1975 : Detroit Launches Nation’s First African-American-Owned TV Station, WGPR-TV

September 29, 2023 all-day

The nation’s first African-American-owned TV station, WGPR-TV (Where God’s Presence Radiates) , is responsible for many firsts — using news cameras with tape rather than film, foreign language programs and being on air for 24 hours instead of signing off in the evening.

The station, Channel 62, also diverged from the local competition with its news coverage by looking for stories that other stations were not following.

Without a network affiliation, the station produced programs unique to the Detroit area, such as “The Scene,” a dance program similar to “Soul Train,” and “Porter House,” a talk show hosted by Amyre Makupson, formerly Amyre Porter.

Arab Voice of Detroit was another public affairs show directed toward the significant Arab American population in Detroit and its suburbs

Karen Hudson Samuels, who worked at the station as a news director and reporter, said the WGPR building also housed a radio station, and there was a lot of “cross pollination between TV and radio” as musical acts ranging from the Four Tops to James Brown and Prince paid visits.

The station was the brainchild of William V. Banks, a Detroit attorney, minister,  and prominent member of the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, who raised more than $2 million to launch the venture, according to a 1975 Toledo Blade article posted online.  The Masons owned the majority of stock in WGPR-TV.

“(In) some respects, William V. Banks was the Dan Gilbert of his era; a businessman who owned real estate and property all over Michigan, leveraging it to fulfill his dream,” according to a handout from the news conference.

On July 25, 1995, WGPR-TV was sold to CBS amid controversy from the black community, which felt that the station should remain under African-American management. The Masons in particular were criticized for selling the station to a mainstream network. Two months later, CBS changed the television station name to WWJ-TV and targeted its programming for a general audience.

Whatever its popularity among blacks in the television industry, WGPR-TV failed to attract a large audience outside the African American community. Even within that community, it competed with larger stations that after 1975 offered more programs directed toward African Americans. After 1980, the station faced its most powerful competition in the Black Entertainment Television (BET). Moreover with its 800,000 watt signal compared with 2 million watts for major Detroit TV stations, WGPR-TV never reached an audience beyond the city of Detroit. By the 1990s WGPR aired primarily reruns and infomercials.

For the full article, see Eric D. Lawrence, “Exhibit honoring first black-owned TV station planned for Detroit Historical Museum”, Detroit Free Press, January 23, 2014.

For additional information, see Blackpast.org and Gordon Castelnero, TV Land Detroit (University of Michigan Press, 2006)

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