Race and barriers for access

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"Ernestine Wade, circa 1941/1950, Los Angeles." Courtesy University of Southern California Libraries. 

Though radio broke down some barriers for African Americans, racism pervaded the broadcast industry and mitigated the ways that black entertainers had to work within and against its confines. And while radio did create larger audiences for the work of black musicians, from its inception, black musicians and their work played on the radio to primarily white audiences.

For rural African Americans in the US South (which accounted for about 80 percent of the nation’s black population between WWI and WWII), access to radio itself had its limits. While more and more white families could afford radios, it was still a heavy financial burden for African Americans. A 1935 poll of sharecroppers living in North and South Carolina showed that few, if any, black families owned a radio. In the 1940s, while nearly 80 percent of white rural families nationwide owned radios, only about 20 percent of rural blacks did. Even though radio broadcasters made some steps to integrate African American artists into their lineups, pre-WWII audiences were overwhelmingly white.

At the same time, the racism prevalent throughout the country was also present in radio programming. African American men and women in the radio industry found stark limitations on what jobs they could or could not hold. For example, black actors were often confined to voicing black caricatures on radio dramas. Racist stereotypes, often derived from minstrel shows, were widespread during radio’s Golden Age programming.

By the 1950s and 1960s, more localized programming, created for and by African Americans, helped create a stronger voice for blacks on the radio. Post WWII, marketers recognized that African Americans were a sizeable consumer market, and radio broadcasters took notice, too. New programming blocks aimed at black listeners were created. Many local urban stations made their home in Harlem and blacks began owning shares in Southern stations.

NBC issued its new code of standards in 1951, which included “integration without identification,” regularly using African American actors in non-black roles. NBC said the new policy increased the use of black talent on the radio by 200 percent over the course of a single year. Moreover, the emergence of radio DJs in the 1960s and 1970s meant that popular rock, blues, and jazz music, which often featured African American musicians, were heard by a wider audience—both black and white—in a way never possible before.