Unapologetically Black” is the phrase used by both host Atiba Buchanan and longtime listener Shapearl Wells to describe WVON.
For sixty years, WVON, found on the radio at 1690 AM, has served the Chicago community by engaging in conversations on topics affecting Black Americans. Now called “The Voice of the Nation,” WVON continues to honor its roots as “The Voice of the Negro” by providing a platform for conversation, discourse, and information.
The station began its journey in 1963 when it was purchased by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records—the legendary record label that distributed the work of Chicago’s great blues musicians. WVON was born as a music station featuring jazz, blues, gospel, and more. However, since its original purchase, the station has gone through changes in ownership, frequency, and format.
The station joined the airways during the Civil Rights movement as a media outlet providing news and conversations from Black individuals for Black individuals. The original group of disk jockeys, nicknamed “The Good Guys,” was composed of twelve hosts.
The Good Guys were not only entertaining but also representative of listeners. Many of the original hosts were children of migrants or migrants themselves like much of Chicago during and following The Great Migration.
Although originally music-oriented, WVON was home to an early segment called “Hot Line” that covered civil rights issues in Chicago and beyond. In 1986, the station shifted to the all-talk format listeners recognize today.
Over the years, WVON has featured notable guests such as Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Barack Obama.
Civil rights leader Jackson was introduced to the station through “Hot Line” as a guest in 1965 and became a recurring voice on the program through 1970. WVON amplified Jackson’s voice in promoting Operation Breadbasket—a program that encouraged businesses with little to no racial diversity to hire a percentage of Black workers—among other civil rights pursuits.
In 2004, Jackson launched his own radio talk show “Keep Hope Alive with Rev Jesse Jackson” now co-hosted with his daughter and former WVON host, Santita Jackson.
A Space for Discussion
Today, as in the past, WVON’s twenty-four-seven talk programming often invites audience participation. Hosts of the station would pose questions or topics to listeners, and take calls offering a space for them to share their thoughts.
In using and maintaining this format, WVON created a “Black Public Sphere,” as Edmund Ramsay describes in a DePaul University master’s capstone paper. Ramsay refers to German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the Public Sphere: a space for discourse and public opinion to be formed.
However, mainstream public spheres traditionally excluded marginalized groups, pushing such groups to form their own public spheres that speak to their experiences and opinions. Ramsay holds up Black talk radio, like WVON, as a part of the Black Public Sphere.
While many aspects of traditional public spheres have splintered along with traditional media ecosystems, WVON continues to offer a place for Black Americans to share comments and opinions, and for listeners to disagree with each other or with hosts.
Host Atiba Buchanan has been working with the station since 2019.
“The relatability I think is [WVON’s] greatest asset, and the freedom to disagree,” Buchanan said “One phrase you will hear a lot is Black people are not a monolith.”
Hosts of WVON, like listeners, maintain their own viewpoints while encouraging listeners to share differing opinions. Buchanan says a goal of the station is to give everyone a voice and let them be heard.
A Space for Community
Shapearl Wells, creator of the podcast Somebody, has been a listener since the mid-2000s.
“I would actually listen to [WVON] from the top of the morning all the way down to the evening,” Wells said.
Wells began calling in to the station in 2007 following the announcement of Obama’s candidacy. One host who frequently took her calls over the years was Santita Jackson.
In 2016 Wells’s son, Courtney Copeland, was killed by an unknown shooter. One of the first people Wells called following his death was Jackson.
“You need to record, that is, write down, everything that you heard and saw and felt, because you will lose it as we go, as time goes on,” Jackson recalled telling Wells in an episode of Somebody.
Wells additionally found support from other listeners of WVON.
“I’d probably say twenty-five percent of my Facebook friends now I have met because they have heard me on the radio,” Wells said.
The station helped get the message out about the death of her son. Audience members recognized Wells as a caller and aided in attempting to find out what happened to her son.
During events hosted by WVON, Wells has met other callers and virtual friends in person.
“I would attend [WVON] events and we became a little community and a little family of callers and listeners,” Wells said. “You began to put the voice with the face and vice versa, and you become like a little online community.”
A Space for Information
In addition to WVON’s traffic updates, talk shows, and top-of-the-hour news coverage, the station also provides information and resources for its listeners. WVON has a collective of hosts supplying content across various shows featuring conversations and themes throughout the day.
The Hill and Buchanan show, co-hosted by Atiba Buchanan, discusses a variety of topics and their impacts on the Black community. Discussions include politics, health, climate impacts, relationships, and resources like mentoring and apprenticeship programs.
WVON’s twenty-four-hour format includes daily special features like news from The Black Information Network featuring a short review of news at the top of every hour and an hour-long segment at 5am.
WVON hosts guest speakers and in-person events to deliver information to listeners.
In September, the station held a Family Care Exposition with workshop themes including finance, caretaking, and health.
In 2020, WVON launched a TV streaming network called VON TV. The streaming platform is free to use and has content for educational viewing and entertainment. The network has live talk shows, documentaries, movies, children’s programming, interview archives, and more.
Over sixty years on air WVON has gone through multiple iterations before arriving at its current identity. Despite the shifts in programming, shape, and style, WVON retains its critical message of being a voice for Black America and allowing the voices of Black Americans to be heard. From topics from health to politics and guests from artists to dentists, WVON distributes information and engages listeners in conversations about themselves.
“As a minority in this country not every place is a safe space for us,” Buchanan said “[Listeners] can call in to WVON and no one’s going to ask to feel their hair.”
Malaya Tindongan is a freelance journalist living in the Chicago area.