UPDATED: 12:15 p.m. ET, Aug. 2021
Originally published on March 15, 2011
Friday marks National Radio Day, the annual celebration of all things radio.
But one decidedly undercelebrated aspect of radio broadcasting history is the contributions Black people made to the medium; namely as radio jockeys, the voices behind the music selection and news reported on the airwaves.
Throughout American history, Black disc jockeys did more than just spin records. They were, for African-American listeners across the country, the important and influential voices and leaders of their communities.
Here are NewsOne’s top 20 Black radio jockeys of all time, picked for their pioneering spirit and influence.
(DJs who made their name before becoming radio personalities have been excluded, but honorable mentions must go to folks like Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley and Yolanda Adams.)
1) Jack L. Cooper
Widely considered to be the first African-American radio announcer, Jack L. Cooper’s “All Negro” radio show aired in the 1930s on Chicago’s WSBC. Cooper was succeeded in Black Chicago radio by very important air personalities like Al Benson — who brought the blues and jazz to Chicago on WGES — and his colleague Herb Kent, who made his mark after his move to WVON, where he was a strong voice for progress during the tumultuous Civil Rights movement.
2) Jack “The Rapper” Gibson
Gibson got his start on the very first Black-owned radio station, Atlanta’s WERD, in 1949. Embodying the fast-talking style for which he was named, Gibson also went on to create one of the first Black radio trades, “Jack The Rapper” and the infamous Black music convention of the same name.
3) Rufus Thomas
Rufus Thomas was the preeminent DJ of Memphis’ WDIA, the nation’s first radio station with an all-Black air staff. A triple-threat performer of song, dance and comedy, Thomas’ nighttime show, “Hoot and Holler,” was an influential source of blues and R&B for a generation of white and Black listeners alike. Thomas also hosted amateur talent shows on Memphis’ famed Beale Street, premiering young talents like B.B. King, Ike Turner, and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
4) Jocko Henderson
A legendary disc jockey on the airwaves of Philadelphia and New York in the 1950s and 1960s, Douglas Wendell “Jocko” Henderson was a pioneer of the slick-talking, rapid-fire radio patter that influenced Black and White jockeys nationwide and laid a cultural foundation for “rap” music.
5) Petey Greene
Known as one of the original shock-jocks, Greene was a trailblazer of talk radio; and his influence was such that he has been credited with quashing the riots in Washington, D.C. in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Greene got an unusual start to his broadcasting career when he began DJing for the Virginia prison in which he was serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery. Upon his release when he was hired to host his own show, Rapping With Petey Greene, at WOL in Washington D.C. His success led him to television where he hosted his own Emmy Award-winning show, Petey Greene’s Washington, on local WDCA-TV and BET.
6) Melvin Lindsey
Almost twenty years after his death, WHUR jock Marvin Lindsey’s “Quiet Storm” playlist remains an inspiration for imitators at radio stations across the country. Lindsey started out interning at Howard University’s WHUR and got his first break filling in for a DJ who couldn’t make it in. The positive response to Lindsey’s impromptu show led WHUR station manager (and now Urban One founder), Cathy Hughes, to give him his own time slot. Christening the show “Quiet Storm” after a hit single from Smokey Robinson, Lindsey’s smooth soulful playlist was an instant success, and may well have influenced the growth of the “smooth Jazz” sector of the music and radio business.
7) Dyana Williams
Dyana Williams is one of the earliest and most influential female air personalities in Black radio. Using the name “Ebony Moonbeams,” Williams started her career in broadcasting in 1973 when she was hired at Howard University’s WHUR. Two years later, Frankie Crocker hired Williams at WBLS-FM in her hometown, New York City. In 1978 she became the first African American woman rock DJ at WRQX-FM in Washington, D.C. In 1990 Williams launched the Association of African American Music Foundation to promote African American musicians, and currently hosts a weekly broadcast, “Soulful Sunday,” on Radio One’s 107.9 WRNB in Philadelphia.
8) Chuck Leonard
Leonard, another pioneer of Black jocks’ move into the mainstream, was the first African-American disc jockey on landmark pop station WABC-AM, where he stayed for 14 years doing late-night shifts before moving through a string of New York stations like WRKS, WBLS, and WJUX. Leonard caught the radio bug in college as program director of the University of Illinois station WPGU.
9) Frankie Crocker
Crocker first became a household name on New York’s Black station, WWRL. But after becoming one of the first Black jocks to “cross over” into more mainstream radio (as one of WMCA’s “Good Guys”), Crocker crossed back when a Black-owned consortium hired him for a new FM station in New York called WBLS. Crocker assembled a huge, multiracial audience, and had a great influence on the mainstreaming of disco. Though resistant to rap, he played some of the first hip-hop records and hired hip-hop’s first legendary radio jock, Mr. Magic.
10) Mr. Magic
When John “Mr. Magic” Rivas created “Disco Showcase” in 1979 on a small pay-for-time FM station in New York called WHBI, he didn’t know he was starting what would become the very first rap radio show. A few years later, Magic took his “Rap Attack” to commercial station WBLS and fostered the careers of producer Marley Marl, and artists like Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane. Mr. Magic brought the first rap show to commercial radio on New York’s WBLS.
11) DJ Red Alert
New York rival 98.7 Kiss-FM answered Frankie Crocker’s hiring of Mr. Magic when they asked Kool DJ Red Alert to craft his own rap show on weekends. Self-effacing where Magic was brash, Red Alert became a beloved figure of listeners and rappers alike. Red Alert fostered the careers of acts such as KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called Quest.
12) Greg Mack
Mack was already a successful air personality in Houston when a small AM station in Los Angeles called KDAY hired him to be a disc jockey and music director. But Mack’s aggressive programming of rap music made KDAY the first station to embrace rap as a core part of its programming and helped launch the L.A. rap scene. Mack gave the first airplay to now-legendary acts like the LA Dream Team, Egyptian Lover, World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Ice T, Ice Cube, NWA, Tone Loc and dozens more.
13) Tom Joyner
In 1985, Tom Joyner earned his stripes as “The Hardest Working Man In Radio,” juggling two top-rated shows in separate cities over a thousand miles apart. For eight years Joyner would do a weekly morning show at K-104 in Dallas, and fly to Chicago every weekday afternoon for a show at WGCI. In 1994, “The Fly Jock” became one of the first nationally syndicated Black DJs when was hired to host his own program, the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which spread to 29 stations. In 1998, Joyner became the first African-American inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
14) Russ Parr
Russ Parr began his career as a stand-up comedian in California and got his start in radio on Los Angeles’s famed KDAY. In the mid-1980s Parr also recorded with his band “Bobby Jimmy and The Critters.” In 1996, he became the second African American giant of syndication when his Russ Parr Morning Show on Radio One’s WKYS-FM became the base of operations for a network that eventually reached more than 3 million listeners daily on over 40 radio stations.
15) Robin Quivers
As the long-running Black female sidekick of white shock-jock Howard Stern, Quivers has held her own in a predominately male atmosphere for thirty years. Part cohost and part cosigner, Quivers has maintained a precarious and controversial role as a foil for Stern’s arguably racist rants: Does her presence give Stern a “pass,” or does she keep him in check? Either way, Quivers has become one of the most recognized female radio personalities in the country.
16) Wendy Williams
Referring to herself as the “Queen of All Media,” Wendy Williams’ trademark mixture of oversized personality and merciless celebrity gossip created a new radio archetype and captured millions of fans. After college, Williams started her career in radio as an intern for Kiss 108 in Boston, and made the move to New York City’s Kiss-FM, where she eventually landed her own air shift; and then on to New York’s Hot 97. Williams was Billboard’s Best On-Air Radio Personality in 1993 and became the second African American woman inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2009. Williams currently hosts her own daytime TV talk show.
17) Electrifying Mojo
Broadcasting first on WGPR in Detroit, Mojo challenged ideas about the role of a radio jockey. His unbridled and unusual music selection inspired legions of fans in Detroit, and Mojo is recognized for having introduced listeners to a number of artists that include Prince, The B-52’s, and Kraftwerk. Mojo was well known for his habit of playing lengthy recordings without interruption and was hugely influential in the formation of the Detroit techno scene.
18) Star & Buc Wild
Star (Troi Torain) and his stepbrother Buc Wild (Timothy Joseph) started their radio journey in March of 2000 hosting the morning show on Hot 97 in New York City. Their aggressive and culturally mixed personas quickly surpassed Howard Stern for the number one spot among young listeners. Though often contentious, the show continues to capture new supporters while proving to be at the forefront of today’s changing media landscape. Star & Buc Wild previously hosted the morning show on Philadelphia’s 100.3 The Beat.
19) David “Davey D” Cook
A nationally renowned pioneer blending hip-hop, radio and community activism, David Cook moved from the Bronx to the Bay Area shortly after the dawn of the hip-hop era. Cook eventually landed a radio show on Berkeley’s KALX. With his Bronx Science high school colleague Kevvy Kev Montague over at Stanford’s KZSU, and a number of other important DJs and shows at college and community stations across the Bay, Cook eventually became the ringleader of the Bay Area Hip-Hop Coalition, the first rap radio deejay collective in the world, with more hours of hip-hop on air than in any area of the country. When local pop station KMEL started playing hip-hop aggressively, Cook pioneered a new kind of prime-time community affairs program, blending music with activism.
Sway Calloway, along with his partner King Tech, became the first to host a hip-hop radio show on a pop station when his Wake Up Show debuted on San Francisco’s KMEL-FM in 1990. The Wake Up Show eventually became internationally syndicated, reaching more than 20 different markets in five countries. Sway himself became the morning personality on KMEL-FM, and then was hired by MTV as an on-air host and journalist. Sway now hosts the morning show on Sirius satellite radio’s Shade 45.