The Untold History of Oakland’s Soul Beat, a Pioneer Among Black-Owned TV Networks

Channel 37 wasn’t just one of the first Black-owned stations in the country — it was a launchpad for Bay Area stars

Eric Ducker
LEVEL
Published in
13 min readMay 12, 2020

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Photos: Soul Beat TV

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Back in early March, Rynell “Showbiz” Williams was on the phone with his friend Yancey Richardson, a producer who also does promotion work for Atlantic Records. Williams, 40, is a radio DJ in Monterey County on California’s Central Coast — but like Richardson, he grew up farther north in Oakland, and the two began reminiscing about Soul Beat, the cable TV network that was only available in their hometown and a few East Bay suburbs. From 1978 to 2003, the Black-owned network on channel 37 catered unapologetically to its city’s African American population, and provided the first television exposure for many local R&B and rap artists.

It could also be, in the parlance of its time, hella janky.

No plush corporate offices for Soul Beat; the network filmed its shows in rented apartments, personal homes, and a studio in Oakland’s notorious Eastmont Mall. Its VJs would broadcast live without the protection of a delay, which meant viewers could watch them get prank-called and otherwise harassed by local teenagers. Most of the commercials were for mom-and-pop businesses where the proprietors delivered unpolished pitches for their seafood restaurant or private hot tub rentals. When the rare ad showcased the franchise of a national chain like McDonald’s, it might feature a Soul Beat personality like Night Doggie, a gray-haired dude in a beanie who was missing his front teeth and would deliver his lines in raspy, sometimes incomprehensible barks. Even the newest music videos Soul Beat showed looked worn down and murky. It wasn’t just lo-fi — it was defiantly homegrown, sticking to its sensibility even after BET and MTV came along.

But when Williams hit the internet to further satisfy his Soul Beat nostalgia, there wasn’t much there. He found some clips of Soul Beat broadcasts and commercials on YouTube, and a few obituaries for station founder Charles “Chuck” Johnson, but nothing that captured Soul…

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Eric Ducker
LEVEL
Writer for

Writer and editor living in the great state of California. You can find his work at the New York Times, The Ringer, NPR and other outlets. ericducker@gmail.com