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.

That was important, because at that time the (other) stations had very, very few African-Americans that were participating.

The music was an inspiration. Sometimes people turned it on to hear the music, but along the way they got the message. They were attracted by some good jazz and blues, and along with that would be the story.

I think it is still (important). Of course, with new areas of communication, and with all the new gadgets that I don't know very much about, it doesn't have quite the support that it did. But that's true of most of the reading and listening areas of communication.

But even more so in the African-American community, because so many of the earlier listeners are now older people. It doesn't have the kind of clamorous support that existed in those early days of '60s and '70s.

But the dynamics of black culture embodied in the music of jazz and blues and gospel continue to be very, very much embraced by even younger generations.

Ken Dunkin
State representative in the 5th District, and frequent WVON guest

You want to know the pulse of what's happening in our community, what we're thinking on particular issues? You want to learn about what matters, what impacts us directly or indirectly? That's the source you go to. It's been playing a critical role since the '60s.

Mainstream media takes a mainstream approach on most subject matters, meaning a predominantly Eurocentric mindset, which is OK. But the black community has unique and particular issues that impact it on a daily basis, historically, and in terms of our connections with ourselves and the rest of the country.

You go to a 'VON to really ferret out your particular opinion or perspective on a subject matter, on an issue, and you get really straight talk on an issue. It's straight, no chaser.

The hosts are not afraid to give an actual opinion on a hard subject matter such as guns, and what we need to do with these knuckleheaded kids who are adding to these atrocities out here.

The mayor, the governor, preachers, players, from A to Z, people would not have a real sense of what's going on, or a pulse of what's going on in our city (without WVON).

If you listen to 'VON, as I have over the years, it's a unique voice to a unique people in America. And you'll see that blacks are not a monolith in our opinions. We go from one extreme to another, and we always meet up in the middle.

If you look at history, from Lu Palmer to Herb Kent, even with Pervis Spann, with blues, Cliff Kelley today, I can look at a number of individuals — the reasons I can communicate with the black community is because of 'VON.

I always say that WVON has one of the most intelligent listening audiences in the country because you cannot get away with saying (just anything), however rational or irrational it is. You will have some strong feedback supporting or in opposition.

If you want a very honest and culturally specific perspective, as it relates to black people — and I'm talking domestic, as well as foreign — WVON will give you an impressive array. It's a very learned audience. You'll get some good old-fashioned common-sense intelligence, and you better know what you're talking about, because they'll put a corrective measure in there as soon as possible.

They don't play it safe. If they continue to be the voice of the nation, we'll always respond. WVON, in all of its glory, it has to continue that legacy of being honest, of being culturally specific.

It's OK to have a strong black radio station in our country. There's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't have to be PC. Doesn't have to be overassimilated. It knows its audience. It needs to continue that.

We're a better nation because of the Voice of a Nation.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

WVON 50: 50th Anniversary Grand Gala
7 p.m. Saturday
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
$100-$500 at wvon.com or ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

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