50 years of Chicago's WVON: A Chicago voice that echoes nationwide

A look at the legacy of WVON-AM, Chicago's first all-African-American radio station, which debuted on the radio in 1963. Once the country's premier top 40 R&B station, WVON-AM is now an all-talk station located on Chicago's South Side.

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.

Melody Spann-Cooper
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.

CHICAGO

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