The First Black TV Channel: WGPR-TV (1975 – 1995)



WGPR-TV was the first African-American fully owned and operated television station in the U.S., which kicked into the air on  September 29, 1975, when it made its first broadcast. WGPR-TV stood for “Where God’s Presence Radiates,” and the station, situated in Detroit, Michigan, was founded by William Banks Venoid. The station first aired on September 29,  1975, through channel 62 in Detroit, Michigan. It was marketed towards the urban audience in Detroit, Michigan, which in that market denoted the programming for the black community.

The founder of WGPR-TV Station, William Banks, was a Detroit Attorney, Minister, and a prominent member of the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, an organization he established in 1950. By then, the Masons held more than half of the ownership shares or stock in WGPR-TV. The TV channel initially focused on broadcasting R&B music shows, religious shows, syndicated shows, off-network dramas, as well as older cartoons. It was William’s vision that the WGPR-TV channel provides the African-American community with basic training and experience in the television broadcasting industry, thereby offering as many local blacks as possible the opportunity to work in production “behind the camera” and directing, alongside other roles that placed or sent contents to the air. The WGPR-TV channel also aired some of the locally-produced programs including Big City News, Arab Voice of Detroit, and The Scene.

The Big City News was a program that ran from Monday to Friday. The newscast also aimed at focusing on community activities from the African-American perspective, showcasing their positive and success stories. Nonetheless, the program was discontinued in 1992. The Scene, a nightly dance show, which offered the young people from Detroit the opportunity to showcase or display their dancing tactics and musical talents, ran from 1975 to 1987, when it was finally stopped to give way to other informative programs. It still enjoys a cult following of viewers and former dancers. Finally, the Arab Voice of Detroit was a show of public affairs focusing on the significant Arab-American population living within Detroit and its outskirts.

Unfortunately, regardless of its popularity in the television industry among the black community, WGPR-TV failed to attract the expected huge number of audience apart from the members of the African-American community. Even within its own spheres and the roles it played in the black community, it still had to compete with other larger stations of its caliber, which were established merely a short period after its inception in 1975. These competing Tv stations offered more programs directed towards the African-American society. After 1980, the station faced its most compelling competition in the Black Entertainment Television (BET). Furthermore, with its weaker 800,000-watt signal, when compared to the 2 million watts for major competing Detroit TV stations, the WGPR-TV channel never had the capacity to reach an audience beyond the city of Detroit. By the 1990s WGPR primarily aired reruns and infomercials. Towards 1995, the WGPR’s on-air image had become highly primitive. It was the only local station which still used art cards instead of the groundbreaking “computer-generated imagery” for its sponsor announcements and newscasts. Moreover, its character generator, manufactured in the early 1970s, remained in graphics use for several years.

On July 25, 1995, the WGPR-TV channel was sold to CBS amid several controversies from the African-American community, whose members felt that the station ought to have remained under the full black ownership and management. Particularly, the Masons were criticized for selling the station to a mainstream network; however, the two months later, the CBS changed the television station’s name to WWJ-TV and reframed its programs to accommodate the general audience rather than focusing only on the African-American population.

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