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On Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay: Glen Ford, Exec. Editor of Black Agenda Report, talks about helping create black radio news. He says that news media creates leaders by deciding what events are important and who is authorized to speak on the importance of those events. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced December 24, 2013 with Paul Jay.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.
This is part two of our series of interviews with Glen Ford, the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. And if you’d like to know Glen’s bio, well, part one’s all about that. And then there’s a written bio underneath this video player.
But we’re going to pick up Glen’s story. So we left off more or less–you’re leaving the Army. So what happens next?
GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Well, I got out of the Army in January 1970. I realized immediately that I had no other skills than talking on the radio, because I used to do radio in the afternoon on my father’s show, and finally did a show of my own on the weekend and did record hops all over Georgia when I was a teenager in Columbus, Georgia. So I knew how to talk on the radio, as I phrased it, and jump out of airplanes. So it appeared that I should go looking for employment in the radio.
My father had been fantastically successful. He was booked somewhere in Georgia or Alabama every night for two years in advance. And being a popular disc jockey, there were women everywhere and celebrities and such. So, certainly, as I spent my three years as a broke GI, I anticipated that when I got out of the Army, I’d–
JAY: Go into dad’s business.
FORD: –I’d go into dad’s business, and there’d be women and money and song and all of that. But I found that people wanted me to be news instead. That made me very, very angry, because–.
JAY: Well, what–how did that–what does that mean, people wanted you to be–?
FORD: People at various radio stations, including the radio station in Columbus, Georgia–that is, my hometown. I in fact turned down a news job because I knew that news reporters couldn’t do record hops and pick up that extra money and weren’t that attractive to–as disc jockeys were to the females. And that’s how my mind had been–that’s what my mind had been fixating on as I neared getting out of the Army.
Then I realized that I didn’t have any job at all. So when the next opportunity that same week came up to join James Brown’s radio station in Augusta, Georgia, I took it up.
And I got to the station. It was before dawn on a Monday morning. The general manager of the radio station showed me around. He said, there’s your newswire and here’s your recording equipment. And then he pointed to a piece of paper on the wall and he said, that’s a list of all the big black folks in town. So whenever anything comes across the newswire, you can call some of these big black people and get their comment on it. And I said–I was glad to have the job, so I said, okay, boss. He left the room. I went across the room to look at this piece of paper, and I discovered that it was full of Reverend This and Bishop That. It was a theocracy, and I was disgusted. So I tore the piece of paper from the wall, threw it in the trashcan. And for the next week or ten days, I immersed myself in the real politics, the grassroots politics of Augusta, Georgia, and decided I was going to find out who the real leaders were instead of these accommodationist preachers.
JAY: And this is–the civil rights movement is still very much–.
FORD: The civil rights movement had not arrived in Augusta, Georgia. This is 1970. It also had not arrived in Columbus, Georgia. The civil rights movement did not arrive in many, many, many places. And Dr. King didn’t get to go to many, many places, because he was shut out of most cities in the South by a phalanx of accommodationist preachers who didn’t want any outside agitators any more than the white folks in town who they reported to. And that was the cause of my visceral reaction to the theocratic list that was up on the wall at James Brown’s radio station, and that’s why I sought out the actual leaders of the community.
And the first place I went was to the housing project, because I knew that somewhere in that housing project there was a large and loud black woman who was actually the leader of the people who live there. I didn’t know what her name was, but I knew she was there. And, of course, I found her, and that person became my contact on housing issues. And I also realized that somewhere in Augusta, Georgia, there was a brother who jumped up every time the police beat a black man down. And I found him pretty quickly as well, and he became my go-to person on police-community relations. And I knew that somewhere in Augusta there was a black entrepreneur, a businessman, who was constantly complaining that the city and the county weren’t giving any contracts to black folks. And, of course, I found him rather quickly. And then into the arena of education and so on. And within ten days, I had ten contact people, the actual grassroots leaders of black Augusta, and those were the names on the wall, the list of the go-to black folks. I informally called them my committee of ten. And so every newscast, every conceivable development would result in a call to one or more of these people.
JAY: So the owners of the station react how?
FORD: Oh, the owner of the station was James Brown, and he was usually gigging somewhere.
The preachers didn’t like being all of a sudden excluded from the airwaves. But I didn’t care.
What was most interesting was the growth of these grassroots leaders from folk who were paid attention to on the street in the still-segregated school system, in the housing projects and such, but had never been afforded a microphone, had never been treated as the leaders of their community. And yet James Brown’s station was the only 24 hour black station in town. That meant it had 100 percent penetration of the community. Everybody listened to it. And these people were on the radio, which meant that, well, they must be the leaders. And they in fact quickly grew into the kind of public leaders who could hold forth on their areas of expertise and interest. I watched them blossom and grow.
And, oh, no more than three or four weeks into this experience, as I said, I’d been very unhappy earning only $70 a week, $52 after taxes, as a news person and not the disc jockey that I had anticipated I would be. But seeing, experiencing how the control of this radio microphone allowed me to play a role in changing the political complexion of a rather large black city, that did it for me. I said, well, this is worthwhile work. This is–I’ll bear the poverty of it in order to make this kind of social transformation.
JAY: And how long before you head to D.C.?
FORD: Oh, I went back to Columbus, Georgia, and then to Atlanta, then a period of time at James Brown’s radio station here in Baltimore, and then to D.C. by 1972.
JAY: Any you become–at a pretty young age, you become bureau chief in D.C.
FORD: Yeah, after local broadcasting on what was then the number-one radio station in Washington, WOL, I joined the Mutual Black Network. At that time, there were two black-oriented radio networks, the Mutual Black Network and the National Black Network. Both of them had about 80 affiliates. I became the Washington bureau, and also did stints as the Capitol Hill correspondent, the State Department correspondent, you know, for that network.
JAY: So at a fairly–I mean, when you’re in Georgia, and even Baltimore, I would guess, pretty localized politics, localized news. You’re now covering national and, I would think, even foreign policy news.
FORD: It’s actually the same formula. You don’t go by the daybook. And you know what that is. It’s where at 10 o’clock in the morning all the events that are sanctioned by the corporate media and the powers that are are listed. Well, that really is kind of like that list that I found up on the wall in my first gig. You throw that away.
And so either at the local level or at the national level, I made it my business to decide who the spokespersons should be, the experts should be, the analysts should be, and the folks who should be recognized as legitimate leaders of the community should be. The formula is the same nationally as it would be locally.
JAY: Now, this is mid ’70s, again, a very, very intense period of conflict in the United States and foreign policy abroad. What does this do to the way you look at the world? I mean, you know, you joined the Army as–you know, as you described, you were always kind of political, but joining the Army during the Vietnam war was not something out of the question for you. You chose it. Now you’re in Washington covering international, national politics, and you are in the midst of a very controversial period of U.S. history. How does your thinking evolve politically? Where are you at?
FORD: First of all, one has to understand that there was no such thing as black radio news until there was a black political movement. And that black political movement generated the demand for a different interpretation of reality, generated a demand for media to recognize the leadership that was autonomously coming, springing forth from black America, not a leadership that was negotiated with old-line accommodationist leadership and the white power structure, but a leadership that was coming up through the movement.
And so when radio stations–and black radio just exploded in growth in the last part of the ’60s and in the early ’70s. And the community demand for a representation of reality–that is, a news component–at those stations was so strong that even little radio stations in places like Sparta, Georgia, had to have at least one full-time newsman.
But there was no template for what black news was. And so young people like myself invented it–
JAY: [crosstalk] example. What did it mean?
FORD: –as we went along, deciding who leadership was. That is the function of news media. News media decides what events are important and who is authorized to speak on the importance of those events. That essentially means that news media play a central role in leadership creation. When you put a mic in front of someone’s face, you are designating them a legitimate voice. You are putting them in play as at least potential leaders. So as we had this proliferation of black news organizations at radio stations in towns big and small, the process was begun of picking a new leadership out of movements that were popping up in cities all across the country. And at a national level as well, the same process was occurring. You can’t talk about leadership creation without talking about media and who that media is accountable to.
JAY: How far were you able to broaden or did you broaden the kind of voices that got to speak? And did you run into some resistance as you did it?
FORD: Well, that’s why I made it my business to become Washington bureau chief, because I then had the predominant say on not only who was featured in my newscasts but the material that was used for all of the other newscasters in the Mutual Black Network.
JAY: And what are some examples of people, in terms of the political spectrum, the way you were able to broaden it or change it from not just white radio–but I suppose even within black radio you’re going to have people that want to kind of have the official narrative and people that are willing to challenge it.
FORD: Yeah. That’s why you become bureau chief, so that when there is a housing crisis, I would recommend that you go to the National Tenants Organization, which was an activist, very progressive, transformative kind of organization, rather than, oh, let’s say the NAACP, which even back in those days was intricately involved–intimately involved with the banks, for example. We would direct the microphone to people who were not part of the Democratic Party architecture, but to those rising progressive forces that were coming out of movements that were actually agitating at the local and the national level and treat them as the leadership, as opposed to the old guard, who was already getting play, of course, from white radio.
JAY: So what gave rise to America’s Black Forum? And tell us a bit about what it was.
FORD: It was very simple. There was no black news interview program on commercial television, no black equivalent of Meet the Press, Issues and Answers, and Face the Nation. And you, of course, know the political functions that those kinds of shows play. And certainly back in the day when we had three hegemonic networks, the guests who appeared on Face the Nation and Issues and Answers and Meet the Press, what they said on Sunday basically became the news for Monday and set the tone and the political conversation for the rest of the week–a tremendous influence. And the fact that black folks did not have that kind of vehicle meant that we were never setting the tone for the week.
So it wasn’t that I was trying to reinvent the wheel. We didn’t have any wheels. And so I decided that black folks needed such wheels.
JAY: Well, did you get–I mean, if you’re taking these pictures that have been put on the wall for you and putting her own pictures up there, did you get resistance from, I mean, who owned the radio network, who owned the TV network? Did they–were you putting voices on they weren’t happy with?
FORD: Well, the radio networks were–they’re very, very different circumstances. With black radio, black radio is supposedly accountable to its black listenership. So it’s quite easy to maintain a black conversation, that is, a conversation within the parameters of black politics on black radio. This who are you supposed to be talking to becomes much more complicated when you get to television, which is a mass environment.
We were very lucky. Channel 7, the WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, was just going through a very long racial discrimination suit, which had done a lot to tarnish its reputation in majority-black D.C. And so when we made our proposal to have WJLA as the anchor for our proposed television syndication, they jumped at the idea for political reasons, because this would vindicate the station. They could erase some of the bad blood that they had gotten from this racial discrimination suit. So they gave us very, very good terms and no political involvement with the show at all. We had total editorial control.
JAY: And how were you dealing with things, like, you know, in the earlier time with Vietnam, with the post-Vietnam period?
FORD: [crosstalk] this time it’s 1977. The same week that Roots, the first Roots episode aired, that was the first showing of America’s Black Forum.
JAY: But how radical voices could you have on or did you have on?
FORD: Oh, we had people from the Communist Workers Party and such. The black community, the spectrum of black politics is far to the left of the spectrum of white politics in the United States. So if you are operating a mainstream black political operation, it’s going to be to the left of a general audience, i.e. white operation.
JAY: So what happens with–.
FORD: But, you know, as a journalistic entity, our mission was of course to expose folk who would not get exposure in the white media. But it was also to confront the established politicos in the black community. So within the course of a year we’d have most of the Congressional Black Caucus, which at that time only numbered about 16, on the show, and we were quite adversarial with them, dealing with them from a left, black perspective.
JAY: And what happens to America’s Black Forum?
FORD: Oh, we got involved with some partners, and we were not happy with the association. And rather than see the show be destroyed by conflicts within, we sold our shares and let them go about their merry way.
Here’s what I want to say about America’s Black Forum. Before this show, no black news entity of any kind had been able to generate views on a consistent basis, that is, for its transcripts and its press releases to be picked up by the Associated Press and UPI and Agence France Press and Reuters on any kind of consistent basis. America’s Black Forum did that every week. And we were the only black news operation to do that before. And after we left, no one has been able to do that since. I was most proud of that, that this black news from a black perspective became fodder for CBS Newsbreak and for TASS and for Agence France Press and Reuters and the mainstream media.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’re going to pick up on this discussion with Glen and talk a little bit about the whole concept of black nationalism, of black nation, and what you’re saying in terms of a black perspective. It’s a debate that’s been going on in the black community and on the left for a long time, right back into the Communist Party of the 1930s and before.
So please join us for the continuation of our interview with Glen Ford on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.