Our podcast Out of the Rehearsal Hall is back for a second season! In the first episode I’m joined by co-host Esther Winter, Creative Producer of Geva’s Recognition Radio Festival, and Rochester-area arts maven (and she runs this amazing music school for babies!) We talk with Sonja D. Williams, author of Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom and a professor of media studies at Howard University. Our main topic of conversation is Richard Durham’s pioneering work creating some of the first all-Black radio dramas in the United States – we discuss the history of radio, Durham’s script writing (the good and the bad), innovative artistic choices, missed deadlines and incredible impact.
You can find Out of the Rehearsal Hall on your favorite podcast service, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public, Overcast, or subscribe by RSSfeed. Or, keep up with us on the podcast’s website, here.
First, a few words about Recognition Radio, the audio play festival celebrating Black stories which launches Geva’s 2020-2021 season. You can find all of the details about the festival here. We’re so excited about the four plays we’re featuring, as well as all of the ancillary programming that will create community around the plays. We know that nothing compares to being in the theatre together to experience live theatre, but we hope that this new experience will also be rewarding. And you’ll hear from each of the playwrights in episodes 2 and 3 of the podcast!
Sonja D. Williams
I came across Sonja D. Williams’ scholarship when I was looking for some background on the history of Black radio drama. I knew there was a rich history, but I didn’t know where it started. Well, my search led me to Richard Durham’s work on Destination Freedom and a radio soap opera called Here Comes Tomorrow. And those shows led me to Professor Williams’ fantastic book Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom. I highly recommend the book – you can buy it from the publisher here or get the e-book here.
Esther, Sonja and I recorded this conversation in early-September, shortly after classes resumed at Howard University, where Sonja teaches. And hearing about how her students are responding to being in classes, even online, was refreshing – here’s hoping their semester continues to be rewarding!
Our conversation began with a discussion about Sonja’s own interest in radio, which began in New York City, with her love of Motown, Philadelphia Sound and browsing Stax Records. And we set the scene for Richard Durham’s work on radio beginning in the 1940s – radio Durham would have heard as a child included shows like the blackface of Amos ‘n’ Andy and musicians like Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and the big band music of the early 1900s. We discussed other influences on Durham’s work, like his close friendship with Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright Langston Hughes. And we discussed how Durham’s work with the Illinois Writers Project (part of the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project) brought him into the company of people like Saul Bellow, Katherine Dunham, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren and Margaret Burroughs.
And then we turned to Richard Durham’s incredible work.
Durham wrote and produced at least 90 episodes of Destination Freedom, a groundbreaking radio series that told the stories of influential Black Americans. About half of the episodes from the series can be found online here. They are inventive and often very fun, and I urge you to listen to a few. We specifically chatted about “The Trumpet Talks” (Luis Armstrong), ” The Rhyme of the Ancient Dodger” (Jackie Robinson), and “The Denmark Vesey Story” (Denmark Vesey) – but they are all worth a listen! (After you listen to the podcast episode, clearly!)
There’s so much more to explore – but I’ll leave it to you to listen to the conversation or read the book – until next time…
Here’s her bio: Throughout her professional career, Sonja D. Williams has served as an educator as well as a multi-award-winning writer and producer of features and documentaries for National Public Radio (NPR), Public Radio International (PRI), the Smithsonian Institution and local radio stations throughout America. Also, she has served as a media trainer/writer in South Africa and the Caribbean. For three consecutive years, Williams received one of the American broadcast/cable industry’s most prestigious honors, the George Foster Peabody Award for Significant and Meritorious Achievement. She was so honored for her role as a writer/producer for the NPR and Smithsonian Institution’s series, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions (1994); the NPR series, Making the Music (1995); and the PRI/Smithsonian Institution’s series, Black Radio: Telling It like It Was (1996). In addition, Williams’ Howard University students received Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award recognition (nicknamed the “Poor People’s Pulitzer”) for their documentary special, In Touch: AIDS in the African American Community (1992). More recently her students’ work has been featured on SiriusXM’s HBCU Channel 142. Williams holds an M.A. in broadcast management from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Currently she serves as professor and interim chair of the Howard University Department of Media, Journalism and Film in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications in Washington, DC. Her research interests include concerns about trends in mass communications as well as African American history and culture. In 2018 the audiobook version of Williams’ book, Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom,was published. This biography examines the life and times of Richard Durham, a pioneering African American writer/activist, gifted radio and television dramatist and National Radio Hall of Fame inductee.