WOKJ radio station has been the voice of the black community in Jackson and surrounding areas since it first went on the air in 1954. In addition to its rich fare of blues and gospel music, the station reports on local events. Its disc jockeys are considered heroes, and their verbal skills are legendary.
Bruce Payne grew up in Vicksburg and worked at WOKJ for twenty-seven of his fifty years as a radio announcer. Known as the “Dean” of gospel music, Payne produced a variety of programs over the years. He brought the Staple Singers to Jackson for a concert and helped launch the annual Jackson Music Awards in 1979.
Payne recalled the critical role that he and others at WOKJ played during the civil rights movement. On May 14, 1970, two Jackson State University students were killed and twelve others were wounded by police as WOKJ announcers watched from their window on Lynch Street, just a few blocks from the campus.
My teaching career began in the English Department at Jackson State in September 1970, three months after the shootings. Bruce Payne was a regular visitor in my black folklore course, and he spoke eloquently to my students about the history of the blues and gospel. He also moderated the Mississippi Folk Voices concert series that I organized at the Mississippi History Museum in Jackson.
The voices of Joe “Poppa Rock” Louis, Reverend Marcus Butler, and Bruce Payne anchored WOKJ’s sound in the hearts and minds of their listeners. The station is deeply connected to the musical roots of the Jackson community. I recorded these radio programs and the interview with Payne during the summer of 1974 at WOKJ for the film Give My Poor Heart Ease.
Radio played a key role in introducing me to the blues as a white teenager.