Pioneering Detroit black-affairs TV show turns 50
The disturbances that rocked Detroit in July 1967 scarred the city in ways still visible, but also jump-started racial progress unthinkable just a year before.
A good local example was the creation in 1968 of one of the country’s very first African-American public-affairs TV shows, “American Black Journal,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary all this year.
“American Black Journal,” which airs Sundays and Wednesdays on WTVS-TV (Channel 56), was created by host Tony Brown and producer Gil Maddox in direct response to the Kerner Commission report of that year, which criticized the nearly all-white nature of the news media.
“The show was a reaction to the rebellion of 1967,” said Stephen Henderson, the “ABJ” host today. “The Kerner Commission focused on the lack of African-Americans and their issues in the media, and Detroit Public TV said in response, ‘OK, let’s create something.’ ”
What they created was initially called “Colored People’s Time,” or “CPT,” when it first aired in October, 1968. The name changed after a few years to “Detroit Black Journal,” and then to “American Black Journal.”
When first launched, said Chuck Reti, who worked on the show from the beginning, “Gil and Tony weren’t sure if they could use ‘CBT’ as the title, but most people understood and got the joke.”
Call it what you will, “ABJ” is thought to be one of the longest-running public-affairs shows in the country. (CBS’s “60 Minutes,” also launched in 1968, beats it by just one month.)
“Not even Gunsmoke was on this long,” said Ed Moore, WTVS director of content, “and that was always the standard, as I understood it.”
The lack of black journalists at mainstream outlets during the hot summer of 1967 was striking, said Tim Kiska, author of the Detroit-media history, “From Soupy to Nuts!”
“As best as I can determine,” he said, “the Free Press had two black reporters in 1967. The News, I believe had one. Channel 2 had one on-air reporter, while channels 4 and 7 had none.”
“CPT,” of course, aimed for something more substantial than just getting a few black faces on the screen.
The idea, says Juanita Anderson, the show’s executive producer from 1982-1988 and now director of media arts and studies at Wayne State University, was to present the African-American experience unfiltered, without any need to interpret for a white audience.
Or as Henderson put it, “If you have five African-Americans at a table talking, it’s different than if there’s just one African-American on a panel of five journalists.”
Today it’s a little hard to remember how rare African-Americans were on TV half a century ago.
“If you came of age in the late 1960s,” said Ed Gordon, who hosted “Detroit Black Journal” in the mid-1980s, “you were just excited to see black people on TV. You’d literally run and tell the family, ‘Black people are on!’ And everyone would gather around.”
Over the years, “ABJ” racked up an impressive list of guests, particularly for a program located outside the media capitals of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.
Visitors to the WTVS studios included Louis Farrakhan, Eartha Kitt, Alex Haley, Danny Glover, James Brown, Bobby Seale and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who’s been on many times.
The very first public-affairs show devoted entirely to black issues is thought to have been “Say, Brother” on WGBH in Boston, which launched in July, 1968 — just three months before “CBT.” (It’s long since gone off the air.)
The Detroit program quickly developed a reputation, however, such that in 1970 “Black Journal” on WNET-Channel 13 lured “CBT” founding host Tony Brown away to New York.
“ ‘CPT’ was definitely on the cutting edge,” said Detroit historian Ken Coleman, who recalls watching the show as a teenager, “whether it was first, second or third.”
Like the times, he added, “The broadcast has changed in format and how it presented itself, but I still look at it as the preeminent marketplace for black thought in Detroit.”
“ABJ” will celebrate its anniversary all this year by airing archival clips from years ago, says producer Daphne Hughes.
The episode Sunday will focus on blacks in the news media, with clips from panel discussions the show recorded with notable Detroiters on Monday at the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum. (The museum is in the ex-home of WGPR-TV, the first black owned-operated TV station.)
Like Coleman, former Detroit News editor and columnist Luther Keith argues that while newsrooms today are far more diverse than 50 years ago, there’s still a need for “ABJ” and shows like it.
“People need to be heard,” he said, “and that need is just as important today, since we as a nation have not arrived at the promised land. The show still plays an important role,” Keith added, “which is why I watch it whenever I get the chance.”
A range of distinguished Detroit journalists hosted the show from 1968-present. Some of the hosts include: Tony Brown, George Martin, Ron Scott, Deborah Ray, Ben Frazier, Ed Gordon, Darryl Wood, Trudy Gallant-Stokes, Cliff Russell, Lavonia Perryman, Darrell Dawsey and Stephen Henderson.
‘American Black Journal Road Show’
9:30 a.m. Sunday
7 p.m. Wednesdays
WTVS (Channel 56)