WSW: Student's Play Honors Black Radio Pioneer Hal Jackson

Mar 9, 2017

Kalamazoo College senior Kaylah "Kami" Simmons on Saturday presents a reader's theater play inspired by the life of late African-American radio pioneer Hal Jackson.
Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK

When it was time for Kalamazoo College senior Kaylah "Kami" Simmons to choose a capstone project to do this year, she thought of a famous man she met in high school -- Hal Jackson. He's an African-American who broke the color barrier in radio in the '30s and is in several Halls of Fame. She didn't know his significance back then. Now a theater arts major with a media studies concentration who's contemplating a journalism career, Simmons wants more people to know about Jackson and this Saturday presents a reader's theater play inspired by his life. He died in 2012 at 96.


Hal Jackson, extreme right, at a 2004 event celebrating his radio career. He died five years ago at 96.
Credit Gina Gayle | Associated Press File

The central character of  "The Time is Now" is Willy Earl, loosely based on Jackson's rise from talk show host and disc jockey to radio executive, activist and philanthropist. The play will be staged for free at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 11 in the Dungeon Theatre in the Light Fine Arts Building at Kalamazoo College. It will be followed by a talkback and reception.

On today's WestSouthwest public-affairs show, Kami Simmons, a 21-year-old from Washington, D.C., tells WMUK's Earlene McMichael about her play, key achievements of Hal Jackson's life and why she felt drawn to make him the focus of her senior thesis, known as a senior individualized project at K-College.

He didn't just stop at people telling him no. He found other ways to make it happen for himself - Kami Simmons

According to Simmons, Jackson was born in Charleston, S.C., moving to the Washington, D.C. area as a young teen, where he launched his radio career in the '30s. Simmons says she discovered that his first radio stint came on the very station where the director told him in racially derogatory language that no black would ever be on his airwaves; Jackson had suggested an interview and entertainment program.

Jackson fought back by purchasing airtime through a broker and, without telling the station director that Jackson would be the show host. Jackson appeared 15 minutes before the broadcast, entered the studio undetected and went on the air. His "Bronze Review" show was a hit. 

"He didn't just stop at people telling him no. He found other ways to make it happen for himself," Simmons says.

Hal Jackson was the first black inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters' Hall of Fame in 1990

Jackson later bought that station and many others across the country, including ones in New York City, where he eventually spent the bulk of his career, according to Simmons. Jackson was even the one-time owner of famed The Apollo Theater in the Big Apple. He had once dabbled in TV as well, having a variety show in the D.C. area.

Jackson was the first black inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters' Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1995, he was among the five African-Americans inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. He released a memoir in 2001 titled "The House That Jack Built: My Life As a Trailblazer in Broadcasting and Entertainment."

IF YOU GO

  • Cost: Free
  • When: ​3 p.m. Saturday, March 11
  • Where: Dungeon Theatre, Light Fine Arts Building, Kalamazoo
  • Sponsors:  Kalamazoo College's chapter of the National Broadcasting Society hosts as part of its speaker series on racial healing and transformation. The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership on campus is a sponsor. 
  • Worth Noting: "The Time is Now" stars K-College students. The Media and Film Studies Department and others are expected to participate in the talkback.