The television industry was scratching the surface of its capabilities in the 1970s. Cable television was still in its infancy; and despite just a handful of channels being available to households across the United States, whites owned every network broadcasting at the time.
Things would change in 1975, when the first African-American-owned station hit the airwaves on channel 62 in Detroit, Michigan. WGPR-TV was founded by local lawyer and minister William V. Banks, who also led Detroit’s first black radio station. WGPR-FM debuted in 1964 and would serve as a sister station to its television counterpart. Both station’s call letters would be interpreted to stand for “Where God’s Presence Radiates.”
Banks financed the purchase of WGPR-TV by selling real estate investments he had in Florida and Michigan.
The new television network would market itself to Detroit’s urban community, with much of its initial programming centered around R&B music and religion, along with syndicated shows and off-network dramas. Newscasts were also designed to be told from the African-American perspective and focus on positive stories happening within the community. Banks’ ventures into television were met with its share of skeptics who said blacks could not obtain an FCC license and lacked the talent and technical skill to keep a television station running. Many also presumed advertisers would not invest in a black-owned station. But Banks was determined to see his dream through—despite the naysayers.
“I have always believed that Black-owned broadcasting stations are important to the community and Black people,” Banks said. “Without them, there can be distortion and lack of vital information to both minority and majority communities.”
The station dealt with several obstacles in its early years, including high expenses and technical challenges. But over its nearly two decades on the air, WGPR would serve as initial stomping grounds for African-Americans looking to get their start in the television business. Young artists and entertainers also got to showcase their skills on the station’s popular dance program, “The Scene.”
WGPR-TV became the first Detroit station to stay on air 24 hours a day, broadcast programming in Arabic and use Electronic News Gathering equipment.
CBS would strike a deal to buy WGPR-TV for $24 million in 1994. Despite legal challenges and pushback from the community that wanted the station to remain black-owned, the sale of WGPR-TV would be complete in the following year.