Channeling Pan-Africanism: The Role of Radio in the Black Power Movement

The inherent power of radio is often undermined in an age of online streaming and personal playlists, but the power this medium held in previous eras must not be forgotten or overlooked.  Radio broadcasting offered tremendous opportunities, especially to marginalized groups, as it transcended physical boundaries and amplified voices that were regularly  drown out by dominant narratives and ideologies.  Radio was critical in fostering communities, both real and imagined, appealing to a common sense of humanity among people that may or may not have identified with each other otherwise.  Radio’s ability to spread ideas and form connections was strategically utilized by and crucial to the advancement of the Black Power Movement in the 1970s, specifically demonstrated in the microcosm of WAFR radio.

WAFR’s staff in 1973

The story began when several young African Americans in Durham, North Carolina joined together to purchase a radio station.  This group envisioned a radio station that would celebrate African culture and history.  While noble in intent, this original plan was not an unknowable feat.  However, things changed when the group was out bided by Duke University, a largely Caucasian institution at the time.  Rather than surrendering to defeat, the group decided to pave their own path and take advantage of government funds available for public radio stations.  WAFR radio was launched in September of 1971, becoming the first ever black-owned, non-commercial radio station.

“When WAFR commenced broadcasting […] it didn’t take long for listeners to discern that the station’s staffers had chosen their call letters [WAFR] as an homage to Africa” (“Posts from the ‘Black Power’ Category”).  If the call letters “AFR” were not clearly enough associated with Africa, the station’s common name “Wave Africa” surely drove home the connection.  Deejays also joined in this pan-African vision by identifying themselves by names that closely associated them with their idolized African roots.  These obvious connections to Africa situated WAFR as a station dedicated to recognizing a shared culture and heritage among African-Americans that would allow for a unified community empowered to stand firmly against the oppression it faced.

wafr-wishes-you-a-speedy-recovery,-081173,-8a0000_2x
Stevie Wonder was one artist that supported WAFR. He was injured in a car accident on the way to perform on the station in 1973.

WAFR further celebrated their African identity by broadcasting jazz, funk, and music by African musicians.  These genres rooted listeners in their culture and celebrated the identifiable musical traditions of their homeland.  WAFR broadcasted news in a way that situated the local community within a national and international matrix of people sharing similar struggles.  They challenged dominant memories of events by bringing to light events often overlooked or by providing an alternative perspective on an event.  Taking this international approach, WAFR supported the growing Black Power notion that blacks were only a minority on a national scale and found power in the expanse of the black experience.

wafr-this-is-your-life-fullpage-ad,-072873,-9a0000
Ad for WAFR’s Children’s Radio Workshop

Click here to hear an introduction to one of WAFR’s broadcasted educational shows

WAFR additionally fostered community through its talk shows.  These talk shows were often hosted by volunteers from the area.  Relying on volunteer support encouraged direct community involvement not only in support of the radio station, but also in the broader black community at large.  WAFR focused on educating the public on black history and culture, which served to further strengthen ties to a shared racial history.  This educational aspect of the station challenged memories instilled by dominant narratives and provided alternate remembrances of history.  Pride in a shared heritage was where WAFR ultimately got its power.  By amplifying and celebrating these shared experiences of blacks, WAFR was able to contribute to the advancement of the Black Power Movement as a whole.

This site reveals a side to black power that focuses on power through a unified community, grounded in a shared identity, history, culture, and experience of oppression.  “In response to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, African American performers began to express their racial and cultural pride in a variety of ways.  In earlier years, African Americans were referred to as Negroes, whereas using ‘black’ as a racial description was considered to be insulting. But by the late 1960s, the outlook of many African Americans shifted, and ‘blackness’ became a source of pride.” -Davis

images-4
An article was published in June of 1973 in Ebony Magazine praising WAFR for its work

Unfortunately, WAFR closed its doors in 1976 as a result of financial struggles.  While its memory fleetingly lies in the minds of those that listened to the station during its five years and more enduringly in the journals of academics, its impact on the future of the Black Power Movement is its legacy.  The work of WAFR helped establish the importance of community education, the sharing of information and ideas, and of cultural celebration to the thriving of social movements as a whole.  We see traces of WAFR and other African-American owned radio stations in the continued spread of historically black music as a means to create community and understanding.  The success of these early broadcasts were crucial to the spread of knowledge and culture and cannot be overlooked in the analysis of the Black Power Movement as a whole, as they speak to many other aspects of the movement as well.


Sources:

Davis, Joshua Clark. “African Sounds in the American South: Community Radio, Historically Black Colleges, and Musical Pan‐Africanism.” Journal of Popular Music Studies. Wiley Online Library, 09 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

Davis, Joshua Clark, and Jason Perlmutter. Bull City Soul. Durham County Library, 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://bullcitysoul.org/>.

Erwin, Carolyn K. “A Black Voice in Durham.” Ebony June 1973: 114-22. Google Books. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

“Posts from the ‘Black Power’ Category.” Media and the Movement. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 21 May 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://mediaandthemovement.unc.edu/category/black-power/>.

*All images were taken from the above sources as well


Related Articles:

Robert F. Williams: The Black Power Leader from Afar

2 thoughts on “Channeling Pan-Africanism: The Role of Radio in the Black Power Movement”

  1. Keegan, I really enjoyed reading more in-depth about the effects and impact of radio as a whole during the Black Power Movement. Since my post focused on Robert F. Williams and his “Radio Free Dixie”, I think you perfectly communicated how radio was important for the Black Power Movement because it broke former boundaries and amplified former silenced voices. With “Radio Free Dixie” Robert Williams was able to effectively communicate with the African American community even though he was finding refuge in Cuba. Without the power of radio, his voice would’ve been silenced because he was forced to live abroad.

  2. I never thought about the importance of radio stations in the transmission of information during the Black Power Movement, but now that you mentioned it, radio is definitely a very important and wide-reaching medium. This makes me wonder if the people of this radio station ever played the jazz music of Archie Shepp, who I discussed. The goals of the WAFR and Shepp are both very similar in that they want to use music to help listeners to learn more about their African culture.

Leave a Reply