W. Leonard Evans organized the first radio network devoted to airing programs that reflected Black life and music. On January 20, 1954, the National Negro Network (NNN) claimed forty founding affiliate station members. While programming was aimed at a Black audience, network staff was composed of both Black and White employees. Evans maintained that a “mixed” or “interracial” staff performed better and was more successful in bringing in revenue.
Evans believed the time was right for a Black network and Black programming. His plans included the broadcasting of Black sports and Black news. Initial programming included musical variety shows and soap operas. The soap opera, The Story of Ruby Valentine was very popular. It was an adaptation of the long running Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network’s soap, We Love and Learn. The Story of Ruby Valentine starred Juanita Hill, Ruby Dee and Terry Carter. Other programs included Black college concerts, Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters productions and independent programming from the affiliate stations. Sponsors Philip Morris and Pet Milk were on board from the beginning.
A graduate of the University of Illinois and accomplished advertising executive, W. Leonard Evans was no stranger to the importance of sponsor financial support. He had witnessed the rise of Black stations, going from only four in 1943 to almost 300 by 1954. Unfortunately, he could not foresee the impact television would have on radio. Nor, could he have predicted that Black music would soon become part of the popular American culture. The popularity of Black music with the White youth help to integrate musical styles played on the urban radio stations.
The ongoing civil rights movements and legal actions also helped to integrate youth through African-American rooted music. Thus, dissolving segregation signaled the demise of Black only oriented broadcasts. In 1955, only one-year after its formation, the NNN dissolved. Sponsorship dried up as sponsors began to target the more affluent integrated listening audience. Young listener, both Black and White were better off economically and tended to spend more money during the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Sadly, the NNN could not financially compete with the larger audiences.