Monday, April 21, 2008

you're watching wgpr, channel 62 detroit

Launched in 1975, WGPR-TV was the first black-owned television station in the US. It operated as a sister station to WGPR-FM, whose playlist over the years has varied from gospel to urban hits and was graced for several stints by The Electrifyin' Mojo. It was the second television station to occupy channel 62 on the Detroit dial - the first, WXON, had moved to channel 20 three years earlier.
WGPR was fascinating to watch, as it was the closest thing we had to local access cable stations...except this wasn't on cable. Even as a kid I could sense that its production values were low.

Shows shot in health food stores? Check.
Budweiser commercials dubbed into Arabic? Check.
Low-tier college basketball packages? Check.
Ads touting nightclub dancers who are barely conscious? Check.

Movies? Any low-priced package they could get. Lots of old British movies, especially the early Carry On flicks (usually Carry On Spying or Carry On Screaming). The piece-de-resistance was the Auction Movie,with host Fred Merle. Like a flashback to the 1950s, local businesses put items up for bid during the breaks in the movie.

Music? Channel 62 was home to one of the last local dance shows in Detroit, The New Dance Show, which carried on from The Scene. It was the butt of jokes among schoolmates that tended to have mildly racist overtones, though I suspect this reaction was a mix of how alien it was compared to our lives and the usual 62 high-tech production values. The show provided a television showcase for emerging dance music scenes in Detroit, including techno.

Here are two commercial breaks, which provide a good idea of the station's style. Depending on how prudish your computer firewall is, there's a chance these aren't safe for work, especially if there are blocks against high-energy credit pitchmen.

Clips posted on YouTube by aseagris, who has an extensive collection of NDS excerpts

Reruns? Not many. The only shows I recall with any frequency were Dark Shadows and The Streets of San Francisco. My memory may be off, but I dimly recall seeing Jon Pertwee episodes of Doctor Who and wondering why it wasn't the same version on TVO (I figure it was a late run of the earliest Time-Life Television package of episodes). The station can't be faulted for not having the cream of the syndicated rerun crop, given it had to battle the major network affiliates, two better-financed independent stations and a CBC channel in Windsor that had to fill airtime reserved for American shows on the rest of the network.

Late night programming? Channel 62 ran parts of the CBS Late Night lineup, which featured mystery/cop show reruns (usually Kolchak: The Night Stalker whenever I flipped by) and Canadian imports (Night Heat).

On Saturday nights The Arab Voice of Detroit filled the airwaves, mixing news and music in English and Arabic. Ask and I'll hum a few bars of the news theme for you. I loved to watch the ads, especially those where certain terms did not translate. Three Brothers sticks in my mind, an auto body shop whose proprietor sang about their services in Arabic, including "transmission" and "radio wire".

***

All good things must come to an end. For WGPR, the writing was on the wall when Detroit's long-standing CBS affiliate, WJBK (channel 2) switched to Fox in the early 90s. Needing a station, CBS bought 62 and booted off all the old programming, even changing the call letters to WWJ (the call letters of CBS's local radio news station, which had also been used by NBC's Detroit TV affiliate until the late 70s).

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