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One On 1: Radio Pioneer Hal Jackson

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of radio pioneer Hal Jackson, a man who has been on the air for more than six decades.

For most of us, 65 means retirement. But for Hal Jackson, the number has a different significance.

“This will be 65 years of broadcasting coming up this year,” he says.

I think he’s going to be OK in this business - he’s got potential!

For 65 years, Hal Jackson has worked with some of our greatest entertainers. He might have known his life would be storybook when as a kid, working at old Griffith Stadium in Washington, he got a ride home from Babe Ruth.

“I was standing just inside the clubhouse and the Babe said, ÎHey kid, how are you doing?’ I said, ÎI'm getting ready to go home.’ He said, ’Where do you live?’ I said, ÎOver on W Street.’ He said, ÎNo problem, I got my driver, I'll drop you off.’ I said, ÎReally?’ and I lit up.”

But it was another, far more sinister incident a few years later that had a greater impact on Jackson's career. He approached radio station WINX in Washington about the possibility of broadcasting the games of the Homestead Grays of the old negro leagues.

"This guy called his whole staff in at WINX and he said, ÎI wanted you all to see, can you imagine? This nigger,’ - that's what he said — Îis talking about going on this radio station. It will never happen. That's all.’ You never lose it. It was just something that hit me so hard. I had to be strong when he said it. It just only builds you up and builds your determination to say ÎUh-uh, this man is crazy. We're going to override that.’”

More than six decades later, Hal Jackson is on the air every week with his Sunday Classics show on WBLS — his wife Debbie is his co-host - and he's in the office most weekdays as vice chairman of Inner City Broadcasting.

He's 88. Why does he still do it?

“As long as you feel that you are giving back and that you can give and you're not a liability, then the urge to work and do stays important," he says.

Early on, Jackson realized that he'd have to overcome many obstacles in a business that limited opportunities to African-Americans, so he continually sought out and worked with sponsors. He took almost any gig he could, often working on-air shifts at three different stations on the same day.

“You can only win by working and scheming - sometimes you have to scheme - to get the thing done. But don't give up and don't get angry,” he says. “I always learned that anger took away all of the positive things that you might be able to do."

Jackson's sunny personality is not just for his radio show. His reputation is that of patience and kindness, despite many struggles, especially when Jackson was part of the first black company in the 1960’s to own and operate radio stations in New York.

“We are getting into things where black people aren't normally into, owning radio stations and doing things like that, so you look up and suddenly there is opposition,” he says. “Why? You don't know, but there's a resentment. You know, ÎIt’s alright for you to work here boy, but don't talk about owning this station.’ Those are the kinds of things you go through."

But there have been so many happy moments too, times with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Jackson is like a walking history book, and the pictures tell the stories.

“Nat King Cole was the kind of guy who no matter what you wanted, he would make it a point to follow up and be there,” he says. “Aretha Franklin [was] the Queen of Soul and a very lovable person. Ella Fitzgerald - that's my First Lady. What a gracious person."

There's a particular fondness for Billie Holiday.

“I had her booked at Carnegie Hall, and then when I got there and got ready to start, she wasn't there,” he says. “I went out the back way at 56th Street at Carnegie, and here she is coming down the street, she said, ÎHal, you gonna’ fuss with me?’ I said, ÎNo Billie, just come and get ready.’”

Years later, Jackson produced and hosted live radio shows at the old Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, with guests like the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Linda Ronstadt and the Rolling Stones.

And there was an early connection with Michael Jackson.

“He used to come in and spend a lot of time in the studio. He’s always been in touch, but now everything's just gone haywire," he says.

Hal Jackson was born in Charleston, South Carolina, one of five children. Both of his parents died when he was eight, so he was sent to live with an aunt in Washington, where he went to school and worked as a janitor and busboy.

“They did not allow blacks into many of the locations, the restaurants, etc.” he says. “I always felt things were going to come, and I always wanted to be on the radio."

Jackson realized that dream and then some. He became the first black radio announcer in Washington, the first black play-by-play announcer in the country, the first black announcer on network radio, and the first black inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

But there was a price to pay. He's been married four times, and more time at all of the radio stations meant less time at home raising his three children.

“I always kept them apprised of what I was doing as they grew up so that they always knew what I was doing and who I was helping,” he says.

Jackson was always helping, going outside the broadcasting world to create the Talented Teens Program, now in its 34th year, an annual competition for young women of color to earn scholarships and travel and career opportunities.

“I could never accept the fact that even though I had made it, I could still contribute to somebody or some other group making it,” he says.

Jackson's eternally positive outlook was severely tested in 1960, when he was accused of bribery in a payola scandal. Jackson said the charges were false, but the owner of WLIB at the time suspended him.

“That's when all of Harlem lit up,” he says. “Malcolm X was out drawing crowds, and we had people from everywhere saying, ÎNo Hal Jackson, No WLIB. Turn your radios off.’"

The district attorneys office eventually dropped all charges, but the damage was done. No New York radio station would hire Jackson.

"That was a real down time,” he says. “I remember well during those weeks, going out working, cleaning office buildings just to make money and pay the rent for my family. I said, ÎI'm not going to be bitter. I'm going to look down the road and say I've been blessed before and I'll be blessed again.”

Jackson first got back on the air in Philadelphia doing both classical and rhythm and blues shows. And then a small station, WWRL, brought him back to New York.

But he never lost his place in the black community. Jackson had befriended Dr. Martin Luther King as the civil rights movement grew in the 50’s. He was there when King was stabbed during an appearance in New York in 1958, and immediately after the civil rights leader's assassination in 1968, Jackson immediately pressed for a national holiday.

“I started thinking, everybody else has birthdays for big people. Nobody's bigger than our Dr. King. I'm going to start collecting signatures tomorrow morning," he says.

Jackson recently celebrated 20 years of the Sunday Classics on WBLS with a benefit concert at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

So when he was a younger man driving around to all those different stations, did he really think at 88 he'd still be doing this?

”That's hard to answer because every day something new works its way into our way of life and what we're doing," he says. “There’s so much happening, and I try to keep up with everything that’s new because otherwise you get lost.”

- Budd Mishkin

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