Jim Starr’s love of radio goes back to his childhood in Paterson, N.J.
Back then, he was James Spates, and as a toddler he loved nothing better than turning the volume knob way up on his parents’ radio.
“I used to get whippings for it,” he recalled with a laugh.
Later, as a young man, the pioneering broadcast journalist, Mal Goode, took him under his wing. Goode, the first black news journalist for ABC, told Starr that if he continued his college studies at William Paterson University, he’d find him a job.
Goode stayed true to his word, and in 1986, James Spates became Jim Starr, spinning country music tunes for WCEM 1240 in Cambridge, Md.
More than 30 years and many stops later, Starr is getting recognized for his work promoting the blues while at WVOL in Nashville, the station that helped launch the career of Oprah Winfrey. On Monday, Starr was inducted into the National Black Radio Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Atlanta, along with such trailblazing radio men and women as Lo Jelks, the first black on-air reporter for one of the largest television stations in the Southeast (WSB-TV in Atlanta) and Shelley “The Playboy” Stewart, who used his radio program in Birmingham, Ala., to advance the cause of civil rights in the 1960s.
Marsha Washington George, a board member of the national hall of fame, called this year’s inductees “top notch.”
Local listeners may recall Starr’s two-year stint on WTOB 980.
He took that gig after years in Nashville.
Though he is well-known for his long-running “Blues Cafe” on WVOL, Starr is also fondly remembered in Cambridge, Md., where he played country music.
Shortly after accepting the job there, Starr ran into a problem.
“I knew nothing about country music,” Starr said, shaking his head. “Oh my gosh.”
He delved into the music, becoming a big fan of Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Jr., Dolly Parton and the Bellamy Brothers among others.
“But my favorite was George Jones, the Possum,” Starr said.
As a black man working as a disc jockey in country music, Starr was something of an anomaly. Listeners were often surprised when he went out into the community for appearances.
“People saw me and couldn’t believe it. A black man. But they loved me,” he said. “Oh my gosh.”
Starr landed at WVOL in Nasvhille in 2004, working in a variety roles. His best known show was the Blues Cafe where he played songs from B.B. King, Solomon Burke and others. At that time, Starr had few restrictions on what he could play, giving him freedom to push new songs and artists that he liked.
These days, what songs to play are corporate decisions, limiting the influence of disc jockeys.
“When you play fresh new music there’s motivation behind the microphone,” Starr said.
His tenure at WVOL ended in 2017, the result of a corporate restructuring. Starr moved to Mount Airy to live with a cousin, and later to a home in Greensboro owned by R & B artist Roy Roberts, who heard Starr needed a place to stay.
Now living in Winston-Salem, Starr would love to get back on the air. His vocals remain smooth and his enthusiasm is high.
Until then, he is keeping himself busy establishing a Winston-Salem chapter of the National Black Radio Hall of Fame. The hall is based in St. Louis, Mo., and has chapters around the country, George said.
Each year, one of the chapters holds an induction ceremony for deserving candidates. Starr’s photograph will hang in the national museum in St. Louis, she said.
“I feel like I’ve reached the pinnacle of my career,” Starr said.