Q&A with alum Allison Salcido — Preserving the legacy of the first Black-owned radio station built from the ground up

bell broadcasting - three well-dressed people attend a public event
Haley Bell (right) with Aretha Franklin. C. 1961 Bell co-created the first Black-owned and -operated radio station (WCHB-AM, 1956) built from the ground up.

Allison Salcido is a recent graduate of the Joint Master of Arts in Public History and Library and Information Science at Wayne State University. She spent weeks working with the Detroit Historical Society (DHS) cataloging and organizing records related to Bell Broadcasting Company—the first Black-owned and -operated radio station (WCHB-AM, 1956) built from the ground-up right here in Detroit. 

We spoke to her about that process. 

Tell me about Bell Broadcasting—the creators, its history and impact on the Detroit community.

Bell Broadcasting headquarters/WCHB studio. 1956

The company was founded in 1956 by two dentists, Drs. Haley Bell and his son-in-law, Wendell Cox, who made the decision to create a radio station that served Detroit’s African American community. On January 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Bell a permit to operate a radio station in Inkster during daytime hours. The radio station was built at 32790 Henry Ruff Road, and its construction made it the first Black-owned radio station to be built from the ground up in the United States. I want to point out that WERD in Atlanta was the first Black-owned radio station in the United States. 

Advertisement for WCHB featuring disc jockey Bill Williams. C. 1964

The station WCHB-AM (1440) aired its first broadcast at 6 a.m. on November 7. The station was given the call letters WCHB after its owner’s initials: Wendell Cox and Haley Bell. In 1959, Bell Broadcasting was given another permit to operate an FM station for evening programming. The station was WCHD-FM (105.9) and constructed at 2994 East Grand Boulevard in Detroit. In 1973, it changed its call letters from WCHD to WJZZ (pronounced W-Jazz) to emphasize its focus on jazz music.

Going back to WCHB—the station was very involved in the Detroit community. The station had eccentric disc jockeys who entertained the public with music and discussion, and it was a valuable news source for events happening in Detroit. WCHB also sponsored community sports teams, including an all-girls softball team and a bowling team. It had a program called “Operation Happiness” that took underprivileged kids to the Shrine Circus. It also held programs that brought the community together like its weekly Sunrise Jubilee program and an annual Christmas show. There was a weekly column in the Michigan Chronicle written by program director George White. He ended one column with “Remember, too. WCHB is YOUR station. It was built for you, it is operated for you and by yours. That makes a big difference, doesn’t it?”

One of the special program’s sponsored by Bell Broadcasting was “Operation Happiness.” The program took 100 underprivileged children on a chartered bus to the Shrine Circus. The man in the white turtleneck is WCHB disc jockey Ron White. 1968

Even before Bell Broadcasting, Haley Bell was a prominent member in the Detroit community. In 1973, to commemorate his family’s 50th anniversary as Detroit residents, the Detroit Coalition Club planned a special event to honor Haley Bell’s contributions to the city of Detroit. He made contributions to organizations like the NAACP and personally sponsored scholarships for students. Unfortunately, he passed away on March 12, 1973, which was nine days before the celebration. The event was planned for March 21, 1973, but the city along with a few other nearby cities declared the day (March 21, 1973) “Haley Bell’s Day” to still honor him.

Bell Broadcasting Company president Mary Bell (middle) holding an award presented to her by Detroit City Council President proterm Nicholas Hood (middle). Also pictured is Dr. Wendell Cox, co-founder and vice president. The award ceremony was for Bell Broadcasting Company's twentieth anniversary. After Haley Bell died, his wife Mary became president of the company. C. 1976

WCHB and WJZZ remained popular stations throughout the next few decades. In 1990, WCHB changed its frequency from 1440 KC to 1200 KC and increased the area’s coverage. It also created more news programming to keep Detroit residents informed on issues around them. The programming featured city leaders like the mayor and Detroit city council members. By 1991, WCHB had forty employees and reached an average of 80,000 people. Near the end of the decade WCHB and WJZZ were competing with other stations and the stations were sold to Radio One in 1997 for $34 million. And that was the end of the Bell Broadcasting Company.

What’s in the DHS collection?

There are about 10 images right now currently available to the public on the DHS website. The Detroit Historical Museum created an exhibit for the Bell Broadcasting Company’s 25th anniversary in 1981, so the material was mainly photographic prints and some negatives used for the exhibit. There’s also an oversized scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from 1956 to 1960 related to Bell Broadcasting. In total, there’s around 145 items in the collection that span from 1956 to 1981. The goal is to eventually place all the images and the finding aid online on the DHS website.

Tell me about the work you did for DHS and the collection.  

Allison Salcido

Director of Collections Jeremy Dimick found the unorganized collection in a few boxes at the Collection Resource Center, and I was responsible for organizing the collection. There were a lot of photographs, so I organized those by subject. While organizing I was also researching the company so I could accurately give a date estimate of when the material was created and who was in the photographs.

I did this by looking at old newspapers from the Detroit Free Press and Michigan Chronicle. Then I scanned all the items to create digital copies. As I scanned I placed the photographs in the proper archival sleeves for preservation.

You recently defended your thesis—congratulations! What’s next for you? 

Thank you! That’s a great question. Right now, I’m working as a youth services librarian, so we’re gearing up for summer reading programs. I’m just enjoying some time post-grad before starting a full-time job.

All historical Bell Broadcasting Co. photos courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society. 

Interviewed by Kristy Case, Graduate School

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