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

  • Pin It

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.

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.

Conrad Worrill
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.”

Timuel Black
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.

  • Pin It

Local & National Video