The History of “The Darker Side” at WHRB
I had the pleasure of interviewing TDS founder Louis Benjamin (‘79) and discussed his experience starting one of the first Black radio departments not only at WHRB but in the greater Boston area. The purpose of this interview is to uncover the historical origins of our department and to highlight and appreciate its significance in the story of Black music. Mr. Benjamin describes the context that motivated him and a few other like-minded students to bring Black-inspired music outside of the mainstream to WHRB. Forty years on since the department’s founding, Mr. Benjamin’s story is still incredibly relevant and inspiring to us as it truly speaks to the profundity of our mission. As he states, “the fact that we were allowed to explore that space instead of being stuck with Top 40 or whatever is selling, I thought that that was really important. We felt that that was our license. There were already commercial stations, so we felt we had the right and really the obligation to play that other stuff.” TDS has always been, and will continue to be, dedicated to the broadcasting of Black-inspired music that isn’t played elsewhere. I am personally proud that our history has been brought to light thanks to champions of musical enlightenment like Mr. Benjamin.
Author’s Note: The transcription is an abridged version of the interview. “J” refers to the interviewer, and “L” refers to the interviewee (Mr. Benjamin).
J: There are two things as a department that we want to be clear on: the origins of the department, like how it started, if there was a narrative behind it, and then the need to clarify the origin of the name and determine if it has any historical significance. We are called “The Darker Side” and we do play predominantly African American music, so we wanted to see if we had the footing to do that.
L: A bunch of us, four of us, actually founded the department as TDS. I got to Harvard in September 1975 and there was an RnB department. So, I checked it out. Essentially, in the Boston area, most of the Black music during the daytime was from an AM station that was playing mainly RnB, like Black pop music. Pretty narrow, pretty tight genre. And the Black Student Union at MIT had founded a show called “The Ghetto,” down the road. It was called WTBS back then. They had created this show and there was a lot of buzz about it. The thing about them was that it was FM and a college station, which gave them a lot more latitude. So they were playing a lot broader [programming]. It’s still Black-oriented music, but it definitely went broader than what the AM station was doing at the time. Like I said, several of us were from the NY area, so we came with exposure to WRVR and to WBLS. And so we were hearing a lot of stuff that wasn’t just soul transitioning into RnB. We were hearing jazz, all this fusion stuff that was starting to happen. So we decided that we wanted to do something like that, basically give it our own flair, but sort of be a comrade to the Ghetto. The Ghetto was called “The Ghetto” in reference to a Donnie Hathaway song from the 1960s, so we wanted to give a nod to “hey this is Black music,” but we didn’t want to call it “Black music.” So, we landed on TDS. It stuck. It was kind of a poetic way of saying Black music, but it was more Black-inspired than just Black music. Certainly there were artists that we played that weren’t Black. That’s what I thought was always really interesting with the music we played. You know we started from Eddie Kendricks and Motown but at the same time Earth Wind and Fire, Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays were big, also Herbie Hancock that was Fusion inspired by Miles (Davis). All of that was fodder for us. And of course Funk was big then. But Disco was also coming up. So we certainly played some Disco oriented stuff.
L: But yeah it was called TDS giving a nod to “yeah it’s black-oriented music.” And the thing that we were really interested in was not being a commercial radio station. We’re gonna be art-oriented. So we felt that we had a broader mandate to expose people to interesting stuff. The thing that I thought was really striking about that time, I think if you look at popular Black culture and music consumption at the time, we had White classmates who were all enamored with Motown but the Black folks were like “okay, well that’s over.” We were listening to something completely different. And the thing that I also thought was interesting was that there was a lot of stuff in the Jazz department that was “Jazz-inspired” that the Jazz department wasn’t gonna play, so we took that on too. So, that was the landscape we were gonna take on.
J: Were the other departments at WHRB like Jazz, Blues, were those predominantly White students working there?
L: There was one guy, Jeff, who was a Black student working at Jazz. But there weren’t many Blacks at the station. And most of us gravitated together.
J: This semester, due to the growing size of our membership, TDS began thinking about possibly expanding our airtimes. However, we were told that it was unclear what space TDS was supposed to occupy. Prior, we had just been describing ourselves as “music with a beat” (hip hop, electronic, RnB). There was a claim made that we just play “Top 40s Music”.
L: Yeah, it’s interesting. We had some of those discussions, arguments, fights, back when. Like I said, there was a meeting at the station where they were actually arguing whether the weekend began on Friday or Saturday. We were not a huge department at the time. Jazz and Classical both had a lot more members, and Rock. I remember when Punk was taking off, and we were all kinda scratching our heads. And people were trying to poach time from us. I remember one year, a kid wanted to do a Christian Rock show. And to me it’s Rock. It belongs in the Rock department. But the Rock department didn’t want any part of it, so they were like, “Oh it’s like Gospel, why don’t you have TDS do that”.
J: So moving forward, I would like to think Harvard, specifically WHRB, is a more diverse place than when it was 30-40 years ago.
L: I was actually really impressed because about two years ago I had gone online and I was blown away that the department was still called TDS. But you guys had interviews and stuff like that. We weren’t thinking that big with our programming.
J: People were made uncomfortable because we have White guys in TDS who don’t feel comfortable taking responsibility for the name when they themselves have no personal attachment and they feel like they don’t have the right. So there’s a concern over that. But we wanted to make sure when discussing them that we knew the history of it. So I was wondering if you had anything to say to that for someone trying to reconcile this issue.
L: Ultimately, the name is a reference to the genre, not who’s playing the music. I do think it is valuable and valid to say that this is music that is inspired by a Black artist. Carlos Santana always talks about how his music is ultimately African music. So, that is all that the name is really referring to. It’s a poetic way of referencing that it is Black music. So it doesn’t really have anything to do with who’s playing the music. If you look at Jazz, probably the majority of producers were white Jewish folks. Even if you look at something like Soul, the term Soul refers back to Gospel. I don’t think there is a reason to be uncomfortable with calling it TDS. I’m actually kind of surprised that people are having an issue with that.
J: I think the concern before was that it was a bunch of White Harvard kids who called it TDS. But I think people will genuinely appreciate this. Because at the end of the day we are all just committed to the music, and especially after the Board was questioning what space we fill, I think this is a great way to ground us.
J: Was there anything else you wanted to add?
L: I’m flattered and actually impressed that it’s 40 years later and it’s still going strong. And actually I’m even more impressed that it’s one of the larger departments because that is a testament to the music itself. I think that’s really exciting. We started off with a handful of Black students who were interested in the music. We weren’t really approached at the time. And to some degree, we didn’t really feel like we were entirely welcome at the station, so we didn’t really participate in the station politics or interact with the board all that much. I do remember during Orgy Period, they wanted to do a fundraising campaign. And so the [Station Director] came in and asked people to call and make pledges and he was blown away by the support. We completely blew all the other departments out of the water in terms of pledges. That was one of those moments where people on the board looked up and said, “oh maybe there is something to this department.” I just think it’s wonderful that it has continued like this.
J: Yeah, I’d be hard-pressed to find a department similar to ours.
L: At the time when we were doing it, one of the things that I really found invigorating about being at WHRB was the fact that we had the Orgy period and we had this backdrop out of musicology. So, when I was buying albums, one of the things that I learned to do very early on from my buddies at the station was to read the liner notes and figure out who all the session musicians were and connect the dots. So that gave us a lot of interesting inroads into other stuff to play. All of a sudden the Brecker Brothers are doing their own stuff but are also on P-Funk albums. Also George Duke, Miles Davis and all these folks, you’ve got all these different threads. And the fact that we were allowed to explore that space instead of being stuck with Top 40 or whatever is selling, I thought that that was really important. We felt that that was our license. There were already commercial stations, so we felt we had the right and really the obligation to play that other stuff.
Jiwon Simpkins ‘23 is the co-director of the TDS department.