Buck Harris launched the country’s first gay and lesbian radio talk show in March 1993 from the Tower City studios of WHK 1420.
CLEVELAND — In March 1993, Cleveland became home to the nation’s first commercial gay and lesbian radio show, “The Gay 90’s.”
The show’s tagline? “Sometimes serious. Sometimes humorous. Never outright.”
The show was conceived by its host and creator, the late Buck Harris. Prior to setting his sights on the airwaves, Harris was already well known in Cleveland’s gay community as an activist, educator, and urban pioneer.
He first came into the limelight when the then Governor. Dick Celeste appointed him gay health consultant for Ohio State in the midst of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The appointment was probably the first role of its kind in the entire country.
J. Mark Souther, a professor at Cleveland State University, interviewed Harris in 2006 for the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection, discussing the Detroit Shoreway project and Harris’ role as a prominent member of Cleveland’s gay community for decades.
“[He was the] perfect radio host, certainly, and a perfect spokesperson for everything, really,” Souther recalled years later. “Anything that Buck Harris was interested in, you couldn’t help but see the passion for it and the way he described it.
Debuting at WHK 1420’s Tower City studios, the show was not without controversy: A the bomb threat on the day of the premiere made headlines and a hateful billboard was put up on Pearl Road. But as Harris’ widower Mike O’Connor recalls, Buck was unfazed.
“It got a lot of publicity and Buck loved it,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “No publicity was bad publicity, in his mind.”
“The Gay 90s” eventually cultivated a devoted fanbase. John Farina started out as one of those listeners and became a longtime producer and host of the show. Despite the local attention, he admits the show didn’t get much national publicity.
“We didn’t have, like the media, like the press,” Farina told 3News. “No CNN reporters knocked on the door saying, ‘Hey, we want to do a story about this,’ but we found that the editors knew we were there…people who knew us from a way they could find us to promote things to the LGBT community.”
Thirty years ago, acceptance and inclusion were not always a given.
“You have to remember, this is before ‘Will and Grace’, this is before Ellen came out, this is before ‘Modern Family’,” O’Connor explained. “It was a big deal.”
“People were still very, very locked in and afraid of losing their jobs or their homes, or being kicked out of the house,” Farina added. “We were that outlet for people.”
Looking back, Farina says he’s proud of his work with the show.
“We did such important things,” he said. “It makes me feel good to know that there were people who heard our voices and that we meant something to them. We were their connection. We were their friends, we were their family.”
After six years of covering important issues of the day and bringing memorable guests to two stations, the show went off the air in 1999, a victim of the changing media landscape and changing times. Harris went on to open a restaurant and the longtime yoga studio No Place Like Om in his beloved Ohio City neighborhood, but he struggled with health issues, and after a lung transplant and a battle with lung cancer, he died in 2018 at the age of 70.
“You know, Buck was a larger-than-life dynamic figure,” Farina recalled of the man who became a lifelong friend. “He dressed colorfully, he always had a big smile on his face, he was very social, he was never afraid to talk to anyone. And he wasn’t afraid to say who he was and to be who he was.”
Cleveland State University now houses the Buck Harris Collection, an archive of tapes, memorabilia and promotional material from his years in the public eye and his time on the groundbreaking show – a show and a man who has helped chart a new course for his community and the generations that followed.
“I hope [the next generation will] I appreciate the courage it took him to do what he did,” O’Connor said. “Never underestimate the ability of people in society to change. I could never have imagined the world as it is now, where I could get married with my family there to celebrate, to be at work.
“Sometimes courage isn’t a great act; it’s one foot in front of the other. Stay the course and see what happens, and miracles have happened.”
You can watch the full episode of A Turning Point: Pride below:
More than one turning point | Pride: