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Death of Joe Bell spurs gratitude for Black trailblazers

Dozens of Black journalists paved the way decades ago as the news media was striving to widen its access to minority audiences.

By Norma Adams-Wade

Joseph Joe Bell
Joseph Joe Bell

One of our local pioneer Black journalists died recently, and his passing sent my mind on a journey back in time.

An equivalent of the biblical “so great a cloud of witnesses” took over my brain as I rummaged through memories of scores of Dallas-Fort Worth-area Black pioneer journalists whose names are foreign to generations of newcomers.

Joseph “Joe” Bell, who died Dec. 15 at age 92, was among that mighty cloud. The time seems right to pay homage to the collective memory of the “cloud” as I acknowledge Bell’s place among them and the footprints he left.

I called on pioneer Ken Smith, one of the cloud members, to help me verify key factors about the era these pioneers occupied, how they came to be among the cloud, and why remembering them is important to local history. I will talk about Smith later in my retrospective from my own personal local-Black-media archives. But first, a tribute to Bell.

A native of Alabama, a graduate in education from the Tuskegee Institute and a summer Fulbright Scholar at the University of Colorado, Bell spent 21 years as an executive at KDFW-TV (Channel 4) in Dallas. He was the original executive producer of Insights, which was among the nation’s first public-access TV shows.

The Federal Communications Commission required such programming in order to guarantee ethnic audiences’ free access to the public airwaves during the 1970s and ‘80s, when integration efforts were ballooning in various fields. Among Dallas-area Latinos, Rene Castilla was a trailblazer who hosted Que Pasa?, another early public access TV show.

In 1972, before turning 43, Bell was an up-and-coming middle school principal in Dallas ISD when he was tapped to become the district’s first Black assistant principal at an all-white school, Hillcrest High. A chance to become minority affairs director at KDFW arose, however, and DISD Superintendent Nolan Estes gave Bell a leave, leaving the door open for a return if the Channel 4 job didn’t pan out. It did.

Bell oversaw various liaison duties between KDFW and the city’s Black community. In 1980, at age 51, he was the behind-the-scenes executive producer when the long-running minority affairs show Insights first aired.

A young Rochelle Brown — Dallas native and 1971 graduate in broadcast film arts at Southern Methodist University — had worked for a while on the East Coast, then in 1978, at age 29, returned home to join KDFW as community affairs director. Bell and Brown launched Insights with Brown as on-air host.

Among public-access shows, Insights enjoyed one of the nation’s longest runs — 29 years — before its last broadcast, June 21, 2009, when Brown was 60. Bell had retired in 1994 at age 65.

Recalling Black media pioneers from the 1970s and ‘80s, Smith and I abandoned our count when the number began to exceed 70 individuals in all broadcast and print areas — including reporters, anchors, producers, photographers, camera operators, advertising agents, and executive managers and editors.

“Yes, the new generation needs to know who blazed the trail for them,” Smith said. “But we who lived through those times have to ask ourselves, ‘Did we pay enough homage to the ones who came before us?’ Legacy-building calls for intense research. Did we do enough?”

Tempted as I am to name a few of those pioneers, I must resist. But here are the main public-access shows of that era:

Insights, KDFW-TV (Channel 4). With trailblazing journalists Joe Bell and Rochelle Brown.

Opportunity Line, WBAP-TV (Channel 5). The host was local Black entrepreneur Cullen E. McCoy, the last owner of The Dallas Express, the historic Black weekly that was published from 1892 to the mid-1970s. The show aired from 1968 to 1974.

What About People, KTVT-TV Chanel 11). Jerry Thomas, the silky-voiced Fort Worth native and 1950s KNOK-AM radio veteran, began hosting this show in 1963, the year President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., were assassinated. The well-liked Thomas interviewed former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter on the multicultural community affairs show. Thomas worked at Channel 11 for 26 years before leaving in 1989.

Black Forum, WFAA-TV (Channel 8). Ken Smith followed trailblazer Gene McIntyre as host and producer of this community access show targeting African Americans. Smith also led community ascertainment efforts, querying Blacks about their information and entertainment wishes. After leaving media, Smith was a corporate communications di- rector, strategic planner, real estate investor, community economic development advocate, and founder/director of the nonprofit Revitalize South Dallas Coalition.

News Addition and On the Record, KERA-TV (Channel 13). Two of many different shows, documentaries and community dis- cussions hosted by veteran media executive Bob Ray Sanders.

There is way more to this story. Maybe one day we will revisit it.

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