On Monday, WVON-AM turned 50 years old. Even though the station went through numerous frequency dial changes (1450 AM to 1390 AM to 1450 again to its current home of 1690 AM), the mission was the same – to entertain and inform Chicago’s African-American community.
WVON (which originally stood for “Voice Of The Negro”, now “Voice Of The Nation”) launched on April 1, 1963 by Leonard and Phil Chess, the owners of Chess Records – whose label specialized in blues music. The station launched an R&B format which was so successful, Motown often debuted records on WVON first – before anywhere else in the country, even Detroit (where Motown was based.) Despite being limited to a 1,000 watts of power by day and 250 watts of power at night, WVON ranked in the top five among Chicago’s most listened stations.
WVON jocks were known as “The Good Guys” – among them were E. Rodney Jones, Franklin McCarthy, Herb Kent, Pervais Spann, and Wesley South, as WVON was also home to Don Cornelius (who died in 2012), Yvonne Daniels (died in 1991), Sid McCoy, Richard Peague (died in 2009), and countless others. WVON was also very active in the Civil Rights Movement with prominent African-American leaders regularly featured on the station. WVON suspended music temporarily in 1968 for wall-to-wall news coverage of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Riots tore through many African-American communities across the city and was a calming presence in a sea of tension.
And it was nearly impossible to reach the black consumer back then without WVON in a company’s media mix.
WVON was sold in 1969 to Globetrotter Communications and moved the frequency to 1390 AM in 1975 after its acquisition of WNUS AM-FM (now WGRB-AM and WGCI-FM). Four years later, both stations were sold to Gannett and in 1984, dropped the WVON call letters from the frequency in favor of WGCI. In came the super-duo of Spann and South and their newly-formed Midway Broadcasting Company, who rescued the VON call letters and returned it to the 1450 frequency with a split signal with ethnic-programmed WCEV. With WVON’s ratings declining for more than a decade as music listeners shifted to the FM frequency, the decision was made in 1986 to shift from Urban Contemporary to all-talk, becoming the first black-oriented talk station in Chicagoland.
In 2006, WVON’s frequency moved again – this time to 1690, with Midway Broadcasting in an local marketing agreement with Clear Channel Communications (who owns the license), with Pervais Spann’s daughter (Melody Spann-Cooper) assuming day-to-day operations of the station. With the frequency change, WVON once again broadcasted 24 hours a day, and the station moved into new headquarters at 1000 East 87th Street, in Chicago’s Avalon Park community (where yours truly grew up and still makes his home.) Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and subsequent election as the first African-American president provided the station with plenty of topics to talk about.
Today, as it was then, WVON serves a important outlet, especially with Chicago making headlines for all the wrong reasons, notably the violence epidemic plaguing the African-American community and the recent announcement of Chicago Public School closures, mostly affecting black neighborhoods across the city.
If you’re looking for an example of what a radio station is supposed to do – to serve the community it broadcasts from – look no further than WVON.