Title: Encyclopedia of Black Radio in the United States, 1921-1955
Author: Ryan Ellett
Publisher: McFarland (order line: 800-253-2187)
Format: Hardcover book (208 p.), Ebook ed.
Release date: Spring 2012
Ryan Ellett, the founding editor of Old Radio Times (the official publication of the Old Time Radio Researchers), has performed a valuable service to scholars and fans of black-oriented radio through the compilation of this concise encyclopedia. As he points out in the Preface, “radio records from the industry’s first decade are sketchy and rare” due to the fact that black programs were rarely sponsored, were typically broadcast by small local stations, and little documentation exists outside of newspaper advertisements. Though interest in this topic has increased greatly over the last decade, leading to several outstanding histories such as William Barlow’s Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio (1999), reliable information on the early years of black radio has been difficult to find.
The encyclopedia begins with the debut of the Amos ‘n’ Andy program in 1928 and concludes in the mid-1950s, even though Ellett states that the “golden era” of dramatic radio stretched until 1962 (no rationale is given for his arbitrary cut-off date of 1955). Content includes the more prominent news programs, variety shows and dramas featuring African American journalists, actors and musicians, as well as popular radio series based on African American themes and content such as Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah.
The main entries are arranged alphabetically, program titles interspersed with personal names. Short profiles of actors, musicians, journalists, and the most prominent disc jockeys of the era (Al Benson, Jack Cooper, Eddie Honesty, Hal Jackson, and Nat D. Williams) are included. Though all entries cite sources at the end, regrettably there is no mention of which programs, if any, are extant. Appendices and indexes include a “Station List” (call numbers and location/market), a chronological list of “Debuts and Notable Events,” and “Episode Guides to Two Early Series”—The Negro Achievement Hour (1928-1930) and The Negro Art Group Hour (1928-1930)—compiled from newspaper descriptions. The Bibliography lists books as well as a smattering of articles, dissertations, archival sources, magazines, newspapers, and websites.
While the brevity (158 pages of main entries) makes for an edition that’s accessible and easy to use, unfortunately the cost ($95 hardcover, $50 ebook) makes it unaffordable for the casual researcher. Serious scholars will still wish to consult the massive two-volume Swingin’ on the Ether Waves: A Chronological History of African Americans in Radio and Television Programming, 1925-1955 by Henry T. Sampson (2005). And those interested in the development of rhythm and blues radio, post-1950 deejays, and black-owned stations will also need to consult sources with a more contemporary focus (for example, there is no mention of B.B. King’s radio programs on WDIA in the late 1940s).
Those wishing to further explore black radio are invited to check out the Archives of African American Music and Culture which holds several black radio collections, and has included selected images in a new online exhibit of black radio photographs.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss