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WVON AM Radio Celebrates 50 Years in Chicago

By Wendell Hutson | April 3, 2013 7:38am

CHATHAM — It’s just Wednesday and already it's been a busy week for Melody Spann-Cooper, president of WVON AM.

On Monday, the city's only black-owned-and-operated radio station marked 50 years of existence and on Saturday the all-talk radio outlet will celebrate its anniversary with a gala at the Chicago Theater with entertainment headlined by Grammy-winning R&B singer Toni Braxton.

When all the dust settles, Spann-Cooper will be able to focus on future goals.

“When I turn 50 years old I want to step aside as president of WVON and pass the ‘hat’ to someone else,” said the 48-year-old daughter of Pervis “The Blues Man” Spann. “I would remain chairman of Midway Broadcasting Corporation (which owns WVON AM) but it is time for someone else to take over the day-to-day duties as president.”

Ideally, Spann-Cooper said she would like to see the next president come from within the company, which she said has plenty of talent.

The history of WVON, 1000 E. 87th St. in Chatham, stretches back to 1926 when it was first called WHFC AM and it broadcast on 1310 AM. From then the station changed its frequency three more times. In 1986, WVON switched to an all-talk format and moved to 1690 AM.

WVON officially hit the airwaves in 1963 after being known for years as WHFC. It started with five personalities: Spann, Franklin McCarthy, E. Rodney Jones, Wesley South and Herb “The Cool Gent” Kent, who is now a host on "V103," WVAZ FM.

“WVON will always be home to me. I was a disc jockey there and played music like no one else could during that time,” Kent said. “I knew then WVON would last ... but I did not know how long.”

His most memorable time at WVON was during the 1968 race riots in Chicago sparked by the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Black folks were mad. They were burning cars and breaking glass. I remember being outside watching people looting from stores while the Chicago Fire Department and police stood next to me watching,” Kent said. “Killing Dr. King was senseless but so was burning down your own neighborhood.”

Despite being the voice of the Chicago's black community, WVON was located in the suburbs until Spann-Cooper took over. In 2007, she moved the station from west suburban Cicero to its current location in Chatham.

“We can’t have all of our black-owned businesses located downtown," she said. "We need some on the South Side too.”

Spann-Cooper's father owned much of the station with his partner, Wesley South, until she took over in 2006. Though Pervis Spann doesn't get around much these days because of poor health, Spann-Cooper hopes her dad, who in 2012 was inducted into the National Blues Foundation’s Hall Of Fame, could attend this week’s gala.

Harold Lucas, president and chief executive officer of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council, said the station is a gem in the black community.

“No other station in Chicago, black or white, is doing what WVON is doing, and that’s engaging black folks in conversations about themselves and their communities,” Lucas said.

Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) said he has been a regular listener for years.

“I’m a busy man and cannot always keep up with what’s going on in ‘our’ communities. But that’s where WVON comes into play,” Brookins said. WVON "is part of my everyday interactions.”

His colleague, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), agreed.

“WVON has and continues to provide a critically necessary media outlet for issues relating to the African-American experience in Chicago,” Dowell said. “As the alderman of the 3rd Ward, that outlet has proven to be an invaluable resource in helping me reach my constituency.”

Measuring its reach is hard at times because WVON does not subscribe to Arbitron, which analyzes how many listeners a station reaches by the hour.

“It’s too expensive to subscribe them and quite frankly I don’t believe in it," Spann-Cooper said, adding that much of the station's revenue comes from hosting events, not on-air advertising.

One summer event the station hosts annually is the “Taste of WVON,” which Spann-Cooper describes as a mini Taste of Chicago — about 8,000 people attended last year. The free event is slated to return on July 20.

Spann-Cooper has fond memories of growing up at the station, and as the daughter of a legendary Chicago blues man.

“I remember when I was 15 years old and my dad would have me work at the radio station with him. I did light duties like answering the phone,” Spann-Cooper said. “To this day he still sees me as ‘Daddy’s little girl,’ and you know what, he’s right.”