Remembering Hal Jackson, the Godfather of Black Radio

The world lost one of the most legendary and respected pioneers of the communications industry on May 23, 2012, a gentleman and one of the nicest and kindest people in the business: Mr. Hal Jackson.

Over his illustrious 70 year career, Jackson was a music host, talk show host, sportscaster, TV host, live show emcee, and a historian of black music and radio. Moreover, he broke down many racial barriers in the then- segregated communications industry.

Harold Baron Jackson was born in Charleston, SC, on Nov. 3, 1915, one of five children of Eugene Baron Jackson, a tailor, and the former Laura Rivers. Both of his parents died when he was a child and he lived with relatives in Charleston and New York before settling in Washington, D.C., where he graduated from Dunbar High School and attended classes at Howard University.

A sports enthusiast, in 1939 Jackson approached the management of WINX, owned by The Washington Post, about covering black sporting events for the station. However, he was told that station policy prohibited hiring black announcers. More bluntly, he was told,  “No n—— will ever be on my radio station.” Never taking no for an answer, Jackson persuaded a white-owned advertising agency to buy time on WINX for a 15-minute interview and entertainment show without revealing that he was involved. He showed up in the studio at the last possible moment and was on the air with “The Bronze Review” black sports segment before management could stop him.

After breaking down that racial barrier, Jackson went on to host a music show at WINX and broadcast Howard University football and Negro League baseball. He also became a sports entrepreneur, assembling an all-black basketball team, the Washington Bears, which won the invitational World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1943.

By the end of the decade, Jackson’s voice could be heard on four different stations in the Washington, D.C. area, most notably WOOK in Silver Springs, MD, where he established his charismatic persona with the music show ‘The House That Jack Built” (which years later became the title of his autobiography). His approach, in stark contrast to the hyper, jive-talking style of black radio announcers of the time, would influence many other disc jockeys.

“How are you?” he would begin. “This is Hal Jackson, the host that loves you the most, welcoming you to ‘The House That Jack Built.’ We’re rolling out the musical carpet, and we’ll be spinning a few just for you. So come on in, sit back, relax and enjoy your favorite recording stars from here to Mars.”

While in Washington, D.C. he was also a civil rights fund-raiser and broke into television as host of a local variety show broadcast live from the Howard Theater in the spring and summer of 1949.

Jackson moved to New  York in 1954 and, within a few years, was the first New York City radio personality to host three different radio shows, including WABC’s live midnight broadcast from the jazz nightclub Birdland. The other two stations played R&B and pop. He was the first black announcer to host a continuing network radio show. In the latter part of the decade, he briefly had his own Sunday morning children’s television show.

Jackson was caught up in the payola scandal of 1960, charged with accepting bribes to play certain records and was forced off the air for a while in New York. The charges were eventually dropped.

Jackson began his long career as an executive in the 1960s as program director of the Queens, New York radio station WWRL.

The night Jackson’s friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Jackson took to the airwaves and went out on the streets, urging all to remain peaceful and stay at home.

Jackson went on to produce and host concerts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Central Park, and at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.

Jackson also established the Miss Black Teenage America Pageant, later renamed Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens International, and would be produced for international television syndication by Hal Jackson Productions, one of the first black television production companies in the nation. This prestigious event gave young black girls from 13 to 17 years of age a chance to display their performing talents and compete for scholarships and the opportunity to network with women from around the world. Past winners and participants include Sheryl Piland,  Vanessa Williams and Jada Pinkett Smith.

One of the many prizes pageant winners received was a chance to appear on Soul Train to be interviewed by host Don Cornelius. Pageant winners, along with Jackson, appeared on the show from 1973 to 1988.

Jackson helped many people get their start in show business and behind-the-scenes, and opened doors for numerous people. He gave The Jackson 5 their very first television appearance on the Miss Black Teenage America Pageant in 1969 and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1971, Jackson was one of a group of black entertainers, businessmen and politicians–among them Percy Sutton, the Manhattan borough president–who formed Inner City Broadcasting and bought WLIB-AM and its FM sister station, which became the first black-owned radio station in the city.

As vice president of the FM station, which was renamed WBLS, Jackson hired disc jockey Frankie Crocker as program director and oversaw the station’s shift from jazz to what Mr. Crocker christened “urban contemporary radio”: a combination of rhythm and blues, dance music, and other genres designed to appeal to young listeners across racial lines. (Hip-hop was added in later years.) When Crocker left, Jackson became program director and by the mid-1970s, WBLS was the No. 1 station in New York.

Jackson was behind the idea to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Because of Hal’s access to the airwaves, he was instrumental in stimulating the initial movement for the 6.5 million signatures solicited on petitions and letters submitted to Representatives John Conyers and Shirley Chisholm on behalf of making Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.

Working behind the scenes at Inner City Broadcasting rather than behind the microphone, Mr. Jackson helped shape programming at stations acquired by the company around the country as it grew into the first black-owned radio empire. But when a slot opened on Sunday mornings at WBLS, he decided to return to the air.

Hal Jackson’s “Sunday Morning Classics” radio show, which would become a ritual on Sunday mornings in many households, made its debut in 1982 on 107.5 WBLS. Originally two hours, the program’s length ran for eight hours for several years until recently, when it aired from 3PM to 6PM. The program featured a mix of soul, jazz, blues and hip-hop music from different eras and was hosted by Jackson and Clay Berry and his wife Debbi, and has been rated #1 by Arbitron continuously in its time slot for over 11 years. Since Jackson’s passing, the program remains on the air, now hosted by Debbi and Clay Berry.

Jackson’s awards over the years are too numerous to mention, but they include four presidential commendations from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy, Jr. In 1989 Hal Jackson’s 50 Years of Broadcasting and his major contributions to youth and charitable causes was acknowledged by the Honorable Mervyn M. Dymally of California on the floor of the House of Representatives, which has become a part of the Congressional Record. In 1990, Jackson became the first black host inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame; he was the first black inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1995, and in October of 1995 he was the first African American inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. In November of 1999, Mr. Jackson celebrated 60 years of broadcasting leadership with a star-studded event at the Rainbow Room in New York. In 2001 Jackson was inducted in the Broadcast & Cable Hall of Fame and he was named a “Giant of Broadcasting” by the Library of American Broadcasting in 2010.

As a radio pioneer, Jackson experienced many “firsts” that have assisted in opening doors for other aspiring Black broadcasters, musicians and performers. He was the first African American radio announcer in network radio; he was the first to broadcast live from New York into Japan; the first New York City radio personality to broadcast three daily shows on three different stations in the same day; the first black person to host an interracial network TV show on NBC-TV; and the first to broadcast live via satellite from Jamaica into New York .

But what was more important to Jackson than all of the awards, honors and accolades was just simply being able to help people, particularly young people, and open the doors of opportunities for them. Not only did I have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jackson several times, he even granted me an interview for a book I was writing while I was attending Morgan State University. He was indeed one of the kindest, generous and nicest gentlemen I’ve ever known.

Jackson’s legacy can be summed up in the motto he lived by which is contained in his autobiography The House That Jack Built: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s also important to be nice.”

- Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, soul music historian and Soul Train historian

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