For New Pittsburgh Courier
(Part one of a two-part series)
The sudden demise of WAMO radio may seem shocking to many, but the station’s trials and tribulations stem from a decades-long struggle to maintain a strong community identity that at the same time would attract sufficient White listeners (and advertisers) to survive and grow. During its “glory” years from the 1940s through the 1970s, Black radio in Pittsburgh emerged as one of the most powerful voices of the community, capturing and reflecting the music and culture of its residents as well as providing a forum where they could discuss public affairs and rally for racial justice. During that era, WAMO, as the flagship of Black radio, maintained listener loyalty and turned a decent profit. For a people steeped more in the oral than the written tradition, the case could be made that during those “glory” decades, WAMO was at least as important as Black Pittsburgh’s other media giant, the Courier.
|Small crowd gathered at corner outside Studio Dee, WHOD radio station, Herron and Centre avenues, Hill District, Aug. 1, 1951.
In the 1980s, this successful cultural and economic model began to fall apart. BET and MTV offered music that competed successfully for young listeners, and older listeners tuned in to the Black-oriented public affairs programs offered by mainstream radio and TV stations. Disco, and later hip-hop, attracted increasing numbers of White listeners, which helped boost ratings and secure needed advertising revenue. But as WAMO reoriented its programming toward an “urban contemporary” format to attract more such cross-over listeners, it risked alienating Blacks, who worried that the station was losing its racial identity and historic role of voice of the community. The story of WAMO from the 1980s to the present is one of increasingly desperate efforts to find a programming formula that would maintain its racial base and at the same time expand its white listenership.
The Rise of Black Radio: 1948 through the 1970s
|Man and WHOD disc jockey Mary Dee, standing in front of Western Electric broadcasting equipment in WHOD radio station, c. 1948-1956.
The story of Black radio in Pittsburgh begins in the late 1940s, not long after the end of WWII. The Courier’s “Double V” campaign for democracy abroad and racial democracy at home made Whites more amenable to racial change, and Blacks more insistent.
Reflecting this new mood, in August 1948, Roy Ferree, a young White navy man returned from the war imbued with the ideals of racial and ethnic democracy, and founded WHOD, a small, 250-watt multicultural station. Called the “Station of Nations,” WHOD aired the voices of Homestead’s immigrant, blue-collar residents.
|Men including disc jockey Porky Chedwick on microphone, in WAMO broadcast booth, with Mary Lou Williams records on display, sandwich board identifying disc jockeys Sunny Jim Kelsey, Porky Chedwick, Bill Powell, Sir Walter (Raleigh), next to Breakfast Cheer coffee booth at trade show, c. 1956-1965.
Upon learning of WHOD, a young Pittsburgh gal fresh out of Pittsburgh’s St. Mann Radio School named Mary Dudley, the daughter of William Goode, owner of the Hill’s 24-hour pharmacy, approached Ferree about adding a Black voice to the broadcast. Ferree agreed to do so if she could find a sponsor, which she quickly did. On Aug. 1, 1948, when WHOD went on the air, Mary broke racial and gender barriers and became the nation’s first Black female disk jockey.
Mary’s show quickly gained an enthusiastic following. Despite some angry phone calls early on, 860 on the AM dial won many listeners as the novelty of a Polish, Italian, Croatian, Negro, German, Slavish, Grecian and Jewish program format appealed to many Pittsburghers. “Jewish Gems,” “Tony Ortale’s Italian Hour,” “Chester’s Polka Parade,” “Alex Avlon’s Grecian Melodies” and “Movin’ Around with Mary Dee” ultimately caused other stations to include ethnic and racial voices in their programs.
|Woman, John “Sir Walter” Christian and Rev. Bill Powell at the WAMO microphone in an office with pennants for the Pittsburgh Branch NAACP and WAMO, c. 1956-1970.
Within six months “Movin’ Around” expanded from 15 minutes to an hour, and two years later to two hours. To help fill the show, Mary brought in her brother, Mal, to run a daily Courier news segment, which also gained popularity. Blacks responded enthusiastically to Mal’s war against police beatings, Jim Crow, poor housing and prejudiced politicians by phoning in their own tales of personal mistreatment. Mary Dee then added Toki Johnson and Hazel Garland to cover community and women’s issues; in this way she pioneered the basic format of Black radio—music, news and community affairs.
Mary Dee’s coverage of Black music was augmented by Porky Chedwick, a young White enthusiast of Black music. Chedwick had joined the station at its founding and, along with Mary Dee, helped make WHOD’s multi-ethnic programming and especially its Black-oriented programming, an enormous success.
The 1950s: Success, competition and the surprising origins of WAMO
Mary Dee’s success of the 1940s continued into the ’50s. She attracted even national attention when Ebony magazine spotlighted her show which, in addition to playing the latest records, uncovered local talent and interviewed national celebrities like Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. In August 1951, “Studio Dee” opened at the corner of Herron and Centre avenues, where Mary broadcast behind a large window as young fans looked in and entreated her to play their requests. By mid-decade, her show grew to four hours, and “Studio D” moved down Centre Avenue into the Courier building, located across from the YMCA.
By mid-decade, however, WHOD was upstaged by a station that saw the market possibilities of an all-Black-format. In 1954 WILY, at 1080 on the AM dial, opened with a proclamation by Mayor David Lawrence and the enthusiastic support of the Courier and local Black leaders.
WILY’s lead deejay, Bill Powell, hailed from Nashville but quickly became a beloved local fixture. Powell and fellow deejay Lee Doris celebrated rural Black culture by, as the Courier phrased it, “dishing it out Southern style,” talking up “anything from chitterlin’s to neckbones” and employing a patter of “hep-cat talk.” The paper added the Black Pittsburghers who were not happy with this approach “and raised their bushy eyebrows every time the two disc jockeys mispronounced a word,” need to recognized that WILY had become the second-highest rated Black radio station in the country.
By 1956, WILY’s all-Black format and 1,000-watt signal crippled WHOD and siphoned advertisers from its multi-cultural, 250-watt effort. The station’s desperate president, Leonard Walk told unhappy listeners, “We were in business to make money, not lose it,” and WHOD was losing money. In a controversial move that angered the Black community, Walk fired his Black staff and sold WHOD to a new station, WAMO, whose call letters referenced the city’s three rivers and whose programming, ironically, was country and western.
As a frustrated and angry Mary Dee left for Baltimore, WILY solidified its hold on local Black radio. Bill Powell sponsored a record hop featuring the Del Vikings and Deltones that drew more than 2,000 teenagers. In 1957 John Christian, known as “Sir Walter” as in “Sir Walter Raleigh, the gent with the (English) accent,” joined the station and also won a loyal following.
Despite outward appearances, WILY’s position was not secure, for there was a rapidly growing baby gorilla in town, called television. By the mid-1950s, television’s appeal caused many radio stations to scramble for listeners and advertisers, many by switching from “general market” broadcasting to “niche market” narrow-casting. WILY, however, did just the opposite, and in 1957 changed its call letters to WEEP and dropped its “Negro appeal” programming. Most Blacks were outraged, but others, who had objected to WILY’s focus on “hep talk” and sexually explicit rock-n-roll, considered its loss as good riddance.
WILY’s switch left Pittsburgh only briefly without a Black-oriented radio station, for in 1958 WAMO switched from country and western to what it termed a “New Sound” that focused exclusively on Black programming. The station brought in deejays Bill Powell, Sir Walter and Porky Chedwick, billed as the station’s “Big Three,” who catered to a wide range of musical tastes. Sir Walter’s hi-tone accent, impeccable manners and wake-up show featuring urbane, smooth tunes appealed to an older, more middle-class crowd; Bill Powell’s late morning/early afternoon mix of banter, pop tunes and R&B had broad appeal; Porky Chedwick’s anchor spot from 4 p.m. until sign-off appealed to younger listeners with the host’s zany monikers (“Pork-the-Tork, Daddio-of-the-Raddio, Platter-Pushin-Poppa, Boss with the Sauce”) and emphasis on rock-n-roll.
The 1960s: WAMO’s Glory Decade
The 1960s belonged to WAMO, as the station boosted its signal from 250- to 1,000- watts, built two large towers that carried its signal into Ohio and West Virginia, established an FM station for what it bragged was a “Double WAMO,” and by the middle of the decade began broadcasting 24 hours a day.
Mal Goode, the station’s news director, kept a large, loyal audience in Pittsburgh. Goode, as well as other newscasters on WAMO, held their own against mainstream competition because those stations failed to cover news developments with a perspective and thoroughness that informed the Black community.
Other station employees developed their own followings. The quirky deejay “Brother Love” programmed madcap “freakouts” that introduced Pittsburghers to cutting-edge underground, psychedelic rock by groups like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. The ever-popular Chedwick attracted legions of White as well as Black listeners, and in 1962 achieved fame when he sponsored a monster “Spectacular” at the Syria Mosque that brought in performers like Bo Diddley, the Drifters and Flamingos.
Bill Powell became the public face of WAMO and won the station deep public affection. Powell was active in the community, running for office, heading membership drives by civil rights organizations, and emceeing at banquets and community events. Such community involvement was encouraged by Leonard Wolk, former owner of WHOD, who plunged the station into community work and promoted NAACP voter registration and membership drives. One of the station’s biggest coups was a live broadcast of the massive 1961 Freedom Rally at Forbes Field that featured Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr. and Mahalia Jackson. Indeed, WAMO increasingly became the voice of Black Pittsburgh during the civil rights movement, both because of its dedication and because it filled a growing void. The void stemmed from the fact that during the 1960s the quality of Black Pittsburgh’s flagship newspaper, the Courier, declined to the point that it no longer provided comprehensive coverage of news affecting the Black community. As WAMO increasingly became the voice of the community, the station and its White manager, Leonard Walk, were applauded by community and civic leaders.