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Television

WGBH’s ‘Basic Black’ celebrates a big anniversary

Callie Crossley is host of “Basic Black,” the WGBH show marking its 50th year on the air.
Callie Crossley is host of “Basic Black,” the WGBH show marking its 50th year on the air.Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

For a recent edition of the WGBH community affairs program “Basic Black,” four educators from the Boston school system took seats in a semicircle facing the studio cameras. In the middle sat Callie Crossley, the familiar WGBH TV and radio personality who has hosted the long-running show for several years.

While they waited for showtime, one guest chatted about his preparation to run the Boston Marathon. Another patted his upper lip with a Kleenex. The host asked a stage manager to adjust her microphone. (“Just a squinch,” said Crossley.)

When the show went live, the group discussed a variety of topics, from the recent teacher strikes across the country to the issue of school safety. At one point Sam Texeira, a teacher at Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester, suggested that the recent rash of school shootings has drawn attention away from the ongoing reality of inner-city schools: the daily pressures and poverty that present a more ordinary kind of danger for students.

For 50 years, this WGBH program has contextualized national story lines for Boston’s communities of color. Beginning as “Say Brother” in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the show was a model for subsequent black-oriented news programming across the country. And as the show — renamed “Basic Black” in 1998 — marks its 50th year, it has outlasted many of the programs it inspired.

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Having noted its landmark 50th anniversary since the current season launched last fall, the show will host a special episode with a live audience on May 11 to mark the occasion. Producers past and present say that “Basic Black” owes its longevity to a simple formula: lending a voice to the too-often voiceless.

“I’ve always been interested in telling an expanded American story,” says Marita Rivero, one of several important female producers of “Say Brother,” who is now executive director of Boston’s Museum of African American History. During her tenure in the mid-1970s, she says, “the idea that black people were going to have the opportunity to talk about anything in our lives [on television] was extraordinarily slim.”

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Muhammad Ali on “Say Brother.”
Muhammad Ali on “Say Brother.”

From the beginning, the show featured an impressive array of guests, ranging from Muhammad Ali to the Alvin Ailey Dancers. It also helped launch the television careers of on-air personalities such as Sarah-Ann Shaw and Elliot Francis.

Almost from the start, the show that would become “Basic Black” has covered issues of interest to other people of color, including Native Americans and the Latino population. That continues today. Recent episodes have featured Boston’s Chinatown and the crisis in Puerto Rico.

“It’s been 50 years, but the idea is to do what we’ve been doing,” says Delores Edwards, the current producer.

Edwards’s immediate predecessor was Valerie Linson, who ran “Basic Black” from 2004-16. Linson is now director of communications for Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves, an international development organization for educators. Her favorite moments while working on the show happened after the cameras stopped rolling.

More often than not, she says, “the guests would be in the green room, and we couldn’t get them to leave. The lights would be off and the crew would be leaving. They’d exchange business cards. For me, it was like, OK, we’re creating this community of people who now know each other.”

With its rich heritage of cultural and academic institutions, Boston has always been an ideal place to assemble a panel of guests for the show each week, Linson says. In response to a common question — “Where do you find these people?” — she’d reply, “They’re hiding in plain sight.”

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During her time on the show, Linson was responsible for creating a popular Facebook Live session immediately following each broadcast, encouraging viewers to participate directly and ask questions. She also emphasized black culture in all its forms. One show, which ran shortly after LeBron James made his decision to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010, contrasted that news with the jury’s decision in the murder case against the transit police officer in Oakland who shot and killed a young man named Oscar Grant.

“Two African-American men on very different paths,” Linson explains.

In a 1984 episode of “Say Brother,” host Beth Deare interviews Jesse Jackson.
In a 1984 episode of “Say Brother,” host Beth Deare interviews Jesse Jackson.WGBH/P. Braxton

Kerri Greenidge, a Tufts University lecturer and co-director of the school’s African American Freedom Trail Project, grew up watching “Say Brother” with her family. Her maternal grandparents were active in civil rights in the South End before becoming one of the first black families to buy a home in Arlington in the 1950s.

The show was the place the young Greenidge learned about current events, such as the Charles Stuart murder case and the convictions of the Central Park Five.

“The feeling I always got was that it was one of the few shows where you saw black people discussing issues and having informed conversations,” Greenidge says. “Those images as a child were pretty powerful.”

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The show has occasionally made news of its own. In 1969, on the one-year anniversary of “Say Brother,” producer Ray Richardson noted that the program had already had “successes, occasional failures, and many memorable incidents.” Shortly thereafter, Richardson led a crew to New Bedford to cover a race riot there. When he refused to edit out the profanity that peppered the interviews they conducted, he was fired.

For a time in the mid-1970s, “Say Brother” produced nationally syndicated programming. Other than that brief period, however, its focus has always looked to Boston as a microcosm of black consciousness in America.

Though the city has come a long way since the busing crisis of the 1970s, there’s plenty of work still to be done, says Rivero.

“There are big blind spots we’re going to have to continue to address,” she says. “It’s not a surprise. It’s not Boston — it’s the United States of America.”

Crossley says she’s regularly reminded of the program’s impact when she interacts with the public.

“It feels particularly vital to me when I am stopped by people one would assume would not be the target audience,” she says. “That’s an incorrect assumption. A lot of white people watch the show.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.