THE VOICE OF BRONZEVILLE: Chicago’s Black Radio History
By Michael Theobald
The godfather of black radio in Chicago was Jack Cooper, a former boxer and vaudeville performer. Working for the Chicago Defender at their Washington DC office in 1926, he was offered an opportunity to perform on a local station doing dialect humor—basically the radio version of minstrel show comedy. The station was located in a segregated hotel, so Cooper had to take a freight elevator to the studio. He wrote, produced and performed the entire show himself, playing all the roles. He would later joke that he was “the first four negroes in radio.” For this he was paid five dollars a show. After a couple of years, Cooper quit and moved to Chicago, where he tried to sell the idea of a black radio show to numerous stations around town. Finally, in 1929, Cooper convinced the owner of a small radio station, WSBC, specializing in foreign language programming for Chicago’s vast and myriad white ethnic communities, to give him a show. The “All-Colored Hour,” soon to be renamed “The All-Negro Hour” debuted in 1929.
The show became an almost immediate success, offering comedy, music and more. In the years that followed, Cooper created a radio empire in Chicago, expanding his hours at WSBC and buying time at a number of other stations. Cooper’s radio shows carried Negro League baseball games, sermons, gospel music, jazz and more. He was a constant presence on the air, and his smooth, eloquent delivery, devoid of a black accent or slang, made his speaking style a standard that the emerging black middle class aspired to. By the late 1940s, Cooper was earning over $200,000 a year, equivalent to $2.5 million today.
Cooper created the first black news program in Chicago, The Defender Newsreel, and had teams of reporters in mobile transmitter vans covering stories across the community. He had shows with job listings, educational programming, panel shows with black community and political leaders, and more.
But perhaps the most important show that Cooper created was “Search for Missing Persons,” which attempted to find family and friends scattered by the Great Migration from the south to Chicago. Over the years, it was credited with 20,000 reunions.
The other important figure in Chicago’s black radio history is Al Benson. An ordained minister, Benson began on radio in 1943, broadcasting gospel music and sermons under his real name, Arthur Leaner. In 1945, he began a new show on the same station, playing records under the Al Benson name. In contrast to Jack Cooper, he used black vernacular, slang and a distinctly African-American speaking style. “My approach to the people was down to earth,” he said. “I did not talk down to them. I was on their level. I made them feel that ‘he is one of us’.”
While Cooper played more sophisticated jazz, Benson played the blues—music from Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and others. His influence helped build those artists and many others, creating and popularizing the Chicago Blues scene. He owned record labels, music stores, and other businesses across the Chicago’s black community. He became an outpoken civil rights advocate, at one point hiring a plane to drop 5000 copies of the Bill of Rights over Mississippi.
Jack Cooper retired in 1959 and Al Benson in 1963, but their legacy of great music and strong community involvement continues to this day in black radio across the country.