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Reggie Lavong, 84, African American media pioneer

Mr. Lavong was a media pioneer

Reggie Lavong
Reggie LavongRead moreCourtesy of the Lavong Family

Reginald Nelson Lavong, 84, a radio broadcasting pioneer and station owner, 84, died Sept. 19.

Mr. Lavong was an on-air personality who went on to own WHAT-AM (1340) and was one of the first black men to be part owner of a television station. His deep love of music led him to work in the music industry before he eventually returned to radio in Philadelphia.

Affectionately and professionally known as Reggie, Mr. Lavong was born in Gainesville, Fla., in 1933. Following the death of his mother, Honey Nelson, when he was 2 years old, he was adopted by cousin Mae Lavong, who raised him in Brooklyn with her husband, Walter. Mr. Lavong would begin his long relationship with Philadelphia when he arrived to attend Temple University.

During his time at Temple, Mr. Lavong became involved with the school's station, WRTI, as an announcer. That experience led to his first broadcasting job, at a small commercial station in Vineland, N.J., while he was a junior in college.

"My father was very determined," said his son Daryl Lavong. "When he wanted to do something, he went fully into doing it."

After Temple, Mr. Lavong met and married Joyce Hightower, who passed away in 2013.

Mr. Lavong worked at radio stations geared to black audiences throughout his career, including ones in Norfolk, Va.; Wilmington; Chicago; and New York. "One of the big things he talked about was his flexibility," Daryl Lavong said of his father's career. "He did jazz and R&B, but he also did country. He did all different genres because he could adjust his voice and style to fit whatever he needed it to."

In 1964, Mr. Lavong partnered with fellow radio personality Georgie Woods to become part owners of WPHL-17 (along with Aaron Katz and Leonard Stevens), making them the first two African American men in the United States to co-own a TV station.

Around that time, Mr. Lavong became involved in the civil rights movement, and worked with leaders such as  the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who the Lavong family lived near when Mr. Lavong worked at New York-area radio stations. Mr. Lavong also produced his own music that complemented the civil rights movement's message with "Skin Deep," a spoken-word track backed by the Shiloh Pentecostal Choir.

"Yes I'm black/God made me this way/And beneath this skin of mine/I'm as good as any man/No matter what they say," Mr. Lavong says on the track. His son called the project Mr. Lavong's way of "using his talents to say something."

In 1969, he moved his family to California to pursue a position at Capitol Records, serving as the company's first African American executive. Mr. Lavong headed up the label's international R&B arm, and handled sales, promotion, and distribution of records in that genre from Capitol and  smaller labels. Mr. Lavong continued his work in the recording industry for a number of years, first moving to Island Records in 1972 to help run the label's R&B and jazz departments, and later to Rollers Production Co., a subsidiary of MCA Records, where he was an executive vice president.

"Everything he did, he did it because he wanted people to know, 'Hey, you can achieve these things,'" Daryl Lavong said. "There are people that looked at him and said, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'"

In 1976, Mr. Lavong returned to Philadelphia to purchase WHAT with partner and current Mann Center board member Miller Parker. With that purchase, Mr. Lavong established the first all African American talk-radio station, and included personalities such as Woods, Reggie Bryant, and Mary Mason in the station's roster.

As Daryl Lavong explained, his father saw purchasing WHAT as an opportunity to "get to the next level," rather than simply "being first."

"He wanted to challenge himself in whatever he did," the son said. "He wanted to do more, and we wanted to get more, and he took the opportunities when he saw them."

Another opportunity came in 1989, when Mr. Lavong sold WHAT to former WDAS general manager Cody Anderson. The station maintained its African American talk-radio format until 2007, when Anderson sold the company to Marconi Broadcasting. Formerly known as "the Voice of the African American Community," the station now has a Spanish-language focus.

In addition to his work in radio and music, Mr. Lavong owned several local companies outside the information industry, including a small candy store and a taxi and limousine service. After he sold WHAT, Mr. Lavong turned his attention to another career: He became a stockbroker.

He studied for and passed the Series 7 Exam, then landed a job at Shearson Lehman Bros., where he worked for a number of years out of Philadelphia.

"Those types of things were the challenges that he took," Daryl Lavong said. "He was a man who wanted to be seen as equal, and wanted to be looked at as someone who was just a talented person who performed whatever he did to the best of his ability. He may have had to go around the block, but nothing ever stopped him from doing what he wanted to do."

Services were held this week at St. Helena Church in Blue Bell. Mr. Lavong is survived by his four children — Reggie, Daryl, April, and Jocelyn — seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.