The last days of ‘Soul!’: Why a trailblazing show about black issues couldn’t last

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Soul! host Ellis Haizlip interviews Melvin Van Peebles in 1971 as director Stan Lathan looks over a camera operator's head. (Photo: © Chester Higgins Jr. All rights reserved.)

Soul! host Ellis Haizlip interviews Melvin Van Peebles in 1971 as director Stan Lathan looks over a camera operator’s head. (Photo: © Chester Higgins Jr. All rights reserved.)

From 1968 to 1973, the public TV program Soul! brought a who’s who of African-American artists, writers, politicians, activists, actors, thinkers and musicians to television screens across America. Viewers saw Toni Morrison read from her first novel, James Baldwin chat with Nikki Giovanni, and Earth, Wind and Fire in an early live performance, among many other noteworthy interviews and appearances.

Produced by WNDT (later WNET), the show first reached audiences in its home market of New York City, then a national viewership via PBS’s distribution. Behind it all was Ellis Haizlip, the show’s host and producer, known as “Mr. Soul.”

“No prime-time U.S. television show has ever addressed itself so unequivocally to black viewers as a culturally distinct audience or employed a greater percentage of black people, particularly black women, in significant creative positions,” writes Gayle Wald in her new book, It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television (Duke University Press). In the book, Wald, a professor of English and American studies at George Washington University, tells the story of a show often overlooked by histories of both public TV and black broadcasting.

In the excerpt that follows, Wald looks at the political climate of the early 1970s and the funding decisions that led to the end of Soul! At the time, the show was seen as competing for funds with Black Journal, hosted by Tony Brown and produced by National Educational Television. — Mike Janssen


Unlike Sesame Street, Soul! did not have Big Bird to make it bulletproof; nor, for that matter, did Haizlip have the political clout of Brown, who also served as dean of Howard University’s School of Communications, located just a couple of miles north of the centers of political power in Washington. Haizlip had long feared that Brown’s public-affairs show threatened Soul! because broadcasters might think the two WNET productions redundant. As early as February 1971, Haizlip had written to Lukas, his immediate supervisor, to express concern that the merger of NET and WNDT, in bringing the two programs under one roof, was “programming us into a confrontation with ‘Black Journal.’” At the time, Channel 13 President Ward Chamberlain wrote off Haizlip’s worries that Black Journal was in line for preferential treatment, but in retrospect it is clear that Haizlip correctly understood that because entertainment was a realm of ambivalence, both for public television and for black people, Soul! would always be regarded as the more expendable of the two programs.

Toni Morrison reads from her debut novel in an appearance on Soul!. (Photo: © Chester Higgins Jr. All rights reserved.)

Toni Morrison reads from her debut novel in an appearance on Soul! (Photo: © Chester Higgins Jr. All rights reserved.)

Haizlip also had a different relationship to institutionalized power than Brown. When Brown took over as executive producer and host of Black Journal in late 1970, he was gently but publicly criticized for producing a “slicker,” more self-promoting product than his predecessor, the widely admired William Greaves; behind the scenes at WNET, there were fears that Brown was intent on making Black Journal his program. The producers’ differences were reflected in their different responses to the threatened loss of CPB funding. When Soul!’s producer sensed his program was endangered, he reached out to Huey Newton. In contrast, when Tony Brown got wind of PBS programming recommendations for the 1973–74 season that imperiled the standing of both Black Journal and Soul!, he brought his concerns both to Samuel Holt, PBS’s coordinator of programming, and to Henry Loomis, the recently installed CPB president. In a late November 1972 letter, Brown offered his congratulations to Loomis while encouraging him to look favorably on the “impact and viability of Black Affairs programming” as CPB worked through its funding decisions. His brief but tactical letter received a prompt reply. “I want to assure you that, as a producer of one of public television’s major series, you will have my ear, whatever your experience has been with others,” Loomis wrote. “Programming support for the specialized audience which you have developed through black journal is something which receives considerable attention at CPB and something to which I am personally committed.” A month later, Brown would be telling the New York Amsterdam News that Loomis and Thomas Curtis, president of CPB’s board, “are trying to destroy anything that doesn’t suit their political ideology. Or their racist ideology.”

Not only did Brown wield more influence than Haizlip with public broadcasting officialdom and operate more shrewdly in his dealings with CPB, but Black Journal also attracted a wealthier and better educated audience than Soul! According to a late 1972 study, Soul!, while on the whole more popular than Black Journal and notably successful at appealing to grandmothers and their grandchildren in equal numbers, also attracted a greater share of “ghetto viewers,” to use the language of contemporary pollsters. Although this positioned the show well in terms of public broadcasting’s mission of enlightening a broad swath of the public, it put Soul! at a distinct disadvantage when it came to fund-raising. Letters such as an undated one sent to Haizlip from Betty Lawson of the Bronx alluded to the lack of affluence of some of Soul!’s most ardent fans. “I have never been a contributor (financially) because I haven’t the means,” she wrote. “My support has always been present morally though.” Moral support, of course, was not enough to sustain a TV program, particularly at a time when the state was increasingly shifting the burden of funding public broadcasting to the private sphere, where familiar and seemingly apolitical shows raked in the most dollars. According to Jack Willis, former director of programming at WNET, although there was support for Soul! among station executives who recognized its unique contributions, the show was a tough sell for Channel 13’s development office, which looked to white benefactors from Westchester and other wealthy New York City suburbs to keep the station afloat. The general feeling was that, in an era of severely restrained public funding, the station could ill afford to invest its meager production budget in shows that neither generated their own revenue nor attracted significant numbers of dues-paying station members.

Notwithstanding these vulnerabilities, WNET executives seem to have counted on the renewal of CPB funding for Soul! for 1973–74, based on the program’s track record and alignment with public broadcasting’s mission as defined by the Kerner Commission. [Formed by President Johnson, the Kerner Commission’s examination of the roots of racial tension in the U.S. included an assessment of media coverage of racial issues and African-Americans. —Ed.] In its fifth season, Soul! still evidenced considerable creative vitality. In the weeks and months leading up to the CPB announcement, it had aired a memorable “Wonderlove” episode devoted entirely to Stevie Wonder, as well as episodes featuring the Spinners, Al Green, and the national television debut of Earth, Wind and Fire. Around Christmas, Nikki Giovanni had reprised her enormously successful collaboration with the New York Community Choir. Intimate conversations with Louis Farrakhan (“Farrakhan the Minister”) and Amiri Baraka (“Baraka, the Artist”) had given viewers opportunities to ruminate on a range of challenging issues, from black economic self-development to the gender and sexual politics of cultural nationalism.

For Channel 13 executives as well as for Haizlip, then, the CPB decision to award all of the funds set aside that fiscal year for “black programs” to Interface came as an unanticipated provocation. It would have been one thing had CPB, in slashing support for news and public affairs, gone after Black Journal — although as Tony Brown argued, the White House argument of the “redundancy” of public TV news operations did not pertain to a show that was unique in its black perspective on the news. But in transferring money that would have gone to support the WNET productions to Interface, a show produced by WETA in Washington, CPB was specifically repudiating both the New York station and black programming formed in the crucible of 1968, in favor of a new program whose chief recommendation appeared to be its integrationist interpretation of public broadcasting’s post-Kerner mandate. Like Soul!, Interface had a black producer, the respected TV journalist and — ironically for Brown and Haizlip — Black Journal veteran Tony Batten. Yet unlike Soul!, it would not focus exclusively on black and Latino guests or style itself as a show for a black counterpublic. Although CPB sources were elusive in their descriptions of the show — owing in part to the fact that Batten had not yet produced a pilot — on this one point they were quite clear: Interface, as its name suggested, upended the post-1968 paradigm of black public TV programming in favor of a new paradigm of post-civil rights, post-race dialogue.

By throwing its support behind an untested show, the CPB board clearly relayed the desire of the state to eradicate programs associated with black radicalism and weaken WNET, a “known” center of public broadcasting’s Eastern establishment. This did not stop CPB officials from assuring irate WNET executives that the judgment on Soul! had been politically neutral. “We love the program. We’d love to have them find somebody to fund it,” Keith Fisher, CPB’s executive vice president, told Tom Shales, a Washington Post reporter. When pressed by Ralph Metcalfe, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus — a group drawn into the battle by Brown — CPB President Loomis was similarly evasive. “In an effort to diversify the kind and source of minority programming earlier this year we requested proposals from many different production sources,” he wrote to the Democratic representative from Illinois. “Through our normal process of proposal evaluation we determined that . . . ‘Interface’ was most interesting.”

Although cordial, Loomis’s letter was at pains to minimize the tension between routine bureaucratic procedure (“our normal process of proposal evaluation”), with its implicit adherence to objective standards of merit, and CPB’s specific interest in distancing itself from black radicalism and Channel 13 (“an effort to diversify the kind and source of minority programming”). Undergirding it is what I call racial-state reasoning, in which Soul!, a program popular with black viewers, was challenged by means of a quasi-government agency’s seemingly impartial discourse about these same viewers’ best interests. We can see a similar mode of thinking at work in the testimony of PBS President Hartford N. Gunn Jr. before the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce (the committee charged with oversight of CPB) later that summer. With respect to the challenge of how best “to serve audiences too long ignored by all television broadcasters,” Gunn offered a series of questions: “Should we adopt a somewhat separatist approach, and develop programs exclusively by, exclusively for, and exclusively about a particular target group? Are minorities and women best served by general audience programs which show them interacting with the so-called white establishment in non-stereo-typed racial ethnic or sexual roles? Is a program which deals with problems facing the urban poor a ‘minority program’ regardless of the racial balance of the reporters? These are questions on which reasonable people disagree.” Echoing Loomis’s language about the “normal process” of bureaucratic evaluation, in his testimony Gunn drew on an idealized notion of the public sphere as a site of robust civic encounter, in which the disagreements of “reasonable people” register the health of the polity. Recalling Loomis’s insistence on CPB’s commitment to diversity in programming, Gunn positioned PBS as a benevolent organization that recognized the vexing issues of representation confronting minority citizens. Yet in his testimony, Gunn — like Loomis — obscured the power of the CPB board, which had the ultimate authority to determine the answer to his questions. Indeed, his appeal to reasonable debate and argument was moot, since the issue had already been definitively decided. Neither debates over racial representation nor decisions about the allocation of federal monies for minority programming in public media transpired in a public sphere to which all citizens enjoyed equal access. Rather, they took place in a stratified society, in which those with the greatest investment in certain outcomes were also the least likely to have power to decide them.

I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that interested parties had no cause to question Soul!’s format or its particular mode of address. Over the years, sympathetic observers had indeed questioned the wisdom of the approaches taken by “first-generation” black TV shows like Soul! and Black Journal. In 1974 Freedomways, a highly regarded quarterly of the black freedom movement, devoted a special issue to “The Black Image in the Mass Media,” which included several pieces that pointedly questioned the mission as well as the efficacy of Soul! and other shows touting themselves as being by and for black people. As the media scholar Tommy Lee Lott notes, no less eminent a figure in the black media world than the documentarian St. Claire Bourne believed Interface to have been a “step away from the first generation’s flaw of addressing African Americans about issues related only to black people.” The dilemmas and contradictions of minority representation could hardly have been solved by a single set of underfunded programs that first drew breath in 1968. That said, I do want to insist on the disingenuousness of broadcasting officials who framed the question of Soul!’s future as a matter of the urgency of integration and openness to varieties of black self-representations, when in fact what they seem to have objected to were the particular modes of blackness that the program circulated and mediated.

Al Green on Soul, 1972. (Photo: © Chester Higgins Jr. All rights reserved.)

Al Green on Soul!, 1972. (Photo: © Chester Higgins Jr. All rights reserved.)

The embrace by PBS and CPB of racial-state reasoning — that is, their claiming of common cause with minority citizens as a strategy of imposing their own interests — provoked a related conundrum for Haizlip and his allies, who were put in the position of having to respond to charges of advancing an outmoded politics and aesthetic. As Omi and Winant note, racial-state reasoning is, by definition, difficult to contest, insofar as it operates through strategies of absorption and incorporation. In an additional complication, Haizlip faced the task of contesting the CPB decision on Interface without producing an ungainly and potentially disastrous spectacle of internecine conflict among black TV producers. (Indeed, both he and Brown would accuse CPB of using Interface to drive a wedge between them, thereby weakening all minority programming.) The White House had conducted its crusade against liberal and progressive news and public affairs programming quite openly, with no apparent fear of alienating key constituencies. In contrast, the defunding of Soul! and, initially, Black Journal by the CPB board took place under the banner of promoting innovation and progress.

As Gunn’s testimony before Congress implied, the country had moved on since 1968. Should not media representations of black people thus also move on? If racial integration was now the consensus of the liberal state, should not public television shows reflect this new norm of public policy in their form and aesthetic, abandoning the “somewhat separatist” approach of Soul! and Black Journal? Haizlip had long maintained that offering performers a black framework for their work was not tantamount to separatism, arguing that “an attempt to integrate white performers or other cultural themes [in Soul!] could only dilute the purpose and effect of the series.” Yet the accusation of separatism was hard to shake off and potentially alienated nonblack supporters of the show. Not only did it label Soul! and Black Journal as programs working in an outmoded black political formation, but it also branded them as antagonistic to integration and thus to the liberal public-sphere ideal.

In statements to the press following the spring 1973 announcement on Interface, Haizlip negotiated this tricky terrain by focusing on issues of power instead of representation. Rather than engage the unwieldy question of how best to represent minorities on television, he cast doubt on the government’s commitment to opening up mass media to black people. Who defined the legitimacy of the various approaches to programming for women and minorities, and whom did these approaches alternatively benefit or threaten? Using the rhetoric of equal citizenship, he appealed to the economic productivity of black citizens to make the case that they had the right to define the terms of their representation on public television. “The tragedy of it all is that Blacks didn’t have any voice in how the CPB distributed the $215 million available for public television,” he told Jet magazine. “This is the taxpayers’ money. If the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can fund the white programs for millions of dollars, it is an absolute insult that Black programs can’t even be [funded] for $650,000” — a number representing the combined budgets of Soul! and Black Journal. In hearings held that fall before the CPB board, the civil rights activist Jesse Jackson — who had recited his poetry on a 1972 Soul! episode with the singer Merry Clayton — made a similar argument. “The fundamental question is whether our access to the public airwaves is a civil right,” he asserted. “We as black people have a distinct point of view,” he said, melding the discourses of Black Power and civil rights, “and our tax investment in public broadcasting obligates public broadcasting to hear us.”

As Haizlip’s and Jackson’s comments demonstrate, even after CPB extended an additional year of funding to Brown’s show, supporters of Soul! and Black Journal addressed the CPB decision on black programming in a unified voice. In spring 1973 the Friends of Black Journal, a national group reported to have eighty chapters around the country, issued the statement titled “Soul! Cancelled, Black Journal in Danger: A Blackgate in Public Television,” punning on President Nixon’s mounting troubles stemming from the discovery of a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Noting that authority over black programming rested in the hands of “15 political appointees,” only one of whom — Gloria Anderson, a chemistry professor at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College — was black, the group’s members questioned whether black people could expect a fair and thorough airing of their interests within an “institutionally racist structure.” At the same time, carefully disregarding Tony Batten and his intentions, the statement interrogated the bona fides of Interface as a black program, predicting that its format would endear it instead to white viewers drawn to its image of an integrated public sphere. “There are only two categories of programming on public television,” the National Friends of Black Journal contended: “(A) Black programs and (B) White programs. White programs are duplicated in profusion. Children’s programming is funded into the millions and every conceivable white topic and event has a permanent platform for its expression. Blacks must struggle along for crumbs and fight one another for funding in the old classic plantation style.” Haizlip made a similar statement to the Washington Post, accusing CPB of pursuing “a policy to destroy all black programming.” By 1974, he told Jet, “black programs on public TV will have been successfully and skillfully removed.”

Although privately Haizlip may have held WNET partly responsible for Soul!’s termination, publicly he avoided statements critical of his employer or its commitment to the show it had supported for five seasons. Likewise, WNET maintained a face of public support for Soul! — with the station president John Jay Iselin accusing CPB of reversing course on a previous commitment to funding the program, and with an unnamed “spokesman for WNET” telling Broadcasting that, where Soul! was concerned, “We’re going to fight them [CPB] on this one.” But while WNET management may have deeply resented what it understood to be CPB’s betrayal of Soul! and its rebuke of the station’s liberal or left-leaning politics, station executives also knew that the Nixon-era climate of distrust for public broadcasting, combined with the Ford Foundation’s turn to other philanthropic projects, rendered them more dependent than ever on individual donations (membership fees) and corporate underwriting. Soul! had been “for sale” once before — in 1969, when the Ford Foundation left it high and dry. In the political climate of 1973 — in the midst of executive branch retrenchment on liberal reform, national consolidation of a notion of racial integration that minimized structural inequalities, and, more locally, Channel 13 members’ preference for established public-broadcasting brands (such as Masterpiece Theatre) and programs in support of high-arts traditions — it was unlikely that a private entity would come through with the money to keep Soul! on the air.

Haizlip’s sense of CPB’s abandonment of principles enshrined just five years earlier in the Kerner Report proved prescient. In a markedly ironic twist, less than a year after Soul! was terminated, CPB embarked on a new round of inquiries into noncommercial television’s “systemic inadequacy in serving” minority audiences. At Loomis’s direction, in December 1973 the organization commissioned a panel, headed by Anderson, to study whether “the interests and needs of minorities have been neglected in public broadcasting.” Not surprisingly, that study found the needs of minority viewers were undercut by the color-blind principle of the autonomy of local stations, and it ultimately blamed the previous board for prompting Soul!’s cancellation and provoking a crisis about Black Journal. Thus did public broadcasters enter into a new cycle of hand-wringing over the problems that Soul! and other first-generation shows had been called on to address.

Copyright Duke University Press, 2015

  • AlfredEOldman

    Man, that is one tightly worded accusation of abandonment by a government supposedly working towards a more integrated society. Well done indeed!