Trailblazing local TV executive from Mississippi dies

William Dilday in front of a historical marker at the station he once worked at, WLBT in an undated photo.

William H. Dilday, Jr. was the nation’s first Black TV GM at station once known for intolerance

William H. Dilday, Jr. – who became the first Black television GM in the industry, died July 27 after complications from a fall he suffered in his Newton, Mass. home, confirmed by his daughter. He was 85. 

Dilday was born in Boston, and worked his first TV job at WHDH-TV in 1969. In 1972, he became the first Black person to assume an executive position at NBC affiliate WLBT in Jackson, Miss. – a station once known for intolerance toward the Black community during the Civil Rights Movement, which then made up 35 percent of the population. 

I’ve often used WLBT’s intolerant history in articles I’ve written about diversity over the years to prove racism was – and in some cases still is – a problem in the media industry. Since it signed-on in 1953, WLBT often promoted pro-segregationist views on air and its owner Lamar Life insurance Company had ties to numerous white supremacist groups in Mississippi. The station often censored news on the Civil Rights Movement, including a 1955 Today Show interview with future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in what then-GM Fred Beard would later call “Negro Propaganda”, prompting the station to put up a slide saying “Sorry…Cable Trouble”, which he did for basically any news stories regarding civil rights in the South. The station also pre-empted programming featuring Black performers, such as The Nat King Cole Show. In 1962, WLBT aired an editorial protesting the admission of James Meredith to the then all-white University of Mississippi.

A screenshot from a 1973 WLBT news promo.

In the mid-1960s, several groups urged the FCC to pull the station’s license as it continued to discriminate against the city’s Black residents. After a long battle – where during this time, WLBT did change the station’s image and fired Beard, the FCC revoked the license of the TV station in 1969 and lost on appeal in 1971 – which has occurred only four other times in history (the last being Chicago’s WSNS in 1990) and awarded it to a new, interracial company called Communications Improvement, Inc. and hired some of the first Black TV executives in the country – including Dilday. 

Under Dilday, the station transformed itself into a more neutral news source and aired local programming featuring more people of color. WLBT won a Peabody Award in 1976 for Probe, a weekly half-hour show for a segment titled Power Politics in Mississippi, a deep dive into the world of state government. “They would dig into what was really going on behind the scenes, just like you have Three on Your Side, “Probe” was an expanded version,” said Mississippi Rep. Earle Banks, a close friend of Dilday. “A lot of work and background information study had gone into that – and that came under Bill Dilday’s watch.” 

Dilday also won praise for his interpersonal skills – something a lot of media execs lack today. “Our first conversation was a welcome to the company and he shared his hopes and plans for my growth at WLBT”, said news anchor Maggie Wade, who came to the station in 1982. “He was direct, a consummate professional, so proud of the work of WLBT, [and] made sure I knew the history of the station and his expectation for excellence.” Dilday was also a founder member of the National Association of Black Journalists. 

Under his leadership, WLBT maintained its position as the market’s top-rated station, ahead of CBS affiliate WJTV and ABC affiliate WAPT, a UHF station launched in 1970. Dilday also was part of a group to buy a TV station in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1973, becoming the first Black-owned station in the country (Detroit’s WGPR became the first Black-owned station in the continuous 48 states two years later.) After an ownership change in 1984, Dilday left WLBT a year later and joined rival WJTV before retiring from television in 2000. Today, WLBT is owned by Atlanta-based Gray Television. 

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