The nation’s first Black-owned TV station, provided opportunities
For African Americans in Detroit, Sept. 29, 1975 was more than just a cool fall day in the Motor City. The date will always be remembered as the point in time when WGPR-TV 62 debuted as the first Black-owned and operated television station in the United States.
The television station was the brainchild of Dr. William V. Banks, an African-American lawyer, minister and Detroit businessman who also started the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons. His historic launch of WGPR-TV 62 gave Black Detroit a new media platform to connect communities, as well as for businesses, especially Black-owned businesses, to reach targeted demographics with products and services.
As an independent television entity devoid of a network affiliation, the station, which was located at 3146 East Jefferson on the fringe of downtown Detroit, had to be innovative in its programming. Therefore, the majority of shows were locally produced with an urban favor, yet some programs were geared for other ethnic groups that called Detroit home.
Shows that regularly beamed into Detroit homes and close surrounding cities included “Porter House,” a talk show hosted by Amyre Porter (Amyre Makupson); “The Scene,” a high octane dance show hosted by Nat Morris; and “Big City News,” a twice-a-day program that focused on news and issues impacting Detroit, as well as other stories of interest across the nation and beyond.
“Our target area basically is the city of Detroit,” Jerry Blocker, WGPR-TV 62 news director told a local news outlet during the show’s first year on the air. “There are many stories – both positive and negative – that are not getting told, and that’s what we (“Big City News”) are trying to get into. Yet, it’s no secret that in the Motor City in 1975 ‘minority affairs’ were, in fact, ‘majority affairs.’ Therefore, we will be concentrating and representing a reality that other stations neither have much time for, nor much knowledge of.”
The station’s many other shows included “Morning Party,” “Green Thumbs,” “Soul-O-Scope,” “Corners of Black History,” “Speaking of Sports,” “Arab Voice of Detroit,” in-studio wrestling matches, and “I Spy” starring Bill Cosby.
“We had more locally produced programming than any other station in this market, because we were an independent station,” said Karen Hudson Samuels, executive director of WGPR-TV 62 Historical Society and former station reporter, anchor, news director and producer. “We had talk shows, religious shows, a teen profile show and a crime alert show. I produced ‘Black Film Showcase’ which aired historic Black films made in the 1930s and ’40s. We also had programs that reached Arab and Polish viewers as well.”
While WGPR-TV 62 had a wide range of shows, perhaps the station’s signature program was “The Scene.” Detroit school kids, and adults as well, from across the city scurried home each weekday to watch “The Scene,” which was described as television’s hottest dance and music show east of “Soul Train.” Local young people, many of whom are now in their fifties and even sixties appeared on the program to show off the latest dance moves. The show and its host, Nat Morris, presented an inviting platform for many local musical acts, as well as for major national recording artists such as George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and the Time.
While the upstart television station had talent in front of the camera, many gifted African Americans worked behind the camera. They were directors, assistant directors, producers, camera operators, camera assistants, electricians, grips, makeup artists, hairstylists, stage managers, set designers, music producers, and sound engineers, all of which were vital for quality broadcast standards and practices. In many cases, those who worked behind the camera learned to wear multiple hats of responsibilities in order to keep the independent station functional.
As with any television station, incoming revenue is paramount to profitability. WGPR-TV 62 was no different. Therefore, sales and account representatives who sought advertisers and program sponsors rounded out WGPR-TV 62’s team of professionals.
While WGPR-TV 62 was a pioneer as the nation’s first Black-owned and operated station, it was also an innovator in the industry.
“WGPR-TV 62 was the first station in the market to go on the air with 24-hour programming,” recalled Joe Spencer, who came over from Channel 4 to serve as executive producer and program director in charge of planning and directing many of the new station’s programs. “We were also the first station in the market to air foreign language programs and the first to use video tape for electronic news gathering when other stations were basically using film.”
After a two-decade run, WGPR-TV 62 was sold to CBS in 1995. However, many of the station’s professionals went on to work at other local and national television outlets. Native Detroiter Shaun Robinson, co-host of “Access Hollywood,” the national entertainment newsmagazine show, got her start on WGPR-TV 62 before eventually landing in Hollywood to report on the stars.
Now there is a major push for the creation of a WGPR-TV 62 museum. Therefore, WGPR-TV 62 Historical Society, which was formed a little over two years ago, has partnered with the Detroit Historical Society to install an exhibit that will immortalize the history, achievements, and contributions made by the trailblazing Black-owned television station.
According to Samuels, the exhibit will be open to the public from January through March, 2016 at the Detroit Historical Museum’s Community Gallery. At the end of the exhibit’s run, possibly around September 2016, plans are for the exhibit to be permanently installed at the WGPR-TV 62 Museum which will be up and running at the television station’s original location at 3146 East Jefferson.
“The WGPR-TV 62 Museum, once launched, will tell and show the incredible history of the station,” said Samuels. “It will focus on the founder, the pioneers, the programs, the station’s innovations, and display our many artifacts and old sets, all of which are a part of WGPR-TV 62’s rich history and legacy.”
Samuels wanted to also emphasize the importance of Dr. Banks’ pioneering vision to WGPR-TV 62’s beginning and evolution.
“Dr. Banks gave lots of young African Americans in the city their first jobs in television,” said Samuels, who called Banks a brilliant business entrepreneurial leader. “Because the station was independent and not unionized, many Black people got the opportunity to learn every aspect of television, including the behind the camera jobs. We had some experienced people, but for others, WGPR-TV 62 was their training grounds, thanks to Dr. Banks.”
Spencer, now board president of the WGPR-TV 62 Historical Society, agreed.
“Dr. Banks was ahead of his time as a Black businessman when he launched a Black television station.” said Spencer, who worked at the station for its entire two-decade run. “For a Black man in 1975 to have the vision and financial resources to purchase a television station at a time when very few Black people were even on television is a remarkable business story.”
A fundraising event to help raise monies for the WGPR-TV 62 exhibit will be held on Friday, Feb. 21, 6:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., at the Detroit Historical Museum. Tickets are $60. For more information about the event, the WGPR-TV 62 exhibit and future museum, contact Karen Hudson Samuels at 313.461-9652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.