Monday, November 20, 2017

Who is Bill Branch?

There are difficulties with the Bill Branch story. There are exceedingly few contemporary print references attesting to the existence of Mr. Branch. However on November 3rd of 1947, the Chicago Tribune quoted the legendary Ebony magazine article "Sixteen Sepia Spielers" and humble bragged about the pioneering black DJs fof the greater Chicago area: Jack L. Cooper, Al Benson, Jack Gibson and Bill Branch. That local and contemporary corroboration confirms his existence.

The existence of WEAW-AM is somewhat harder to corroborate in 1947. There appears to have been some confusion on the part of the writer between the AM and FM designations. The Ebony article clearly referred to WEAW as a "kilocycle" station, in other words... operating on the AM band. But 1330 WEAW-AM didn't sign on until 1953. However, 105.1 WEAW-FM was on air in 1947, and it was brokering airtime to all comers. Note: this FM novelty also makes the obscure Bill Branch possibly the first black DJ on FM radio.

The WEAW-AM station errantly referred to in that Ebony article, began to operate in the 1950s, as a daytime-only repeater of WEAW-FM.  By the early 1970s, the station primarily aired brokered ethnic and religious programs. Then by the late 70s it tried an Adult contemporary format before backsliding into brokered programming again. In 1979, the station tried out a Christian contemporary format as "Praise 1330" and changed call letters to WPRZ. They changed calls to WEAZ in 1981 then to WSSY in 1987 with a flip to AC as "Sunny 1330." In 1990 it became WKTA with a doomed attempt at hard rock on the AM dial.

The station founder, Ed A. Wheeler, was quoted in a 1951 issue of Broadcasting Magazine referring to the station's prior FIVE years of sales, listing the sign-on in February of 1947, which can only be the FM stick. He named that station after himself:  Edward A. Wheeler.

Somewhat arbitrarily I came to believe that DJ Bill Branch was none other than the playright William Blackwell Branch. While he was born in Connecticut in 1927, he graduated from Northwestern University in 1949... in Evanston, IL.  He enrolled with scholarships won from the Elks and from Pepsi Cola. At first my theory rested entirely on time and place but in reading his bibliography, I increasingly found context. For example, expecially earlier in his career, Branch wrote dramas for television... i.e. for broadcast. Here's a partial list:

  • This Way, ABC, 1955
  • What Is Conscience?, CBS, 1955
  • Let's Find Out, National Council of Church, 1956
  • Light in the Southern Sky, NBC, 1958
  • Legacy of a Prophet, Educational Broadcasting Corp., 1959
  • The City (documentary series), Educational Broadcasting Corp., 1962–64
  • Still a Brother: Inside the Black Middle Class, NET, 1968
  • The Case of Non-Working Workers, NBC, 1972
  • The 20 Billion-Dollar-Rip-Off, NBC, 1972
  • No Room to Run, No Place to Hide, NBC, 1972
  • The Black Church in New York, NBC, 1973.
  • Afro-American Perspectives (series), PBS, 1973-74.
  • A Letter from Booker T., PBS, 1987.
My best evidence is an article Branch wrote about his studies for Opportunity magazine "The Journal of Negro Life" for the April-June 1947 issue. This was published in on or around the time he was supposedly on air. In his own words, Bill makes a passing reference to his radio resume.
"I've been at Northwestern for a year and a half now and already my future is beginning to take shape. A six month's run with the famous stage hit "Anna Lucasta," first place in two nationally recognized college oratorical contests, and a berth on the growing radio show, "Democracy U.S.A." have helped to bring closer to meaning, that distant term, "the future."
And there is was. The Program "Democracy USA" was not only real, but utterly ground-breaking. It was a drama about black achievement, written by Richard Durham.  (Robert Lucas also wrote for the program) The only problem is that  "Democracy USA"aired on WBBM not WEAW. Durham started out in the radio division of the WPA-sponsored Illinois Writers Project. He wrote for local Chicago radio shows in the 1940s while also working as an editor and journalist fat the Chicago Defender newspaper and Ebony magazine. So Durham is connected at both ends of this story giving rise to the possibility that he planted the young Mr. Branch in the list.

It is also possible that Branch was on air at WBBM on one or more episodes of Democracy USA. It is further possible that at some time in 1947 he bought some time on WEAW to host his own program. But after all that context, we are left with no proof.

Monday, November 13, 2017

DJ Bwana Johnny

The word "Bwana" has a bit of an ugly history. It is borrowed from the Kiswahili word bwana which means "boss" or “master” and has origins in the Arabic word abūnā, meaning “father.” During the "external colonization" of Africa, the word was used to describe European (white) bosses, meaning "lord" or "master." Google Ngram tells us the written use of the word peaked around 1961. That year Bwana Johnny was only 15 years old, but apocryphally he had already been a disc jockey for a year. More here. It remains his most long-standing on air-name, though he had several. Including Dick Kilpatrick on KGW and Dick Johnson on KKCW.

One article from 1972 noted that he was 25 years old and already had 11 years of radio experience "since his first job as a 14-year-old DJ in Portland, Oregon." I've never found any other info on him DJing at the age of 14. But it's possible. Most official accounts start his career at KLOO in Corvallis, OR in about 1968. (But some accounts have him DJ'ing at WIRK in Palm Beach in 1965 at 18 years old.) In 1968 he was already in Billboard Magazine beside DJ Wayne Shane and R&B artist O.C. Smith in the WUBE studios. There Drake format consultants made him change his on-air name to Johnny Johnson to avoid offending listeners. More here.

He was on KJR in 1969 and somewhere in the middle of 1970 to hit 101.5 KFLYKFLY-FM only signed on in 1966, so his resume was longer than theirs at the time.  Regardless,when he came to the Bay Area in 1969, "Beautiful Bwana" landed at 1260 KYA-AM. He moved on to WWDJ in New York to do double-duty as a music director and afternoon-drive jock from about 1971 to 1973.  He went from there to 790 WFUN-AM. Different sources have him landing there in 1975 or time traveling backward to start in 1972. More here.

It was after that he  returned to his hometown, Portland, OR as "Crazy Dick Simms" on the Rose City's legendary KISN in 1975. In about 1980 when KVAN became KARO, Bwana Johnny was a repeat interim PD and morning man through 1981. Then Bwana became "Bronco Johnny," spinning country records at KUUY in Cheyenne, WY , in 1983.  He went back to being Bwana at KSND in Eugene, OR, in 1985. More here.

He went back to being Bwana at KSND in 1985. In 2000, he worked mornings at KKBR in Billings, MT, after which he worked in production for the Seattle branch of Jones Radio Networks. After that his declining health led to his retirement. He died on October 28, 2005, at the age of 59 at which time he'd been a DJ for 45 years - a life time on air. More here. In the May 5th issue of R&R Bwana Johnny was quoted as saying:
"Early in my career money and benefits weren't the big factors. Just the idea of moving to a bigger station in a new market was motovation enough. It was nothing for me to pick up and move on. Just pack up my stuff in my car or a trailer and go. It was a great adventure."
A full accounting seems almost impossible but it includes: KLOG, WUBE, KJR, KLOO, KFLY, KUUY, KYA, KGB, WWDJ, WFUN, KSND, KODZ, KKCW, KGW, KPNW, and KKBR. More here.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Radio's Sweetheart Mildred Hunt

I often start these biographical excursions with a "best remembered for..." Alas, Mildred is hardly remembered at all. She has no biography that I'm aware of. What makes her more interesting as a historical figure is her nascent feminism. In the March 27th, 1930 issue of the Nazareth Item newspaper, in an un-credited article Hunt promotes the gender equality of broadcasting. In an article titled "Real Equality of Sexes Found in Radio Fields" she is quoted as saying
"In other professions men had a head-start, while woman were still in the kitchen or engaged in such ladylike jobs as teaching... in radio we started with an equal chance. The result is that today there are as many successful women radio singers and executives as men. And they've won their success without the aid of sex appeal, too."
The book Radio Round-ups: Intimate Glimpses of the Radio Stars, by Joseph Gurman and Myron Slager included the short bio:
"Mildred Hunt, known as the 'Crooning Contralto' ran away from boarding school at Wyoming Academy in Kingston, Pennsylvania to get into the Zeigfeld chorus. Her ability to sing was not recognized until Paul Whiteman urged her to study singing and go into radio. She cultivated her voice and followed his orders..."
It's a little patronizing, but at least she is a "star" by context and anyway that's all there is. The book Moanin' Low: A Discography of Female Popular Vocal Recordings by Ross Laird refers to Mildred as a comedienne on two tracks, and lists two cuts on Filmophone, the sound track company.

 Whiteman's involvement in her career makes sense in that Mildred would later sing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1927 on their Victor recording "A Shady Tree."  In May of 1929 she cut two more sides for Victor "Honey" and "My Dear." Phonograph Monthly Review called the recordings "intimate" and "extremely sentimental." It may sound like an insult today, but it was totally appropriate for the pop sensibilities of the day. Her song "Ho Hum" released by Decca in 1931 was described by The Gramophone as just "pleasing." That might have been an intended as faint praise.  But a 1928 Courier-News article praised her a contralto voice and noted that she sings with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra on the Eveready Hour. She was on the rise.

That year was probably near the peak of her career. A 1929 NBC press photo describes her as a "ballad singer" appearing as a soloist on a program by Roxy and his gang. Roxy is Samuel Rothafel, who began broadcasting in November of 1922. Through 1925, he broadcast his weekly variety show Roxy and His Gang live from the Capitol Theatre in New York. After that, The Roxy Hour was broadcast from the new Roxy Theatre on the NBC Blue network from 1927 to 1932. (Mondays at 7:30 PM) Her headshot further notes that the program is carried on WBZ, WJZ, WBZA, WBAL, WHAM, KDKA, KYW, KWK, WREN, WJR, KPRC, KOA, WHO, WRC, WOW, KVOO, WFAA, WSM, WSB, and WBT.

The same year she sang two songs in nightclub scenes in the film "Mother's Boy."  She also sang the theme "Redskin" for the 1929 film Red Skin, with the Ben Selvin Orchestra. She would cut some sides for Perfect Records in March of 1931 with top billing. All of her recordings together would barely make an LP today. DAHR (Discography of American Historical Recordings) has a decent listing here, but it excludes her Perfect records sessions. Honking Duck has one as well here. Then her media references stop abruptly in 1932 with a little sheet music. Her radio career appears to have abruptly faded away.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Los Domingos Con Maduro

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during his weekly broadcast ''Los Domingos con Maduro'' (Sundays with Maduro) in Caracas, Venezuela. Despite the political upheavals of this year Maduro has continued to broadcast on schedule on Sunday's at noon. His program even has it's own twitter account here.  The program it is broadcast on Venezuela's state-owned radio network VTV – Venezolana de Televisión, and their state-owned radio network Radio Nacional de Venezuela (RNV) .  They just broadcast episode 95 on October 8th, 2017.

For President Maduro this program has been a fundamental tool to interact with his constituents.  In some respects the program isn't that different from the weekly radio address of the President of the United States. It was a media practice started by Roosevelt in 1933, and restarted by Ronald Reagan in 1982. It's been continued since then, and even converted to a podcast, and Youtube videos. [Even Donald Trump has continued the tradition.]

But there are some practical differences. In the U.S. it has long become customary for the President's Weekly Radio Address to be followed by a response from the opposition party. Maduro's program is in no way a debate. Maduro offers a politically myopic programming. This in a nation that since 2003, Freedom House has ranked as "not free" when it comes to press freedom. Problematically Freedom House is funded by the U.S. government. This is reason to doubt it's conclusions.

But in Venezuela, government control of the media is entrenched in law. In 2004, under president Hugo Chavez, the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television was passed. This law allows the government to censor media in order to "promote social justice and further the development of the citizenry, democracy, peace, human rights, education, culture, public health, and the nation’s social and economic development." The language was Orwellian then, but even more chilling when it was extended to the Internet in 2010.

But perhaps the greater difference is that relatively few stations carry the American president's program. In Venezuela all of VTV and Radio Nacional de Venezuela carry Los Domingos con Maduro. According to a 2016 report by G2MI, Radio Nacional de Venezuela operates 52 FM stations and 9 AM stations. Most of them carry audio of the program... even if the logo is a little silly looking. Yet the multicolored hearts logo only debuted January 22nd of 2017.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Radio On The Road

Much is written about the classic novel On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. Virtually every charter in the novel is real, and all of them have their own biographies, and/or autobiographies. The book is rich with literary references to Nietzsche, Arthur Conan Doyle, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, Alain-Fournier, Kafka, Eugene Sue, Jack London, Céline, Proust and Melville to name a few. But the text is also loaded with references to music and radio.

Some of it is onomatopoeic jazz scat like the phrase "ta-tup-EE-da-de-dera-RUP! ta-tup-EE-da-da-dera-RUP!" But innumerable musicians named and unnamed march through the text as well. Geoge Shearing is referred to as a living god, but a similar reverence is held for Lester "Prez" Young, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, And Dizzy Gillespie whom they just call mad. But Lionel Hampton also gets a reference as do Irving Berlin, Wynonie Harris, Roy Eldridge, Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder, Louis Armstrong, Benny Moten and  Count Basie. Then there are at least five direct references to actual radio programs and/or radio stations in the text:

Part 4, Chapter 1:

"The radio was always on. "Man have you dug that mad Marty Glickman announcing basketball games―up-to-midcourt-bounce-fake-set-shot, swish, two points. Absolutely the greatest announcer I ever heard."
Marty Glickman was a former Olympic athlete turned radio announcer who was famous for his broadcasts of the New York Knicks basketball games,  and both the football games of the New York Jets and New York Giants. In 1939, Glickman graduated from Syracuse University. After his short professional sports career he joined the radio station 1050 WHN-AM in New York City. He took a break for WWII, and returned in 1945 soon becoming the voice of the sports newsreels distributed by Paramount News. On those reels he became the voice of the New York Knicks and New York Giants for over two decades. He became the announcer for the New York Knickerbockers in 1946, the year they were formed. The quote above is contextually in 1949, when Glickman was 32 sports director at WHN and arguably at his peak.

Part 2, Chapter 6:

We were suddenly driving along the blue waters of the Gulf, and at the same time a momentous mad thing began on the radio; it was the Chicken Jazz'n Gumbo disk-jockey show from New Orleans, all mad jazz records, colored records, with the disk-jockey saying, "Don't worry 'bout nothing!"
The city of New Orleans is very real. But that radio program was not... at least not exactly.  However, in 1949 there was a late night “Jam, Jive and Gumbo Show,” on 1230 WJBW-AM hosted by Duke Thil, aka Vernon Winslow More here.

Part 1, Chapter 4:

I was drunk enough to go for anything. And the truck reached the outskirts of Cheyenne, we saw the high red lights of the local radio station, and suddenly we were bucking through a great strange crowd of people that poured on both sidewalks.
Frankly there weren't that many radio towers on the outskirts of Cheyenne in 1947. In fact there was only one:  1240 KFBC-AM signed on in 1940, [SOURCE] Their first local competition, 1370 KVWO-AM didn't sign on until 1952, more here. It was a long time before there was a third station. In that year the population of the whole county was just over 30,000 people.

Part 2, Chapter 8:

"Clint, Texas!" said Dean. He had the radio on to the Clint station. Every fifteen minutes they played a record; the rest of the time it was commercials about a high-school correspondence course. "This program is beamed all over the west." cried Dean excitedly. "Man I used to listen to it day and night in reform school and prison."
Clint, Texas is a mere 25 miles to El Paso, or Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Today there are zero stations using Clint as their city of license. But the same was true in 1949. But 800 XELO-AM in Ciudad Juárez received it's mail at an address of Clint, TX. So musicians like Hank Thompson and Slim Hawkins took orders for their song books there.  This can be heard on a number of extant XELO transcriptions discs. The city of El Paso had all of four stations: KEPO, KROD, KELPKSET, and KTSM none of which fit the description. The stations use of the Clint zip code comes up in the book Border Radio by Gene Fowler, Ramblin' Man by Ed Cray, and The Roots of Texas Music by Lawrence Clayton. This border blaster was audible clear up into Colorado at 150,000 watts just as Dean describes.

Part 4, Chapter 6:

"Dawn came rapidly in a gray haze revealing dense swamps sunk on both sides, with tall, forlorn, viny trees leaning and bowing over tangled bottoms. We bowled right along the railroad tracks for a while. The strange radio-station antenna of Ciudad Mante appeared ahead as if we were in Nebraska."
This could be a number of stations. The most likely would be short wave station XECMT, on 6090 kHz. In that era Ciudad Mante is estimated to have had a population of about 25,000, more than double Cheyenne. But it had little radio. The UAT radio network came to town in the 1980s, and the Radio Tamaulipas network not at least until the popular advent of FM radio. We must exclude 840 XHEMY-AM as it didn't sign on until 1966; even 1450 XECM-AM is a little late signing on in  November of 1951.