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Morris Blum Remembered as Pioneer

From the time he founded WANN(AM) in historic Annapolis in 1947 until he sold it in 1997, Morris H. Blum used his radio station to champion human rights in a city that, years before, had served as a slave arrival port.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. From the time he founded WANN(AM) in historic Annapolis in 1947 until he sold it in 1997, Morris H. Blum used his radio station to champion human rights in a city that, years before, had served as a slave arrival port.

Blum died of cancer on March 20 at his home in Annapolis. He was 95.

Friends and family say Blum, a white radio station owner, helped propel a music revolution. He played music by black performers and aimed at black listeners, before most broadcasters had accepted such practices; he hired African-American announcers long before there were equal opportunity laws.

(click thumbnail)Morris Blum, left, and successor Jim Weitzman in September 2004 when WANN Annapolis, Md. ceased broadcasting from the site it used for more than 50 years. The towers were toppled and the site abandoned. The station, renamed WBIS to reflect its business radio format, is now operating under an STA from another site in Annapolis.,
“My father was one of the last self-made broadcasters. He believed broadcasters should be morally and technically qualified to run their facilities. More so than anything else, he believed in human rights and racial equality,” said Blum’s son, Dr. Larry Blum.

When Morris Blum founded WANN he began by broadcasting big band music and sports, but within a year settled on a format of gospel, soul and rhythm and blues, the younger Blum said.

Untapped audience

“After that first year, he discovered this large untapped African-American audience and began playing gospel a few hours a day. In addition, he played secular music from artists like Ruth Brown and the Delta Rhythm Boys and H-Bomb Ferguson. The reaction from the Afro-American community was incredible.”

Blum then hired black announcers and management to help run the station, his son said.

“It was really a mix of ethnicities running the station and never exclusively African-American. My father offered equal opportunity, but not equal results. Everyone he hired knew they would be held to a higher standard, and they accepted that.”

The son of Jewish immigrants, Blum was born in Pennsylvania and moved with his family to Baltimore in 1918. It was there that Blum built a “crystal set receiver out of an oatmeal box” in the attic of the family’s house as a Boy Scout project, his son said.

“He found that to be so interesting … to be able to receive voices through the air. We take it for granted now, but in 1922 it was very novel technology.”

Morris Blum served in the merchant marine as a radio operator aboard a tanker and later in radio intelligence for the FCC during WWII, Dr. Blum said.

“When my father returned home, he witnessed a lot of racism and recognized the barriers many in the Annapolis community faced. He loved nothing more than having guests in the air studio who had never spoken their mind freely before. This was an amazing thing for African-Americans, too,” Dr. Blum said.

Carl Snowden, a civil rights activist and former Annapolis City councilman, told the Baltimore Sun that Blum “spent the better part of his life fighting against bigotry. He averted a catastrophe in Annapolis at the time of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. He opened the station and allowed the African-American community to come of the radio and voice its concern. There were uplifting comments that allayed fear here.”

Morris Blum was the type of owner who paid as much attention to broadcasting standards as he did to engineering standards, said Merrill Pittman, who served Blum as chief engineer at WANN for nearly 50 years.

Blum “was inclined toward circuits,” Pittman said, “meaning, he knew if something went bad he knew sometimes I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it right away. He had a lot of tolerance that way.”

Pittman joined WANN in 1949 as a transmitter engineer and eventually became chief engineer. He said Blum was a hands-on owner.

“There was no corporate ownership structure or anything. If I needed to discuss something with him I went in his office. I could get things done much quicker that way,” Pittman said.

EAS involvement

John Bisset, regional sales manager for Broadcast Electronics Inc. and a Radio World columnist, said Blum once hired Bisset’s fledgling contract engineering firm to rebuild the station’s directional antenna site.

“He would come every day to inspect our work but always complimented us on something. He also gave me the best business advice ever. He told me, ‘Just remember John, in some cases you’ll make more money by not working for certain owners,'” Bisset said with a chuckle. “Sage advice for all contract engineers.”

Blum was appointed to the FCC’s National Industry Advisory Committee in 1958 and served on subsequent commission committees through the years, said Frank Lucia, former FCC director of emergency communications and senior advisor, Emergency Alert System.

Lucia said Blum’s volunteer roles on FCC committees included working on the deployment of CONELRAD, the Cold War predecessor to EBS and EAS; the development of the two-tone Emergency Broadcast System attention signal; and field tests to develop the current EAS.

“He was a wonderful generous person who will be missed by all personally and professionally,” Lucia said.

Lucia said Blum also served as the first chair of the Maryland State Emergency Communications Committee. “He never failed to volunteer to work on projects that affected emergency communications. He felt strongly about public service.”

Jim Weitzman, who purchased WANN from Blum in 1997, said Blum “was constantly working on projects to advance programming, public service and the technical aspects of our industry. He was very well respected for his contributions to broadcasting.”

Even when he sold the radio station in 1997 and “retired” at the age of 88, Blum’s knowledge, wisdom and advice were often sought, Weitzman said.

“He was a mentor to many, including myself, and a ‘mensch’ of the first order,” Weitzman said, using a Yiddish word for a person of admirable character.

Dr. Blum said his father faced a backlash from some segments of the community through the years for serving the African-American audience in Annapolis.

“He was always admired more from afar than from the immediate Annapolis area. The movers and shakers in Annapolis had no regard for him. People looked down upon my father and viewed him as being just a step above running a grocery store in a ghetto neighborhood.”

WANN’s format changed to country in the 1990s to keep up with shifting demographics before Blum sold the station.

Dr. Blum said his father was satisfied with his accomplishments in life and broadcasting.

“What other people thought of us really didn’t matter. He fought bigotry his entire life. However, first and foremost he believed public service should not be ignored and forgotten. I think he left his mark on a lot broadcasters.”