For the past two weeks, an iconic Chicago institution has celebrated its golden anniversary. WVON 1690AM—the city's only Black-owned and operated radio station—officially marked its 50th anniversary on April 1. The all-talk radio station celebrated its half-century milestone last weekend with a star-studded gala at the Chicago Theater. The event was hosted by Tracee Ellis Ross and headlined by the Grammy Award-winning singer Toni Braxton. Among those in attendance: Civil rights activist Dick Gregory, businesswoman and investment advisor Mellody Hobson, her fiancé, Star Wars director George Lucas, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Chicago radio icon Herb Kent and many others.
“It’s almost unheard of to have an independent Black talk radio station survive this long—especially in a market this large,” WVON’s president and general manager Melody Spann-Cooper—described as one of the "most powerful women in Chicago journalism"— told EBONY.com. “But we could only do it in Chicago.”
“No other station in Chicago is doing what WVON is doing—engaging Black folks in conversations about themselves and their communities,” said Harold Lucas, president and chief executive officer of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council.
WVON hit the airwaves in 1963 and was initially known as the “Voice of the Negro.” The station’s success is closely related to the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the rise of Black political power in Chicago and in Washington D.C. WVON was founded by Chicago music and broadcasting pioneer Pervis "The Blues Man" Spann—Spann-Cooper’s father. Spann and partner Wesley South—a former writer/editor for the Chicago Defender and Ebony/JET—were early on-air personalities—as well as Herb “The Cool Gent” Kent, who is now a host on Chicago’s WVAZ-FM.
“I was a disc jockey [at WVON] and played music like no one else could during that time,” Kent told DNAInfo.com. “I knew then WVON would last—but did not know how long.”
The station switched to an all-talk format and moved to 1690 AM in 1986. Spann and South owned much of the station until Melody Spann-Cooper took over in 2006.
Black radio historically has had a “large cultural and political influence” in Chicago. Popular syndicated personalities Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey also started in this market.
“Don Cornelius also started his career at WVON,” added Spann-Cooper, referencing the late creator and host of the iconic Soul Train, which was broadcast from 1970 to 2006. “Dr. Martin Luther King spent some of his last years in Chicago and used WVON as a bully pulpit to organize around housing and job discrimination.”
WVON was initially “only a 1000-watt station but it quickly became the go-to” platform for Motown Records, WVON host Cliff Kelley told EBONY.com. Kelley has hosted “The Cliff Kelley Show” for more than 20 years and served on Chicago’s City Council for 16 years.
Spann, South, Kent and other WVON disc jockeys “had a major influence” during the 1968 riots after the assassination of Dr. King, said Kelley. “When the riots were happening on the city’s West Side, it was these same disc jockeys that went out with loud speakers on trucks to calm things down. The police said it would have been a lot worse if they had not."
“WVON was once called the ‘Voice of the Negro.’ Now, we call it the ‘Voice of the Nation’,” said Kelley. “It’s a Chicago voice that has echoed nationwide—from our helping Harold Washington become the city’s first Black mayor to the election of Barack Obama to the Senate.”
Early in his political career, the then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama “often appeared as a guest” and even sat in as “host several times for Cliff [Kelley],” Spann-Cooper said.
President Obama called in live to Kelley’s show last week to congratulate the station on 50 years of success. "I'm so proud of WVON," said the President. "WVON has played such an important service to the community. It creates a conversation that's community based. When I was in the state senate [and] the U.S. Senate, there was never a better forum to describe some of the things we wanted to do.”
“Could Barack Obama’s story happen anywhere but Chicago?” asked Spann-Cooper. “We’ve sent three African Americans from the South Side to the United States Senate. And a now President. There is something very rich and fertile about the soil here.”
So what does the next 50 years look like for WVON?
“Whatever Black America will look like,” Spann-Cooper told EBONY.com. “We just tell the story. WVON is similar to JET and EBONY—you’re doing it on a national basis and we’re doing it on a local level. The key to our success has been having an authentic voice. Hopefully we’re doing a good job.”
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, The Atlantic, EBONY, the Los Angeles Times, The Advocate and others. Read his award-winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom