Black in the Day…We’re On the Air

September 29, 1975:

On this day WGPR-TV (Where God’s Presence Radiates), the first Black fully owned and operated television station in the U.S., kicked into the air on when it made its first broadcast. WGPR-TV first aired on channel 62 in Detroit, Michigan.  Station founder William Venoid Banks was a Detroit attorney, minister and prominent member of the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, an organization he founded in 1950. The Masons owned the majority of stock in WGPR-TV. The station initially broadcast religious shows, R&B music shows, off-network dramas, syndicated shows and 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.

Whatever its popularity among blacks in the television industry, WGPR-TV failed to attract a large audience outside the African American community. Even within that community, it competed with larger stations that after 1975 offered more programs directed toward African Americans. After 1980, the station faced its most powerful competition in the Black Entertainment Television (BET). Moreover with its 800,000 watt signal compared with 2 million watts for major Detroit TV stations, WGPR-TV never reached an audience beyond the city of Detroit. By the 1990s WGPR aired primarily reruns and infomercials.

On July 25, 1995, WGPR-TV was sold to CBS amid controversy from the black community, which felt that the station should remain under African American management. The Masons in particular were criticized for selling the station to a mainstream network. Two months later, CBS changed the television station name to WWJ-TV and targeted its programming for a general audience.

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