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Media stars reunite to honor Detroit’s WGPR, America’s 1st Black-owned TV station

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(DETROIT) — TV personality Shaun Robinson has been reporting for almost 30 years. She worked in local news in Miami before going on to the national stage, co-hosting “Access Hollywood” and later becoming the face of reality TV sensation “90 Day Fiancé.”

But it all started many years ago in Detroit at WGPR — the first Black owned and operated television station in the country.

“I remember coming home. And then at 6:00, my grandmother would turn on the evening news and there was a Black woman by the name of Barbara Lee Payne. And I would sit there and look at her on the evening news, and I knew she was different because she looked like me,” Robinson told ABC News.

Robinson would become an intern at WGPR. She hit the ground running, interviewing people and filing local stories. Eventually, she got her own primetime talk show called “Strictly Speaking.” The station helped launch her career, along with the careers of many other Black media stars.

ESPN executive Dave Roberts is another notable alumnus of the station.

“WGPR is part of our history, is part of the legacy of who we are, how we became who we are. And it will define where we’re going down the road,” Roberts told ABC News.

WGPR was on the airwaves from 1975 to 1995. The old station was turned into a museum to honor its pivotal role in the history of television and its hand in developing Black talent. Recently, several alums reunited at the museum to share memories and reminisce about the legends who used to walk the studio’s halls, among them James Brown, Della Reese, Muhammad Ali and James Baldwin.

“They would come, and they would say they came because of who we are,” said journalist Denise James.

Former Program Director Joe Spencer was in charge of recruiting those young hopeful reporters who would go on to do great things. One thing that set the station apart was giving a chance to young Black journalists who had little to no experience.

“They were to come here, learn their craft and was able to move on to other jobs and other opportunities,” Spencer said.

It was critical work for an industry still struggling to increase diversity among its ranks. In 2021, only about a quarter of staffers in local TV newsrooms were people of color, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association.

“Working at WGPR, you never had to fight for a story that was relevant to the Black community. You just never had to do that. I was always a champion of telling stories, positive stories about our community, because there’s too many negative stories out there. And I hope that, especially now that we’re in Black History Month, let’s not have the story stop at the end of the month. We got to keep telling these stories over and over and over again,” Robinson said.

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