Saunders’ Sermons and Songs: The First African American Broadcaster in Central Ohio

DJ Eddie Saunders spinning records, ca. 1950-1970. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

During the “Golden Age of Radio” (1920-1950s), millions of listeners across the country, tuned into their favorite stations to enjoy a variety of popular music, comedies, dramas, and games shows. The radio was the dominant electronic home medium during this era, and WVKO-AM 1580 was the premier station for Soul, R&B, and Gospel music. WVKO was the first African American radio station in central Ohio, and was made renowned by its talented disc jockey. This is the story of trailblazer James Edward “Eddie” Saunders, Central Ohio’s first black DJ and pioneer in local radio broadcasting.

Oral history recording of James Edward “Eddie” Saunders on January 21, 1975. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

Eddie Saunders was born on April 17, 1909. He graduated from Garnet High School and attended West Virginia State University and the Wanzer Vocal School. After graduation, he toured the country as a gospel singer with the Kings of Harmony. In 1937, Saunders moved to Columbus, Ohio where he formed his own group, the Gospel Trumpets. In a January 21, 1975 oral history interview, Saunders was quoted as saying that when he migrated to Columbus “it was one of the most segregated cities in the United States at that time.” He continued by saying, “and when I say segregated, I don’t mean you had a privilege to ride on the same bus or the same streetcar or to go to the football game or a baseball game and sit in the seat beside someone else. But I do mean so far as occupation is concerned and so far as privileges is concerned and so far, as public services is concerned.”

Eddie Saunders at the piano with famous jazz musicians Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Sara Vaughn, ca. 1950-1959. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

He joined radio station WHKC (later WTVN), in 1944, and inaugurated programs titled Helping Hand and Swanee Hour. Saunders became central Ohio’s first African American disc jockey when he hosted Chatter Platter on WRFD in 1947. He later joined WVKO in 1948. Saunders continued to play gospel music, but also programmed rhythm and blues, playing artists such as Sammy Davis Jr., Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Nat King Cole. He was the first disc jockey to do so in the area.

In the 1950s, Saunders became a TV pioneer, during a time when there were few black radio or TV personalities. His weekly religious show Eddie Saunders Presents, on WTVN-TV (now WSYX), ran for 20 years.

Eddie Saunders and Sammy Davis Jr. at the WVKO radio station, Columbus, Ohio, ca. 1960 – 1969. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

Saunders had a special talent that was especially evident on the program Sermons and Songs. During his weekly show, Saunders would chat with callers, take song requests and relate words of wisdom. He worked at WVKO until 1979. At that time, he became semi-retired, only hosting the Sermons and Songs radio program on Sunday mornings. The Sermons and Songs program was on the air until 1995, when at the age of 86, his failing health forced him to end the program’s long run.

Eddie Saunders on air with a group of visitors at the WVKO radio station in Columbus, Ohio, ca. 1950 – 1959. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Via Ohio Memory.

Active within the Columbus community, Eddie Saunders won many awards during his long career. He was recognized by the National Urban League, the Ohio General Assembly, and the Columbus City Council. In 1997, he was named a Media Legend by the Columbus Association of Black Journalists and was inducted into the Columbus Hall of Fame that same year. James Edward Saunders died on his 90th birthday, in 1999.  His obituary stated that Saunders, “should be remembered for his deep spiritual qualities and blazing the trail for blacks in the local media today.”

Thank you to Aimee Truitt, Catalog & Metadata Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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