Charles Hobson, who helped break a TV color line, dies at 83

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Charles Hobson, who helped break a TV color line, dies at 83
Charles Hobson in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, on June 19, 1998. Hobson, an Emmy Award-winning producer who helped shatter racial stereotypes by delivering a black perspective that had been missing from early television programming, died on Feb. 13 in the Bronx. He was 83. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Charles Hobson, an Emmy Award-winning producer who helped shatter racial stereotypes by delivering a black perspective that had been missing from early television programming, died on Feb. 13 in the Bronx, New York. He was 83.

His daughter Hallie Spencer Hobson confirmed his death, from heart failure, in a hospital.

Hobson, who lived in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, was instrumental in the success of the groundbreaking series “Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant” and “Like It Is,” which introduced white audiences to everyday life in black communities. Those places had been largely invisible, or defined by negative images, during the first decades of TV’s evolution.

His programs not only provided a singular perspective on contemporary issues; they also gave an unfiltered voice to people who had been neglected when television was struggling through its adolescence.

“Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant,” which ran from 1968 until 1970 on WNEW-TV in New York, has been called the city’s first regular program written, produced and presented by black people.

“Here was not a ‘ghetto’ filled with enraged protesters and rioters,” Charles Musser, who teaches film and media at Yale University, has written. “Here were people struggling to live their lives with dignity, grace and ambition.”

The show’s 52 half-hour episodes featured entertainers like Eubie Blake, Harry Belafonte and drummer Max Roach; champion pool player Cisero Murphy; and uncelebrated local teachers, police officers and street performers. It was broadcast at 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. but still managed to find an audience. Social historians regard it as a vital video time capsule of an urban neighborhood.

“This was a way for blacks to hear their voices,” Hobson told The New York Times in 1998. “Here’s a community of about 400,000 people at that time, with all of their culture and churches, and no coverage.”

“People spoke their hearts and their minds,” he said of the residents featured on the program. “They didn’t know how to do anything else at that time because there weren’t any models.”

Hobson had an impact not only on black audiences but also on white viewers, who were introduced to people, places and problems they might not have contemplated before.

Rhea L. Combs, supervisory curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, said in an email that Hobson “gave voice to black communities at a time their issues, triumphs and concerns were either ignored or misrepresented in mainstream media.”

Charles Blagrove Hobson was born on June 23, 1936, in Brooklyn to West Indian immigrants. His father, Charles, was a machinist who worked for the city’s Housing Authority. His mother, Cordelia (Spencer) Hobson, was a maid.

Charles grew up in a brownstone on Hancock Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant; the family moved to an apartment in Crown Heights after he was mugged when he was 18. He graduated from Boys High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1960 and served in the Army.

Lore has it that after college, when he was working temporarily as a rug salesman, he was listening to the listener-supported New York FM station WBAI and grew so exasperated by its subpar treatment of black gospel music that he contacted the station to complain. He was invited to host his own weekly show to prove he could do better. He did, and in 1963 the station hired him full time.

Hobson was WBAI’s production director until 1967 and later a producer for television stations in Washington and New York.

“Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant” was conceived by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., a community development group, and began with a $45,000 budget. It was hosted by James C. Lowry and actress Roxie Roker, a local resident who was later a regular on the sitcom “The Jeffersons.”

“It’s so unplanned, it’s so informal, it’s so — I hate to use the word — but genuine,” Musser said of the program in 1998. “Just about anyone in the community could show up and be on TV.”

Hobson was also the first black producer of the WABC-TV program “Like It Is,” another early public affairs program that focused on minority issues. (The program, which ran from 1968 to 2011, had a black host, Gil Noble, but originally an all-white production staff.) “Like It Is” won seven local Emmy Awards.

In the late 1970s, Hobson was senior vice president for international co-productions at WETA in Washington.

He produced the 13-week PBS series “From Jumpstreet: A Story of Black Music” (1980) and the nine-part PBS-BBC co-production “The Africans” (1986). In 1989, he was hired to be the director of market planning for WNET, the New York public television station. He taught film in Munich as a Fulbright scholar in 1996.

In the 1980s he began Vanguard Documentaries, which produced “Porgy and Bess: An American Voice” (1998) and “Harlem in Montmartre: Paris Jazz” (2009) for “Great Performances” on PBS, and “Treasures of New York: The Flatiron Building” (2014) for WNET.

In addition to his daughter Hallie, from his marriage to Cheryl Chisholm, which ended in divorce, he is survived by his wife, Maren Stange; their daughter, Clara Hobson; a sister, Delvita Lovell; and a brother, George. His first marriage, to Andrea Marquez, also ended in divorce.

Hobson left New York temporarily in 1972 to become director of the Center for Mass Communications at Clark College in Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta University), seeking a respite from the whirlwind of the broadcast industry.

“In addition to the job stress, no position can insulate a black from the pressures of being black in this society,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1982.

“My success is based on coming up with interesting, culturally redeeming projects and finding the money and staff to oversee the production and distribute the program,” he added. “I’ve made a lot of progress. It makes you feel good when you realize that you can succeed in their system.”

2020 The New York Times Company

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