Monday, July 20, 2015

FLASHBACK: 'Sounds of the City' Black Radio Soap Opera (1974) - Updated

Byron Lewis saved UniWorld with branded entertainment, developing
the syndicated radio soap opera Sounds of the City for Quaker Oats in 1974.
SOUNDS OF CITY, Black Soap Opera, to Cut the Jive

By Barbara Campbell
New York Times
April 8, 1974

On May 1 the endless rhythm and blues, gospel and jazz recordings, the fast-paced hip chatter and the blaring commercials will be interrupted on 25 black radio stations in major cities across the country by the funereal rumble of organ music familiar to old time fans of Ma Perkins and Our Gal Sunday.

The music will signal the beginning of a five-day-a-week serial on the tragedies, triumphs and crises of the Taylors - a black family living somewhere in a large American city.

In New York the convoluted plots and subplots of the black soap opera, called Sounds of the City, will be heard over radio station WWRL at 10 a.m.

It wasn't easy selling the concept of a black soap opera to the stations, according to Byron Lewis, president of Uniworld Group, a black communications organization at 62 West 45th Street. "They had never had drama on those stations," Mr. Lewis said at an interview in his office.

What Mr. Lewis had to do was convince the stations that a black soap opera would be an excellent medium for selling products.

Listener as Youth

"I'm 42 years old," Mr. Lewis said, "and I grew up listening to soap operas. My parents, my aunts and my grandmother listened to them, too. Even though they were all white, my family got very involved in them."

"If they would identify with Our Gal Sunday, then I believe blacks will certainly identify with black characters," Mr. Lewis said.

The first station to become convinced was WJPC in Chicago, owned by the John Publishing Company, which publishes Ebony magazine.

Mr. Lewis said his four-and-a-half-year-old corporation specializes in marketing products for the black community but that after the fervor of the civil-rights movement "and the pressure was off," black advertising and marketing agencies have found it "increasingly difficult to get marketing commitments from corporations."

"The bloom is definitely off the rose," said Mr. Lewis. "These corporations just don't believe they have to do anything extra to get black customers. But I knew they are wrong."

Mr. Lewis estimates that there is a $51-billion black-consumer market. "Black consumers proportionately use more products than whites," Mr. Lewis said, "especially in food products, apparel, personal care and liquor," he added.

Because the Quaker Oats Company "understood blacks represented a very important part of their market" - for years they had been buying oatmeal, cornmeal, pancake mix and grits - "they had approached every black agency looking for a way to market their product for blacks."

Uniworld, Mr. Lewis said, developed a 15-minute pilot of the proposed radio series, laying out the characters in SOUNDS OF THE CITY, including Dan Taylor, who is facing the immediate decision of whether to have an eye operation or possibly go blind; Calvin Taylor, a policeman who finds his personal views in conflict with his job, and Winona his wife, who ponders her approaching middle age, and the growing indifference of her husband.

"We went back to Quaker, and it was agreed that we had found a vehicle to reach black homemakers," Mr. Lewis recalled.

Hopeful Outlook

Mr. Lewis believes that SOUNDS OF THE CITY opens up "new and creative areas for black actors, actresses and writers." In addition to its permanent cast - including Zaida Coles as Winona; Robert Guillaume as Calvin, and Helen Martin as Winona's mother, Eula - Mr. Lewis said guest black actors and actresses would be used.

"We have already done segments with Ruby Dee and Bobby Hooks," Mr. Lewis said.

Shaunneille Perry, writer and director, is writing the script with its numerous concurrent story lines, and Mr. Lewis expects the show will be heard by millions of blacks because "the majority of blacks are living in cities like L.A., Atlanta, D.C. and New York, where the program will be heard.

Byron Lewis retired as CEO in 2012.
Byron Lewis formed UniWorld Group, an African-American and multi-cultural agency, in 1969. But seven or eight years later, his venture capital was running out, and the agency was failing to make enough money to keep the lights on.

One big problem the agency had been up against was that there were almost no media outlets focused on minorities, apart from Ebony magazine.

That’s when Lewis had an “epiphany” — that he should develop a radio soap opera, like the ones he had heard growing up, centering on an African-American family from the South now living in Chicago.

He tried to write a pilot but didn’t find takers. Then he met an actress, writer and director who explained what the problem was.

“She told me what a soap opera was supposed to be,” says Lewis, who retired as UniWorld’s CEO in 2012 after selling a 49% share to WPP in 2000, in an interview with Beet.TV. “She says a soap opera is trauma after trauma after trauma, and it’s all about women.”

That woman developed a plot for a radio program they named “Sounds of the City,” and famous actors like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis took roles. Ultimately, the 39-week episode arc was sponsored by Quaker Oats. And Lewis and his agency were saved.


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