DETROIT — Detroit's black history runs deep, so it's no surprise that America's first fully owned and operated television station found its home in the city.
Signing on for the first time in Detroit on Sept. 29, 1975, WGPR-TV became the first fully owned and operated African-American television station in the United States.
The story of WGPR-TV begins with William Venoid Banks, an African-American from Kentucky who moved to Michigan in the 1940s. Banks was an ordained minister, lawyer, philanthropist, business owner and founder of the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons and Eastern Star.
Banks first got into the broadcast industry when his Freemasons order purchased the radio station WGPR-FM in 1964. Banks became the president and general manager of the station and changed the format to African-American-oriented programming, which made it Detroit's first black radio station.
After over a decade in the Detroit radio broadcast market, Banks decided to turn his focus to television and in 1973, he and his Freemasons order decided to purchase WGPR-TV. Two years later, WGPR-TV signed on the air for the first time and became the first fully owned and operated African-American television station in the United States.
At 12 p.m. on Sept. 29, 1975, Detroiters tuned in to WGPR-TV Channel 62 and were greeted by President Gerald R. Ford, who had prepared a pre-recorded statement:
"Congratulations to WGPR-TV and the men and women who helped to make it a reality. I'm particularly proud that this first black-owned television station in the continental U.S. will be in my home state of Michigan.
I am also proud to join in this salute to the men and women who will be associated with WGPR in serving their community. I commend WGPR for the innovative programming it has planned and for its efforts to become actively involved in community affairs.
Most importantly, WGPR will serve as a symbol of successful black enterprise. This is truly a landmark, not only for the broadcasting industry but for American society. I want to see more of this kind of progress.
I wish the management and staff of WGPR success in this exciting new venture. I only wish I could be with you in person as WGPR goes on the air."
Banks commended President Ford for helping expedite the process of getting the station up and running and even over-riding a Pentagon priority on steel so Banks could construct the broadcast tower.
WGPR-TV's launch was a bit rocky and after the first several months of broadcasting, it was rated last among the UHF television stations in Detroit. One bright spot, however, was its raising of over $400,000 in ad revenue in its first months which more than doubled its estimated yearly operating costs of $125,000.
During its early years, local programming was a focus on WGPR-TV. The station had a live morning show called "The Morning Party," the local game show "Countdown," two "BIG CITY NEWS" broadcasts highlighting local and national news, a local dance party show called "The Scene" and many other locally produced specialty shows and paid programming.
During a time when broadcast jobs for African-Americans were limited, WGPR-TV gave the opportunity for men and women of color to work in the industry among their peers. Several prominent African-American broadcasters and journalists started their careers on the station including former host of Access Hollywood, Shaun Robinson, former CNN correspondent and current KCBS anchor, Pat Harvey and former correspondent and executive producer for Black Entertainment Television, Sharon Dahlonega Bush.
WGPR-TV never cultivated the viewership that it hoped for despite innovative attempts at programing like becoming the first 24-hour station in Detroit by broadcasting movies overnight.
In 1985, WGPR-TV founder William Banks passed away at the age of 82 and management of the station was passed along to widow Ivy Banks. The following decade saw the decline of the station as it continued to be rated last in the market.
The station would continue to experiment with its programming and launched new versions of the popular dance show "The Scene" that featured more contemporary music and "The New Dance Show" which was groundbreaking for featuring house and techno music far before they were mainstream in the late 1980s.
Despite its attempts to stay relevant and grow an audience, WGPR-TV stayed stagnant in the ratings and eventually turned to almost an entire lineup of syndicated shows, reruns and paid programming.
Eventually, in the mid-90s, the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons and Eastern Star decided to sell WGPR-TV to CBS. On July 25, 1995, the station officially changed ownership and within two months the new Detroit CBS affiliate rebranded the station as WWJ-TV and stopped focusing its programming on the African-American community.
A group of former WGPR-TV employees founded the WGPR-TV Historical Society in January of 2011. Several years later, the society opened The William V. Banks Broadcast Museum on Jan. 16, 2017, Martin Luther King Day.
The museum is located at the original studios of WGPR-TV at 3146 East Jefferson in Detroit. At the museum, patrons can learn about the history of the station, its founder, the locally produced shows and talent that worked at the station.
WGPR-TV is now WWJ-TV Channel 62, a CBS affiliate and WGPR-FM is still broadcasting under those call letters on frequency 107.5 as "HOT 107.5" in Detroit.
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