John L. Hanson Jr. has one of Austin’s most recognizable voices. The longtime host of “In Black America” has graced Central Texas airwaves since his college days at Huston-Tillotson College when he offered a popular nightly program of jazz and soul music for a small, low wattage station in Lockhart. He found his way to KUT radio in 1974, and his first assignment was to produce a nightly program called “Soul on FM,” which earned him recognition as “Best DJ in Texas” by Texas Monthly magazine in 1976.
He shifted gears in 1980, taking over as host and producer of the nationally syndicated radio series “In Black America,” heard weekly on 15 radio stations nationwide. Seeking national and international leaders and rising stars in all areas of life affecting black Americans, Hanson has interviewed hundreds of people, including Lena Horne, Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, Coretta Scott King, Bill Cosby, Arthur Ashe, Maulana Karenga, Les Payne, Tony Brown and Joe Sample.
We recently visited KUT to interview the interviewer about “In Black America.”
How did the show come about?
In 1970 there was a perception or a reality that there weren’t many African Americans in the media in Austin. So Jew Don Boney, who is now at Texas Southern University, approached KLRU and KUT for a program. They gave him a nightly music program, “Soul on FM,” “In Black America” and “Black Images,” a television program. Once he left UT in 1973, “In Black America” ebbed and flowed. I was approached in 1980, and I got them to give me a travel allowance because I wanted to have guests from outside of Austin. I just started calling people. My thought process back then, and today, is that the only thing they can do is tell you, “No.”
Did you think it would still be on in 2013? Did you foresee as long a run?
Yeah! I needed work. I had a family to support. Realistically, I thought the program had a purpose and a function, and I believe that function and purpose will continue. I’m a news junkie; I watch every kind of news I can. And I still come away with the conclusion that my program is still necessary because there’s a segment of society that is basically overlooked. My personal pet peeve is when I see a story on the news about dogs and cats — and I’m an animal lover — but I have to wonder: No black person did anything significant this day? That gives me a reality check that yes, this program is still necessary.
What’s your approach to choosing guests and themes?
I try to touch on national issues that have national implications but localize them to a point where if something is happening in this city, then you can replicate what they’re doing in your city. The mantra that I try to use is, educate and be educated — that’s what my attempt is, week in and week out. I try to conduct an interview from the audience point of view. What would the average person ask this individual if they had an opportunity to ask the question. It’s my program, but it’s not about me. It’s about the person that’s the guest on the program.
How do you prepare for interviews?
I read a lot. I equate it to taking a test. I find out as much as I can. If there’s seven or eight different places that you can go, I’ll go to that eighth link just to see if I have everything. I just try to get as much information as possible, and the interview is the test.
Have you had difficult guests?
Oh yeah! Most of the ones that are difficult are the entertainers. I had an interview with Rick James after a concert in San Antonio. After the show, we’re standing back stage with his entourage, and he’s drinking champagne out of the bottle. So he’s talking to me, and he’s talking to his entourage, he’s talking to me, he’s drinking champagne, he’s talking to his entourage. The interview made no sense.
Who would you love to have on the show?
One person I haven’t had and that I would love to have is Stevie Wonder. I spent almost 10 years trying to interview Don Cornelius, who was the producer of “Soul Train.” I went to Los Angeles and had the interview scheduled, but then he had to go in for a brain operation. It was a good excuse. He wrote me a hand-written letter apologizing for not being able to do the interview. I got a chance to interview Aretha Franklin, and I’m working on — hopefully before the end of his term — I’ll be able to interview the president.
What is the legacy you want for the show?
It’s knowledge. A lot of those interviews have been with individuals who were first for whatever reason. Hopefully when people listen, they come away with the idea that all things are possible. Most of the individuals, including myself, came from humble beginnings, had to overcome obstacles. And when you listen to those programs, hopefully one will come away with, “If they did it, I can do it.” Everyone has a struggle. It depends on if you’re going to beat the struggle or you’re going to let the struggle beat you.
“In Black America” can be heard on KUT 90.5 on Monday nights at 10:30 p.m. The show is also available via podcast on KUT.org. Hanson has also come full circle back to spinning music as a DJ. His “Old School Dance Party” show can be heard on KUTX 98.9 on Fridays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.