John Cain, who has been a familiar radio voice for half a century in central Arkansas, marked his 80th birthday Wednesday. He is also known for his efforts to preserve African-American culture. Many longtime friends and colleagues came together at Little Rock's Whitewater Tavern Wednesday night to celebrate with live music and cake.
Cain, who is program director of community radio station KABF-FM 88.3, has also hosted KUAR's 52nd Street Jazz for more than three decades. He has been on the air in some capacity for "51 years and counting."
Cain got his start in the early 1960s working as an engineer and overnight disc jockey at Little Rock R&B station KALO-AM 1250. At the time the Federal Communications Commission required such stations to have a licensed engineer at the transmitter site at night, which is where Cain hosted his program from midnight to 6 a.m. five days a week.
He says he made a proposal to KALO station manager Ed Phelan to feature material "that you don’t hear normally, some off-Broadway theater focusing on African-Americans to change the profile that was there, buffoonery, not intellectual stuff," Cain said. "It was overnight radio that really gave me the opportunity to become a preservationist of sorts, a musicologist, a mixologist or whatever you want to call it."
The material, he says, was "Everything you can imagine. All of the American music that was developed from early jazz, occasionally film music, field hollers were… I put that into the programs too to bring consciousness and awareness to how American music developed." Field hollers were historically sung by laborers working in the fields together. Occasionally Cain says he would fill in during daytime shifts playing more top 40-oriented music, but that the overnight was where he developed his niche.
After living in Alabama and Georgia for a time working in community theater and jazz preservation, Cain returned to Little Rock in 1984 about a month before KABF went on the air. He volunteered with the station, helping it launch and hosting programs for several years until the program director position opened up.
Cain began hosting 52nd Street Jazz on KUAR in 1986. He had been recommended to Station Manager Regina Dean and Operations Manager Eddie Zoch because of his activism with the non-profit Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation. That began more than three decades of broadcasting on both stations. Initially he was hosting the program several nights a week, but after being hired full-time at KABF, he scaled 52nd Street Jazz back to Sunday evenings, which he continues today.
Another passion for Cain is the preservation of African-American landmarks. In particular, after moving back in Little Rock, he was concerned to see the once grand Mosaic Templars building, which had been a key part of the of the city's thriving black business district on West 9th Street, was at risk of being torn down. Construction of Interstate 630 had severely impacted the area and he began reaching out to others, launching a long process to try and preserve the building which was built in 1913.
"I started by contacting Bill Worthen and the Historic Preservation Alliance. They advised me on how to start this campaign, so I worked about four years alone just trying to organize the society to save the building," Cain says.
The four story building was purchased by the city in 1993, but sat abandoned for another decade before going to the Department of Arkansas Heritage. An $8.6 million renovation eventually began, which was to be completed in 2006, but a fire on March 16, 2005 destroyed the building. That led to construction of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a museum dedicated to telling the story of the state's African-American history, which was built with an identical facade in the same spot as the original building.
"The fire was the catalyst that brought the whole thing to reality. Without that, we still would have been struggling for many years after that. After the fire, 24 hours later we were the in Capitol Rotunda talking to the governor and all those preservationists about how to change a restoration project into a new building project," Cain said.
"The building was completely destroyed, not salvageable at all. So we had a $1 million Lords of London policy," Cain says. "We asked the governor to match out of the Department of Heritage funding, which he did. He kept the project moving. We got a building in a historic place in American history."
At his 80th birthday celebration, Cain credited going into radio for molding him into the person he became.
"Without the medium, I couldn’t really profile models of our culture and what was intellectual and made you think and look at African-Americans differently."
Cain's program 52nd Street Jazz can be heard each Sunday night from 9 p.m. to midnight. The full interview from this report will be featured on KUAR's Week-In-Review Podcast Friday.