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

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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.

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.”

Herb Kent
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.

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