique and particular issues that impact it on a daily basis, historically, and in terms of our connections with ourselves and the rest of the country.
You go to a 'VON to really ferret out your particular opinion or perspective on a subject matter, on an issue, and you get really straight talk on an issue. It's straight, no chaser.
The hosts are not afraid to give an actual opinion on a hard subject matter such as guns, and what we need to do with these knuckleheaded kids who are adding to these atrocities out here.
The mayor, the governor, preachers, players, from A to Z, people would not have a real sense of what's going on, or a pulse of what's going on in our city (without WVON).
If you listen to 'VON, as I have over the years, it's a unique voice to a unique people in America. And you'll see that blacks are not a monolith in our opinions. We go from one extreme to another, and we always meet up in the middle.
If you look at history, from Lu Palmer to Herb Kent, even with Pervis Spann, with blues, Cliff Kelley today, I can look at a number of individuals — the reasons I can communicate with the black community is because of 'VON.
I always say that WVON has one of the most intelligent listening audiences in the country because you cannot get away with saying (just anything), however rational or irrational it is. You will have some strong feedback supporting or in opposition.
If you want a very honest and culturally specific perspective, as it relates to black people — and I'm talking domestic, as well as foreign — WVON will give you an impressive array. It's a very learned audience. You'll get some good old-fashioned common-sense intelligence, and you better know what you're talking about, because they'll put a corrective measure in there as soon as possible.
They don't play it safe. If they continue to be the voice of the nation, we'll always respond. WVON, in all of its glory, it has to continue that legacy of being honest, of being culturally specific.
It's OK to have a strong black radio station in our country. There's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't have to be PC. Doesn't have to be overassimilated. It knows its audience. It needs to continue that.
We're a better nation because of the Voice of a Nation.
email@example.com | Twitter @howardreich
WVON 50: 50th Anniversary Grand Gala
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
Tickets: $100-$500 at wvon.com or ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000