It is impossible to tell the story of how BET became what it is today without mentioning two names, Ed Gordon and Donnie Simpson. Furthermore, it is impossible to tell the story of Detroit media with mentioning Gordon and Simpson. This Friday, the two broadcast legends connected via The One Hundred Podcast to talk about Simpson’s run at BET, career as a broadcast in Washington, D.C. and the importance of radio.
At the beginning of the podcast, Gordon mentions what may be the most astounding fact about the radio legend known as Donnie Simpson. He’s been on-air for more than 50 years. As Simpson explained, he got his start at 15 years old as a DJ in Detroit. The promising young broadcast was initially called in to fill the 8 p.m. – 12 a.m. slot at a WJLB while they searched for a replacement. Initially, he was supposed to host the show for one week, but his run at the local station lasted for seven years.
“[I was] 15 years old at WJLB in Detroit. I was so young, [so] I couldn’t even do my whole show live because the show was from 8 p.m. until midnight. [Michigan] law stated that you couldn’t work work past 10:30 p.m. at 15 years old. After school, I would go to the radio station, record my last hour and a half, go home, have dinner, do my homework and then go back at 8 p.m. to do the show live from 8-10:30 p.m. Then, I’d put a tape in and leave,” Simpson said.
“To get my start on a major market radio station like that at 15 [years old] was such a blessing. To find what you love so early was a very special blessing.”
After making his name in Detroit, Simpson relocated to Washington, D.C. and hosted his own show on what is now known as WKYS. As he blossomed as a radio show host in the nation’s capital, Simpson also transitioned into television. He started out at WRC-TV in the “Chocolate City” before receiving an offer from Robert L. Johnson about hosting a show on BET. At the time, BET still had much more room to grow, but the importance of the network outweighed compensation and notoriety for Simpson.
“[BET] was a new company trying to find its way and there were times when I thought, ‘God, I’d like to have a bigger budget for things to look better and all of those things.’ You know? But, it was ours,” he told Gordon.
Simpson’s work on the BET staple, Video Soul, helped propel the network to new heights. Over the years, he interviewed Prince, Jay-Z, Smokey Robinson, Usher, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, James Brown and several other stars. Ultimately, Gordon stepped away from the show in 1996 and it was canceled shortly thereafter. Nearly 25 years later, he and Johnson are ready to bring it back. For Simpson, bringing the show back is more than getting it on the air. He hopes to use the show as a way to provide jobs for Black folks while also steering and owning his own product.
“For the first time, [I am] in business for myself. That [is] huge for me. I have always been a hired smile. I’ve never owned my smile. This is the first time for me. That’s what it’s about for me — owning what I do,” he explained.
Simpson’s excitement about what the new era of Video Soul and his induction into the Radio Hall of Fame are evident on this week’s episode of One Hundred: The Ed Gordon Podcast.