BY: Moses Brown
It was the summer of Nineteen-hundred-sixty-seven: I’m in the Columbia, SC, Midlands; listening to the WOIC-AM Radio station. WOIC was the “Black” radio station; playing “Soul & Gospel” music– the “Voice” and “Consciousness” of the Black Community. For the most part their on-air “de-jays” were not memorable. This all changed dramatically, when I first heard this “Brother” speak -you knew he wasn’t from around here—this “silky-smooth” Voice belonged to a new radio Personality—his name– William “Bill” Terrell. “Billy T, from Tennessee” had arrived in South Carolina’s Capital City.
Bill Terrell was born in Memphis Tennessee— “The Birthplace-of-the-Blues” (OK-I know about the Mississippi Delta)—it’s known for Beale Street, is home to Elvis Presley’s’ Graceland mansion—a City Proud of its Culturally rich- Black American heritage. For the young Bill Terrell he knew early on that he was interested in a career in radio; “I became interested, along with my best friend while in elementary school—we walked about two miles, in the snow—to the radio station to see if we were able to get on. We were rejected at that time, so after that we did all we could in school—assembly programs, MC-ing talent shows, coronations; anything we could think of, we involved ourselves in—getting ready because we were still interested in getting into radio.
In tenth grade we designed a program that we presented to WDIA Radio station in Memphis—and the concept was; many teenagers listened to WDIA— there should be some representative who could speak their language. Who could impart information about what was going on—we felt it would be a success, and the station agreed—so we started our radio career at WDIA in tenth grade”, Bill fondly remembers.
A little bit of background information about radio station WDIA might now be in order: WDIA has been “on-air” since 1947—Blues Boy B.B. King– the “Funky-Chicken-Man” Rufus Thomas got their start there. Bill recalls that: “Dr. Henry Louis Gates recently did a PBS documentary entitled “Many Rivers to Cross”; recounting 500 years of African American history. WDIA was featured and the reason WDIA was featured was because it was considered something very positive– becoming the first all-black personality radio station; with all black programming—the reason it was so important was because of “Community service.”
It had great coverage—a 50,000 watt signal—covering much of the mid-to lower south. “We connected people from Alabama to the Gulf Coast to Arkansas; people looking for lost relatives who they had lost contact with—or whatever the case may be. This provided an interconnectedness that had never before been available in this region of Black America. I mention this because that is really where I got my philosophy in terms of how I thought my participation in radio—and then subsequently television—should be used. It was for Community service, how do you best use—radio—at that moment to motivate people to do something positive, to try to keep people informed; so that’s where I got my start”.
Bill Terrell had secured a job in Columbia two years prior to his arrival in the Palmetto State. He was waiting for his wife to finish college—they met at Fisk University—her home was Columbia, SC. Bill promised that when she graduated —as a concession to her wishes—that he would make Columbia his home. “So I came to WOIC-AM in 1967; I came with the philosophy that I mentioned earlier—how do you use this platform to motivate. We would do things like reminding parents to hug their children—encouraging them to stay in school—champion the importance of getting an education—refusing to let “Anything or Anybody” get-you-down!
About a year after arriving in Columbia another opportunity presented itself—employment at the South Carolina Educational Television Network (SC ETV)—as the Host of “The Job Man Caravan”. Bill remembers, “This was a very turbulent period of our-time—we had the Orangeburg Massacre; Dr. King was assassinated—so people were trying to address some of the concerns of the African American Community”. A group of concerned-citizens wrote a proposal to the Ford Foundation—requesting that they fund a program that might be helpful for Black Americans. The “fruit” from these actions was-“Job Man Caravan.”
The concept of Job Man Caravan was to help steer young people to the jobs that were available— make them aware of the kind of training they would need— it also offered tips on grooming, and strategies they should use when being interviewed for a job. Bill recalls, “As a motivational factor we used National Entertainment—everybody from James Brown to the Dells the Delphonics, Temptations the Supremes, the Four Tops, Archie Bell & the Drells—you name it—they all appeared on the “Show”. As a result the program became very popular; because of the entertainment—but that was on purpose—how do you attract people; and then in attracting people with entertainment—we were able to disseminate information “.
About four-years later SCETV made the decision to start another program that was set to target the Black-American Community. At this time Bill Terrell was Director of African-American programming at ETV—this included two programs—“Job Man Caravan” and the new program “For the People”. “When I got into television I knew why I was able-or somebody else was able to get into television—that’s because we were on the “Shoulders”—of the people who had demonstrated; lost their lives; so many other sacrifices—that they made—that made this possible for me”, remembers Bill. “So my mentality was; I wanted to see how to best utilize this Program for the benefit of our Community.”
“That was my number-one focus and priority—I mention that because for those of you who may have seen, “For the People”—which was about our “Ancestors”—it wasn’t about Socrates, Plato or Aristotle—but about our “ancient African ancestors.” “They reminded us: “ KNOW THYSELF” –that is the missing link in my estimation—with African people—all over the world—we do not know” our history!” Because if we knew our history—we would know that there are no people on the face of the Earth—that ever made any greater or more significant contributions—to the civilized world. It was proven some time ago, by Scholars; that the Ancient Egyptians were—BLACK PEOPLE.
It was a farce seeing Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra—you had to change that history—what I’m saying is—these Scholars revealed that—you had to change the history; in order to try to justify; that Black people were inferior. So you had to erase, our “People”—the Greeks the Romans and subsequently all these other cultures—the ancient Africans were the ones who gave them their start. Our African-ancestors really did create the World’s first great-civilization—the only one of the “Seven Wonders” of the ancient- world that remain are the pyramids’. When you look at it—they were the first in terms of the perfections of engineering, mathematics, natural and physical sciences, philosophy, and even religion—Christianity, Islam, Judaism—all derive or come from the African Continent: and black peoples contributions”; emphatically exclaims Mr. Terrell.
At the time “For the People” debuted –we must remain cognizant of the fact that in such a conservative State as South Carolina—there were many people who were not fond of the idea that this information was being disseminated. Constant battle took place; but with tremendous community-support; they persevered in maintaining the program for eighteen-years. Because of the unwavering attitudes, and the fortitude and determination of so many dedicated “Souls”—“For the People” became one of the longest running programs of its kind in the Nation– seen around the Globe.
Listervelt Middleton was the Host of “For the People” at its inception—with Bill Terrell serving in the role of Executive-Producer. Bill Hired Listervelt as an on-air personality at WOIC radio—and later hired Mr. Middleton at SC ETV. Bill remembers Listervelt fondly, “Listervelt was a dear-friend and we were “kindred spirits”—intellectually and philosophically. Unfortunately, Listervelt would be dealt a cruel twist-of-fate—we lost him in 1996; much too soon—after a battle with lung-cancer”.
Throughout his illustrious career in radio and television Bill Terrell never lost focus of his primary objective—how do you use this platform you’ve been afforded—to enhance the lives of your people. “I strongly believed in Community Service; for awhile I was affiliated with the Opportunity Industrialization Center, Board of Directors—the Columbia Urban League—involvement in other youth activities; and a host of other things. I do believe that you have to get involved and do what you can—even outside of the work that we were doing.
I also had the opportunity and honor for twenty-three years—to be the “Play by Play” announcer for South Carolina State University Football. Working with cohorts’ Earnest Robinson and Bobby Gist was something that I really enjoyed. I spent thirty-years at ETV—prior to being presented the opportunity to serve as an assistant visiting professor of Mass Communication at Claflin University—right on my thirty-year anniversary in Public-television. I was about ready to move on—so for three years I worked in the Mass Communication Department at Claflin”.
Retired or at least semi-retired—Bill Terrell remains active—committed to the thing he cherishes most; his relationship with family. “I always believed “Family”—I believe you should spend time and help them develop—no matter what I was doing I always tried to be involved in my children’s activities. Even coaching my son for eight-years in baseball at Greenview Park—but that was very important—now its grandchildren—and now I have two great grandchildren that I really enjoy—so you know as a grandfather and great grandfather there’s a lot of spoiling going on”. “I have involved myself in research into African History and Spiritualism.”
I also do occasional speaking engagements and in those engagements I do believe in trying to connect and inspire—explore ways that individually and as a Community—how can we help each other and grow stronger; and really confront the many challenges that we face as a People. Because I firmly believe that we face maybe more challenges today—than we’ve faced in many years. It’s evident with all the killing of young unarmed Black-men—just the ugly-head of racism—and the belief in white-supremacy. But I would say to anybody who may read this—know that you’re not inferior to anyone—it is really somebody who is unsure of himself that has to label—you—or anybody as being inferior”, proudly exclaims Mr. Terrell.
From the first time I heard his “Golden-voice”—William “Bill” Terrell became a role model for me and thousands of other South Carolinians’—he was the original “Rico Sauvé”—the “Brother” was cooler than Ice Cream. Thank you Billy T—for leaving Tennessee—and making the Palmetto State your Home.