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Hal Jackson Was Pioneering Voice In Black Radio


One of the pioneering voices of black radio has signed off for the last time. Hal Jackson was a talk show host, music DJ, sportscaster and TV host in a remarkable career that spanned more than seven decades. NPR's Joel Rose has this remembrance.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Audiences in New York today know Hal Jackson as the host of the "Sunday Classics" show on WBLS.


BIG JOE TURNER MUSICIAN: A little shake, rattle and roll.


That's our man Big Joe Turner.

ROSE: Jackson continued hosting the show every Sunday afternoon right into his 90s. It was a victory lap at the end of a professional radio career that began more than 70 years earlier when he walked into the offices of Washington, D.C.'s WINX to talk with the general manager.


JACKSON: He said to me - he used the N word - no N will ever work on this radio station, and I doubt any others. There are none working in Washington, you know? I said I know how much it would mean to the black people of Washington if they had a show.

ROSE: Jackson didn't take no for an answer. As he told NPR in 2001, Jackson got a white-owned advertising firm to buy time on the station, as was the practice in those days, then he showed up 15 minutes before the show was scheduled to air.


JACKSON: Everybody was stunned, and I was scheduled to go on. They couldn't locate the manager, wherever he was. Anyway, we went on the air, and the phones just lit up.

ROSE: That led to Jackson's first talk show on WINX. A few years later, he branched out into music.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) This is "The House That Jack Built." Again and again, you'll see - featuring Harold Jackson - over WLIB.

ROSE: In 1949, Jackson was in New York hosting "The House That Jack Built" as he told NPR in 2008.


JACKSON: We opened up the musical doors, and we have recorded stars from here to Mars. Whether you're home or in your cars, you're relaxing with Jackson in "The House That Jack Built."

ROSE: Hal Jackson was born in South Carolina and grew up in Washington, D.C. In his memoir, Jackson recalls shining shoes and cleaning latrines at Union Station to save up money to buy a radio. His work ethic was legendary. At one point in the 1950s, he hosted three daily shows on three different New York stations with entirely different formats.

SKIP DILLARD: He kicked open the door for minorities and women in broadcasting.

ROSE: Skip Dillard is the general manager at WBLS in New York where Jackson worked until just a month ago when his health began to decline.

DILLARD: I could ask him, let's say, did you know, for instance, Alan Freed? And he could immediately recount working with Alan Freed back in his top 40 radio days.

ROSE: Like Freed, though, Hal Jackson was caught up in a payola scandal which forced him to leave radio. For a while, Jackson worked as a janitor to make ends meet.


JACKSON: I had no job, no way to take care of my family after that. So here I was, Mr. Big Shot, cleaning buildings at night so I could take care of my family.

ROSE: But Jackson built a second career, this time in television as the host of the "Talented Teens International" competition. And he helped found one of the first broadcasting companies owned solely by African-Americans. Jackson wrote in his memoir that, quote, "I never dwelt on what I couldn't do; I just went out and did it.


JACKSON: If you think you are beaten, you are. If you think you dare not, you don't. If you'd like to win and think that you can't, it's almost a cinch that you won't. Think that you can, and you will. It's all in your state of mind.

ROSE: Hal Jackson died yesterday. He was 96 years old. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.