“As a contemporary of Cliff Kelley, I and other seniors should be insulted,” said Dorothy R. Leavell, who has served as publisher of the Chicago Crusader for over 50 years. “It’s obvious that he is not doing this of his own free will. Are all of us seniors worthless and useless and unneeded to the point that we need to be forced into retirement? This is an example of the ‘wisdom of the elders’ being disrespected.”
By Chinta Strausberg
On the first day of Black History Month and after 25-years on-air, the iconic WVON’s Cliff Kelley last Friday shocked his listeners when he told them he was “rewiring” himself and would no longer be hosting his daily talk show.
Chicago’s Black leaders are rallying behind Kelley, who as the “Governor of Talk Radio,” has informed and engaged the city’s Black community for over two decades.
Black leaders are questioning WVON’s latest move after Kelley read a letter on his show announcing his departure from a post that made him a household name in Chicago. The move fueled suspicions that the revered 77-year-old radio host was forced out of his job.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., who was the first caller on Kelley’s show, said he thought he was listening to fake news or having a “bad dream” when he heard the announcement.
When Kelley said “I’ll be around you know.”
Jackson replied, “No I don’t know.”
Kelley laughed and said “We’ll talk. Ok?”
It’s the latest move at WVON, a storied Black-owned radio station that was already facing criticism over its ongoing move out of the Black community to its new digs in the South Loop. With the move and Kelley’s departure from his show, there is concern that the station is losing its Black identity, forsaking its past and its Black roots.
“Cliff Kelley is part of Chicago’s history,” said Father Pfleger. “He has been a voice of conscience who held folks accountable and made sure the community heard the news the Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune weren’t covering,” said Pfleger.
“He gave voice to issues of the Black community and caused people to ‘be woke’ before it was a slogan.”
Other leaders called Kelley to wish him well, but they expressed sadness that he is leaving. They include his former colleagues, former Alderman Dorothy Tillman (3rd), Representative Danny K. Davis (D-7th), Reverend Al Sampson and several of Kelley’s former producers.
But this reporter confirmed Saturday Kelley would not be leaving the historic radio station any time soon.
Instead, Kelley, fondly referred to as “the Governor,” will hold other duties at WVON and according to Melody Spann-Cooper, the station’s president/CEO, he will become the station’s “Community Ambassador.”
“Cliff is not going anywhere,” Spann-Cooper said. “Nothing bad is happening. He is looking forward to this. I kept him on air for 25-years. People should be sending me flowers. Everything changes. It is time” for Kelley to make this change.
Both she and Kelley said the decision was mutual.
In an interview with Kelley, he confirmed that he would not be leaving WVON but that his 3 p.m. show will end on March 29.
“I will be doing something else at the station,” said Kelley, who like Spann-Cooper, would not reveal any details of his new duties.
But, not everyone is happy about Kelley’s popular show ending.
Pfleger, like many of Kelley’s loyal fans, enjoys his political sparring and respects his breadth of local, national and international knowledge. The former alderman of the 20th Ward, Kelley was also an activist, who with the sound of his voice could rally, agitate and call for “street heat” on issues like the infamous Laquan McDonald video.
Kelley provided a venue for activists like Will Calloway to cry out for justice for McDonald, the 17-year-old Black youth murdered by 40-year-old Chicago policeman Jason Van Dyke who is now in prison.
In a press release, it was noted that Kelley will be stepping down as afternoon host but will remain at WVON as the station’s Community Ambassador and as the host of the independently produced American Heroes Group broadcast which airs Saturdays on WVON. He has also agreed to be a regular fill-in host.
Kelley is the longest serving talk show host at WVON since the station switched to an all-talk format in 1986. He began as the afternoon drive host at WVON in 2007, but for 13-years was the morning drive host.
“I don’t want people to look at this as I am retiring, Kelley said. “I’m just rewiring. There is plenty more work for me to do.”
Program director Todd Ronczkowski said, “Cliff Kelley is one of Chicago’s most influential hosts and has been a trusted source of information for Chicago’s African American community for over three decades, forming a host/listener bond that is rarely seen in any market.”
WVON has not announced who his replacement will be.
WVON is planning a celebration of Kelley’s contribution to Chicago radio.
Courtney Scott, Kelley’s former producer, repeatedly praised him for trusting her to put together his shows. She credited him for gaining the experience she needed to be hired at CBS.