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spring 2006 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

The Death of Black Radio
By Mary Kay Tonnies

Webster University Media Communications Department adjunct faculty member Bernie Hayes has spent more than 50 years of his life working in radio. As an African American working in the industry for the last 50 years, he has witnessed what he describes as "the death of black radio."

Hayes, 70, has compiled his memoirs into a new book, entitled "The Death of Black Radio: A Personal Perspective, and, The Story of America's Black Radio Personalities." The book was released in November of last year, by iUniverse, Inc.

"Black radio is nothing like it used to be," says Hayes. "Black radio used to be personality radio — it used to give information to the community, it used to respect the community, to play records that the community liked." Hayes feels that black radio today is used as a medium where disc jockeys disrespect their listeners. He says, "They're using all kinds of foul language. It was never like that before; it was personality driven, and it was love driven."

Bernie Hayes Putting together his book, "The Death of Black Radio," has been a seven-year, continual project for Hayes. He gathered all the information from scrapbooks he has kept throughout his career. "I didn't know I was documenting it as I was doing it," he says. "I'm a pack-rat, I just kept things. All the memorabilia in there, as I stated in the book, most of it I have at home, from newspaper articles, personal photographs, appearances or just friends."

Hayes recalls the days when black radio personalities were celebrities in the community. He says, "Personalities used to include all segments of the community, the young and the old. They gave information as to what was happening in the community."

Hayes is one of the best-known black radio personalities in the United States. His broadcasting career started in 1950 in the Air Force, when he worked as an announcer for the Armed Forces Radio Service. He received a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and began working for KDBS in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1956. He was the only black disk jockey in the area. Emmett Till had just been murdered the year before, and the bus boycott was happening in Alabama. Hayes recognized that it was vital for African American voices to be heard on the radio.

Hayes worked in Chicago from 1960 to 1964. Mixed in with blues, jazz and gospel music, Hayes began airing the voices of the civil rights movement. He says, "Any person I spoke to during that period, I was merely trying to get information from them to the public." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the leader of the movement at the time. Working with King, Hayes says, was thrilling. "I was just another voice that he would talk to, but to describe it now, it was magnificent, it was fulfilling. It was a challenge, but it was beautiful. Work with Dr. King was just phenomenal."

He had no idea, then, how magnificent it was to become. "I just knew I had to get the information out to the public," he says. "It was not until Dr. King's assassination, I assume, that I realized what he had contributed, what he had done, and what I had done."
Hayes recalls, "Dr. King, at the time in the '60s, was a very controversial figure, not only in America or around the world, but in the African American community. There were people who did not want him coming into their communities, the black people, thinking he was stirring up trouble because they were pretty passive. People tried to keep him out of most northern cities. The majority was satisfied with the status quo and just went along with the program. It was thrilling to talk to Dr. King, because I was getting the information out through the airwaves, but I didn't realize until later what an impact it had."

From Chicago, Hayes moved to San Francisco in 1964, and worked for station KSOL, the leading African American station in the area. During a time when rock music was pushing R&B and blues to the background, Hayes proudly played new black artists and introduced unknown music to the area. He continued to play excerpts from King speeches at breaks. The founding members of the Black Panthers listened to Hayes' show in San Francisco. He is very proud of the impact he feels he had on their movement.

Hayes came to St. Louis in 1965, and has been an instrumental and celebrated figure in St. Louis radio ever since. As media consolidation began to affect the radio industry, being driven by profits instead of black dedication, Hayes began to see changes in the community. In his book he writes, "It was evident that white station owners who programmed to the African American community had devised strategies to fool their audience by acting as if to be concerned about the problems. It was then as it is now, simple to find black people who do not feel a kinship to their community."

Hayes calls for more black media ownership and more black dedication. "Even the black owners today are profit driven, also. They're still in an industry that is profit motivated, and they're in it to make business, to make money."

He hopes young people of color interested in radio or journalism gain back that black dedication he saw during the '50s and '60s. He says, "If they are community oriented, if they are thinking about the community, if they are thinking about the survival of race or a people or a culture, perhaps things may change."

Hayes has strong words for today's media and for the African American community: "So, it's the African American community, they're the ones who should be fighting back. They're putting their stamp of approval on certain areas, getting made, getting paid. They could stop it if they want. Perhaps they don't know they have the power to stop it. The African American community should have the leadership and power to say, 'Hey stop it, this is enough.' But they don't. I assume they don't want to."

Hayes says, "These rappers, the children of the super-fly generation, are trying to get paid. Those who will not be educated think that is the lifestyle they want to follow for the rest of their lives; they don't think about social security, they don't think they need a pension plan, most don't even think they are going to live beyond 25 or 30 years old. That's what's troubling to me."

Bernie Hayes' book, "The Death of Black Radio," is available at Legacy Books and Café, 5249 Delmar Blvd., or through the iUniverse website.

For more information, on events being planned, you may email Bernie at He will send updates to those interested as they become available.

Mary Kaye Tonnies is a student at Webster University.

© 2006 The Commonspace