Hot 103 Jamz! America’s longest-running Black-owned radio station
Kansas City radio pioneer Andrew Skip Carter started the nation’s first Black-owned and operated station west of the Mississippi River, KPRS AM. Now the company he founded, Carter Broadcast Group, is looking back at 72 years of growth and contemplating a robust future.
Black broadcasters throughout U.S. history have run up against Jim Crow-era discrimination, racist practices within government agencies and economic barriers that blocked their voices from the airwaves.
But in Kansas City, radio pioneer Andrew "Skip" Carter broke through. The station he founded in 1950, KPRS AM, has grown to become America’s oldest Black-owned radio company.
After 72 years, Carter Broadcast Group inspires new generations of talent in an era when Black broadcast ownership represents a sliver of the market and is on the decline.
The company now includes an AM and FM gospel station, an HD station of R&B oldies and KPRS FM Hot 103 Jamz. For multiple generations in the Kansas City area, it’s been a cultural touchstone.
Freddie Bell was a popular DJ on KPRS during the 1970s. But before that, as a kid growing up in Kansas City, he was a fan.
“It was the only radio station in our community that dealt with our community needs,” Bell says. “Speaking of course of the African American community.”
That deeper community connection is why diversity in media ownership is so important, says Jim Winston, president of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters.
“It makes a difference from the top, it makes a difference in editorial policy,” says Winston. “It makes a difference in the news you cover, in the news you report.”
The birth of Black radio
Andrew Skip Carter was born in Georgia in 1919. From a young age, he knew he wanted to work in radio.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, he attended the RCA Institute in New York City. He learned about radio engineering, but also about racism in the industry. He was told he had no talent for announcing and was denied opportunities because of his race.
At that time, racial discrimination was legal under Jim Crow-era laws, and the Federal Communications Commission perpetuated racist practices.
Even so, Black programming was starting to break through. WDIA in Memphis went on the air in 1948. It was the first completely Black-programmed station, but it was owned by white men.
WERD in Atlanta in 1949 became the nation’s first Black owned and operated station. Its star was Black radio icon Jack Gibson — known as Jack the Rapper. He would go on to befriend Carter.
By this time, Carter was struggling to get his own foot in the door. A critique he wrote about racism within the broadcasting industry was published in Broadcasting Magazine and caught the attention of Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate, who happened to own a couple of radio stations.
Landon asked Carter to create a few hours of Black programming on his Leavenworth station. Then he helped Carter obtain the equipment and license he needed to start his own station.
"I mean he literally took a flatbed truck up to Alf Landon’s place and brought back this transmitter, went to his garage and put this thing together," recalls Mike Carter, who describes his grandfather as a stoic and driven individual.
KPRS AM started broadcasting in 1950.
Carter and his wife, Mildred Carter, shared a vision for a station that informed as well as entertained, cultivating that deeper community connection.
Mildred, who had previously run a popular jazz club was a force of her own right within the company. She pushed for KPRS to be simulcast as an FM station, even when FM radio was still a burgeoning format.
In addition to music, Carter Broadcast Group stations are known for airing community-minded programs — shows like “Voices from Midtown,” featuring community leader Alvin Brooks, making appeals to solve crimes and boost public safety, and Generation Rap, a youth-produced program that featured emerging talent.
Mike Carter says his grandparents pushed for KPRS to be an outlet for important local conversations about justice and equality during the growing Civil Rights movement. Of the few pieces of archival footage from the station is a tape reel from 1968, full of a compilations of speeches from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that aired soon after his assassination.
Mike Carter says the station pushed for peace and calm when riots broke out in Kansas City, and was always a place where Black leaders' messages could be heard.
"Bruce Watkins. Leon Jordan, all came to the radio station because that's where we could actually get stuff said," says Carter.
Raising up the next generation
Mike Carter actually started at the radio station as an 8-year-old DJ spinning jazz records on the "Mike Lewis Show" (Lewis is his middle name.)
"I mean it was just fun," recalls Carter.
Beloved KPRS DJ Chris King taught him the ropes.
"And every now and then I’d mess up and I’d not cue it up right and I’d go, 'And the next song is...' and then there was dead air. And my grandmother was upstairs, and she would be like, 'Why is there dead air?'" Carter recalls, laughing.
A couple of decades later, his grandparents selected him to lead the company.
That gives Carter Broadcast Group another distinction: It is one of the oldest family-owned radio stations in the nation.
By the time Mike Carter took over in 1987, both his grandparents had relocated to Florida.
Andrew Skip Carter passed away in 1989. Mildred Carter died in 2003.
Andrew Skip Carter made his career about pushing for more diverse representation and equity in the broadcast world. He knew first-hand that the path for aspiring Black radio broadcasters was ladened with hurdles.
In addition to founding the station and company, he and Mildred were active members of the NAACP and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, a group that was formed to advocate for more diversity in broadcast ownership. (Their grandson now serves as vice president of the NABOB.)
Although Black broadcast ownership has increased from the days KPRS first went on the air, it's still less than 2%.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina has sponsored legislation that would help reinstate a tax incentive to encourage more minority ownership in the industry. However, it still awaits action from the House.
Mike Carter says he’s proud to be at the helm of the company’s next generation, and pledges to continue to push for more diversity in the broadcast space.
And he’s keenly aware of his grandparents’ legacy.
“To state that we’re the oldest Black- owned radio company in America today, that’s, you know, that’s huge,” he says.
A People's History of Kansas City is hosted by Suzanne Hogan. This episode was produced and mixed by Suzanne Hogan with editing by Barb Shelly and Mackenzie Martin.