Bernie Hayes’ career as a radio disc jockey has spanned over 50 years. As an African American radio pioneer, he has participated in historic civil rights and union battles to break down racism within the industry. He is the author of “The Death of Black Radio” and is a media and communications professor at Webster University in St. Louis.
First tell us a little about yourself and your history in the radio industry.
I started while I was in the service on Air Force Radio. I always had a desire to be a radio announcer. I went to the University of Illinois and then into the Air Force where I was able to continue my studies. In 1956 I got my first radio job in Alexandria, La., as a disc jockey and news announcer. In 1958 I went to New York, where I worked at WINS. From there I went back to Chicago in 1959. It has been a wonderful trip since then.
What about the history of African Americans in the radio industry?
The first African American radio broadcaster was Jack L. Cooper in Chicago in 1929. He was the reason why I got into radio. Black disc jockeys had been around for many, many years. We didn’t have much airtime though. We had to buy time; maybe 15 minutes, usually on a gospel station in the South.
But Jack L. Cooper and Bob Roberts, in 1929 on WEBC, were still on the air when I was young. And I would listen to them as I grew up. The genre spread, mostly into the South. And though I wasn’t one of the first, I am considered a pioneer.
In terms of being an African American radio pioneer, what was it like in the fifties?
It was horrible. I had a degree in journalism and still had to act like a fool while on the radio. They didn’t think Black folks had any intelligence. They thought we weren’t intelligent enough to do anything other than be buffoons and clowns.
The industry was very segregated, as it is now. Being Black in America is the same as being Black on the radio: it is such a closed, limited industry. So it was pretty tough just to get a job. The Black radio stations were under-financed, their staff underpaid. But if you loved it, you stayed.
While a white disc jockey was making $200, maybe $250 dollars a week, we were making $40 if that much. And we had to purchase airtime from the white owners. You had to find someone who would sell you time. So, in effect, they weren’t paying us anything. They were just giving us commission on what we sold.
We would go out and buy airtime and sell it to Coca-Cola. They’d pay us perhaps $50 for a week’s worth of commercials. Out of $50 we would have to take back perhaps 15 percent to the station owner. We had to buy that time from the station owner. It was called “brokerage.”
To be a staff announcer was very difficult also. You were still paid less than your white counterparts. That’s what happened in 1956, in Alexandria. I was the only African American at the station. I was getting paid about 10 percent of what the white disc jockey was getting paid. It didn’t get much better until the late sixties and seventies.
You’ve led strikes against racism at local radio stations here in St. Louis. Could you talk about that?
I was involved in four strikes here in St. Louis. I led each one of them.
In 1977 at radio station KKSS, Allen Eisenberg was the station manager and I was the program director. Everybody in the metro area was listening to KKSS at the time.
Scott St. James, a white disc jockey, came over from KMOX. I found out that Eisenberg wanted to put St. James above me, all the while he was being paid more than me. I asked Eisenberg why a disc jockey subservient to my position was being paid more than me. He said, with all seriousness, “white people are used to making more than Black people.” And that was the general, overall attitude of most white owners of the time.
I filed EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] charges. They came in and found that it was true, that I was being paid less. They fined the station, which paid me a minimal settlement. They were fined, and the FCC and the EEOC certainly reprimanded them.
The community, especially the African American community, was really behind me. They rallied, marched, picketed and put pressure on the owners. Some papers and community leaders started calling the radio station “KKK-SS.”
Were other unions supportive?
In Black radio, very few people, even in larger markets, belong to unions. The engineers will belong to a union. Management doesn’t want Black disc jockeys in the union. Then their salaries would increase.
I was a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Announcers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
In 1965 when I came here from San Francisco, we were only making $100 to $200 a week. The average salary in the industry was from $300 to $400 a week. So I tried to organize our disc jockeys, the Black jocks at KETZ. We tried to get our salaries increased. While this was going on, they got rid of me because I was the organizer. And after I left, they convinced the disc jockeys to drop the union. They threatened them. And I’m sure the jockeys thought keeping their jobs was the best they could do.
At the different radio stations that you worked at, how did management try to keep you from having a voice?
It was always the threat of being fired. You are always being threatened. The owners would say, “We are allowing you to work here, you should be grateful.” And that was the attitude of most Black disc jockeys of the time.
I’m sad to say that it is still the attitude of most disc jockeys today. To work in radio, most people think is a privilege, but really it is a profession and we have a responsibility to the people that we broadcast to. The station has a responsibility to the community that it serves. If I saw something that wasn’t right, I tried to do the right thing. Each time I did anything, took any action, the community backed me up.
Why do you think people have connected with you so much? Why has your message resonated?
Well, because I’ve connected with them. I’ve been on their side. I’ve tried to strive for right, to do the right thing, to be a voice for them. People in the St. Louis area right now don’t have a voice. They have no one to speak for them, to promote their interests, to give their side. I try to be a spokesperson. If there is an issue that needs to be discussed or revealed, I try to be that voice. And the people have recognized me for that and support me.
What effect has corporate control of the media had on community radio?
When Reagan and his regime deregulated the FCC rules and regulations, everything went downhill. The big business interests, the conglomerates, bought up all of the radio stations. They bought the newspapers. They bought the TV stations. So now they control everything. So everything that you hear is something that they decide to allow you to hear.
The Black radio industry, even the “Black-owned” radio stations, are owned by out-of-state companies. Very seldom will we see someone running a local Black-owned radio station. So they don’t have any desire or will to promote anything local or community-oriented.
Is that what you mean by the title of your book, “The Death of Black Radio”?
At one time Black disc jockeys were the voice of the community. They dispensed the information, the information that was perhaps life-saving to some people. They would tell you how to get food, how to get shelter. They would tell you about medical care and the different programs. They would tell you about the community meetings. This is what they did. And they were among the community. They would attend meetings. They would go to events. They would be seen in the community, almost like icons, because they were known and cared about the community.
But today it is nothing like that. Then Black disc jockeys cared about where they came from. Disc jockeys today don’t even know where they come from. So it’s not only the death of Black radio. It is the death of Black radio’s commitment to the community.
Is there a direct relationship, an intrinsic relationship, between a democratic media and a democratic society?
I would say so. The media industry is a racist industry. It always has been. It’s part of capitalism. Slavery is a part of capitalism. The reason they want to own all of the newspapers and radio and TV stations is part of capitalism. If you are a capitalist, you can buy it. And if you can buy it, you can control it. It goes hand in hand.
If the conglomerates control everything, all the information, how can working-class people make it? Look at Katrina. Look what happened there. Black and white working-class people suffered. All of this was done by capitalism. The only way we are going to make any change is to involve the community. You have to reach the people. It has to be for the people. It has to be democratic.
In the past 5-10 years we’ve seen an upsurge of what is being called the independent media movement. What is your take on that?
When it comes to anything economic, the African American community is usually 10-20 years behind. We can’t get financing. We can’t get the money. The new technology that is out now, that is evolving in the media industry, like the Internet, Black folks don’t have access to. Let me tell you this. Only 40 percent, maybe 50 percent of Black families own computers. Does that answer the question?
How can Black media activists network? Most people in the Black community don’t have access to the Internet. They have to go to the public library. The schools are trying to be upgraded. But the African American community and African American children in school are far behind. Black schools don’t have the money. They can’t get the technology into every classroom. The democratizing effects of the Internet really aren’t affecting the Black community in the same way because we don’t have access to it.
What about the cultural aspect of community radio?
Well, the most important thing I try to do is show people their history. Black history is very important to Black people. White people don’t realize that. They don’t know our culture, our history. I was trying to reveal that and revive our history. I would play “Lift Every Voice,” which is the African American national anthem. It is a song we started our days with, in school, in church. Somehow the Black community has gotten away from that because it wasn’t heard on the radio. I revived that. It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.
When I would play encouraging songs, like “Lift Every Voice,” the white owners and white management didn’t see the significance of that because it didn’t touch them. But it touched Black people. Black culture and Black history has not been very important to white people. That is why they took away our names during slavery. That is why they sold slaves downtown at the old courthouse. Their culture and history is important to them. But Black history and culture isn’t important to them. Black radio isn’t important to them. You can’t find archives of Black radio stations. But we need to preserve it.
Tony Pecinovsky (tonypec @ cpusa.org) is on the staff of the Missouri/Kansas Communist Party.