Ben Tipton was a radio host on Oklahoma City station KBYE in the 1960s and ‘70s. He was a charismatic figure—a 6-foot-5-inch former basketball player they called "the Tall Man." He introduced Oklahomans to Lou Rawls and James Brown at a time when African American culture was just starting to gain prominence in mainstream media. There weren’t shows hosted by black Oklahomans on major networks back then.
Tipton eventually created an early morning weekly television show called the Black Revue that blended elements of black art and culture with the news of the day. He was a rare voice for black Oklahomans in a media space where representation was often lacking or only relegated to stereotypes.
"I was shocked to learn that it’s been 31 years since there was a mainstream broadcast show focused on black Oklahomans," said Quraysh Ali Lansana, Tulsa Artist Fellow and Tri-City Collective member. That’s why Lansana, along with other Tulsa educators, writers and cultural justice advocates are producing Focus: Black Oklahoma, a radio show highlighting the state’s black communities. The weekly series will air on Public Radio Tulsa beginning in February 2020.
Lansana is the author of numerous books and several collections of poetry including The Walmart Republic, Mystic Turf and They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems. Lansana was born and raised in Enid but was living outside the state until he began the Fellowship last year.
"I primarily moved back to Tulsa because I’m working on several book projects on Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre," Lansana said. "My research for these projects started a decade ago looking towards the upcoming centennial. When I decided to move to Tulsa, I started thinking about things that I would like to make manifest in my new town, and I immediately looked through all of the programming schedules for Public Radio Tulsa and for all four local news affiliates. I did not find a single program devoted to black issues."
Lansana realized this lack of representation comes with a cost. If black Oklahomans don’t have a voice in the shared cultural conversation, it’s too easy to feel powerless.
"It’s important for our stories to be told—for the news and information that really matters to black folks and folks of color in this state be heard," he said. "In this state I feel like the dominant narrative of black folks is being less than or being about going along to get along. [It] is so pervasive that many folks have just been brainwashed to believe it and devalue their own import. It’s important for folks of any ethnicity, and in this case particularly black folks, to hear stories that aren’t typically focused on by the mainstream media."
Lansana used his background in public radio to develop Focus: Black Oklahoma with his co-producer and Public Radio Tulsa host Scott Gregory. The two met in college studying journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Once Lansana discovered the program would be unique for the state, he pitched the idea among others as he started the Tulsa Artist’s Fellowship in January. Carolyn Sickles, executive director of the Fellowship, suggested Lansana make the radio show his top priority.
Over the next year, Lansana built a team to produce the pilot episode, organizing the show around a sophisticated notion of modern radio storytelling.
He calls it an All Things Considered for black Oklahomans. The hour-long current affairs show—hosted by locals Arielle Davis and Kolby Webster—explores various news, politics and culture of the day. Features include a youth spotlight for stories from young black people and a creative spotlight where poets, storytellers, emcees, authors and musicians from throughout the state will be featured. In addition, there’s a spiritual spotlight where houses of faith of all denominations doing social justice work in the community will be highlighted.
"We’re exploring news items that rarely make mainstream media with the exception of black newspapers in the state," Lansana said. "The lead story in the news run down in the first pilot is that black women in Oklahoma are 30 percent more likely to die in childbirth than white women. That’s not something that mainstream media has focused on at all."
The second episode focuses on a formerly incarcerated woman named D’Marria Monday and her work with state Rep. Regina Goodwin on House Bill 3393. This bill ended the practice of shackling pregnant women to the bed during childbirth in prison.
"When I think about what we’re doing, it’s this idea of ‘making the news,’" Lansana said. "We’re making the news that doesn’t make it to mainstream media, and more often than not, when we make the news in mainstream media … it’s about something that doesn’t shed a positive light on black Oklahomans or black folks period. I believe knowledge is power. It’s important for people in our community to feel empowered by the news, and for black Oklahomans to feel truly heard."