Radio Station was a Forum for Black Voices


A version of this story ran in the July 2012 issue.

Texas is no different from any place in America. It has always had communities that are underserved or ignored by larger local and regional media. And it has always had news outlets attempting to fill the gap—from The Texas Observer to the defunct Dallas Express, from The Forward Times in Houston to alternative weeklies across the state.

One of the mainstays of this gap-filling mission has been KKDA-AM in Dallas, which has served black listeners a combination of news, views and cultural touchstones hard to find anywhere else in North Texas. For decades, the station has been a listening post, sounding board and rallying force for black Dallas. It has given a voice to political figures, activists and artists marginalized or stereotyped by the mainstream media. Fans try to figure out how to pull down the signal in Waco, Tyler and other towns.

Recently, almost the entire on-air team at the station was laid off by Service Broadcasting Corporation, its owner, and replaced by less-expensive, automated programming. R.L. Griffin, Bobby Patterson and Ernie Johnson are among the exuberant, irrepressible, longtime personalities who have been abruptly silenced. They served Dallas for years with a mixture of music, humor, history and news (and their emphasis was often on local music; the three men are among the finest blues/soul artists in Texas).

Their departure points to a mad jumble of things, including modern fiscal realities and how history is fading very, very fast. The layoffs not only remove a ton of institutional memory from the airwaves, more important, they erode the community-based media born of necessity during segregation.

Hearing Griffin (also known as “The Right Reverend of The Blues”) and the others over the years was like picking up signals from a parallel reality, one that was seldom referenced in news venues other than KKDA. It’s impossible to overestimate KKDA’s role in what some industry insiders still call “urban radio” and in the racial history of North Texas. Here’s just one example:

In 1991 the station aired the funeral service for NAACP leader Hudson Washington Griffin Sr., the mightily influential unofficial mayor of South Dallas. Until his death, Griffin (no relation to R.L.) had spent 40 years at his tiny tailor shop, just a short stroll from the site of the sprawling Confederate Cemetery. He would sit by the front window, hemming pants and dispensing advice on voting and housing rights to residents who remembered how the city’s white power structure once wielded the poll tax as a bludgeon to suppress black voter turnout.

Richard Nixon and Bill Clements reached out to him, trying to figure out how to tap the black vote. KKDA was the only Texas media outlet truly cognizant of the revered man’s place in history, and the station selected to broadcast Griffin’s services at New Friendship Baptist Church.

The station once boldly gave voice to controversial County Commissioner John Wiley Price (his show was called “Talk Back: Liberation Radio”) and City Councilman Al Lipscomb. Like them or not, both men made national news for good and bad reasons, and both brought to the airwaves discussions that were not being held anywhere else in Texas. KKDA once had seemingly unbridled scope and ambition. Roland Martin, now on CNN, once served as KKDA’s news director.

When Price, Lipscomb and Linwood “Cuzzin’ Linnie” Henderson, another North Texas media legend, left the air in the ’90s, they were replaced by Patterson and the other folks who have now been let go. For now, KKDA morning talk show stalwart Willis Johnson remains in place.

For years the station has promoted itself as KKDA/Soul 73 and built its legacy on its interaction with the community. It hired Patterson and the others because they have loyal followings in Dallas. Now, a big chunk of the station’s righteous soul has been silenced.