Detroit boasts of having aired first Black TV channel
Before there was Black Entertainment Television (BET) and other Black-themed channels, there was Detroit’s WGPR-TV.
“This is where it began,” declared Tracy Irwin, director of exhibitions and collections at the Detroit Historical Society, which hosted “America’s Broadcasting Pioneer: WGPR-TV 62” from January 23-April 3, 2016. Artifacts, videos, pictures and images showcased both the history and people behind the television station, now owned by CBS.
Its sister radio station, WGPR-FM, now owned by Radio One, was on the museum’s second floor.
WGPR-TV 62 is now a traveling exhibit currently housed in its West Jefferson location in Detroit, which has been named a historical landmark. The “Community Gallery,” where city neighborhoods and community groups are exhibited, is next to the “Doorway to Freedom — Detroit and The Underground Railroad” exhibition.
WGPR, which local lore has standing for “Where God’s Presence Radiates,” debuted on the air in December 1961, then was bought by the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons in 1964. The group’s leader, William V. Banks, served as both station president and general manager of the radio station, as well as later manager of Channel 62, America’s first Black-owned-and-operated television station in 1975.
Hailed by then-president Gerald Ford, stories on the station’s debut ran in national publications such as Jet Magazine and daily newspapers. Channel 62 wasn’t Detroit’s first independent television station, but in many ways at the time it was groundbreaking. It was Detroit’s first 24-hour, full-color TV station.
“WGPR-TV filled the majority of its broadcast day with shows produced by local writers, producers, directors and performers. The line-up of original programs sits WGPR-TV apart as the voice of Detroit and its people,” says the introductory paragraph on the “Original Programming” graphic.
“Big City News” was the first time Detroiters saw all-Black prime-time newscasts from the anchor desk to field reporters. It was the first local station to use electronic news gathering (ENG) cameras. Black-hosted talk shows, including a morning program similar to the networks’, and three music dance shows, including the popular daily The Scene, all were program offerings.
“The Scene was very local, and people felt a real connection because it was their hometown,” added Sarah Murphy, the Society’s marketing and PR manager. “It was a nice precursor for what came later.”
Asked if WGPR perhaps provided the blueprint for BET, which emerged a few years later, Murphy said, “I think you can certainly make that case.”
“I did not know — and I watched it when I was a kid — that it was such a diverse station,’ said Irwin. “It is really one of the first stations that had an Arab-American show, Polish shows, and all different ethnicities. It was a real inclusive station.
“There is so much to tell,” continued Irwin. “[The station] was about putting Detroit on the map. It’s being a space for broadcasters for African American broadcasting.”
Detroit native Shaun Robinson, an Emmy Award-winning journalist who hosted Access Hollywood (1999-2015), was among many others who got their start at WGPR.
“I didn’t know that so many people who are working in the industry…all across the country started at this station,” said actor and host Karen Brundidge of Detroit while viewing the WGPR exhibit. “That’s really cool to see.”
“There wasn’t CNN or Fox back then,” added Sika Fox of Detroit. “[WGPR] was the media for knowing what was going on.” Fox was at the exhibit with his 10-year-old daughter Anjilena. WGPR “brought to the forefront Black media or African American media. So we know we can do dance shows, talk shows, movies and other things. That was a platform.”
“This stuff is really cool,” said Anjilena.
Karen Gaskill, also of Detroit, said that she really loved Big City News. “Personally, I think this station had a standard to tell it like it is. Some things they didn’t discuss or cover because it wasn’t appropriate at the time. I think the standard is different [today].”
Said Irwin, “It’s an important story. I think we as Detroiters sometimes forget that we had the first African American-owned TV network. Also for the nation at large, it is a story that needs to be told.”
When asked why non-Detroiters should know about GPR, Irwin said, “As a country, it is important to put a stamp on things that are changing American life. It’s a Detroit thing, but it also is a national story. They should be excited because of what happened here.”
Its sister station, WGPR-FM, was influential as well. Legendary DJ “The Electrifying Mojo” introduced little-played music by artists that jumpstarted their careers. “Mojo set the tone on how music is played. He [chose] the records and they become popular. And they go on and become just crazy, huge stars.”
This included artists such as Prince and The Time. The exhibit included several gold records given to the station, including from Prince, The Time, and Ready for the World. “He [Mojo] was able to launch some careers,” said Irwin.
“I think it is a real neat exhibit because the videos get to live again, and all these artifacts and panels give a lot of information and history,” said Murphy. “It is something that people remember or didn’t know [about] the whole story.
“I think you get a real nice overview,” continued Murphy. “But the founding story for me was something I didn’t know about. There was a lot of teamwork in getting the [broadcast] license. Learning about that is a real neat part of this exhibit.”
Irwin said the Detroit Historical Society is working with WGPR to bring back parts of the exhibit to include among its permanent exhibits. “It’s a snapshot of the 20th Century,” said Irwin. “It will live on in the museum.”
See more Detroit Historical Society photos below.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.