De Arthur Woodrow “Woody” Miller was a voice for the black community at a time when many African Americans felt they had none. The trailblazer, one of the first African Americans in the nation to own a radio station, started working in radio during the throes of the Civil Rights Movement and ran unsuccessfully for Fresno City Council in 1971.
Despite his political loss, Mr. Miller – who died May 13 from Alzheimer’s disease at age 89 – has always been a winner to the central San Joaquin Valley’s black community.
He was a trailblazer in the black community.
Theresa Tyler, family friend of Mr. Miller
He meant so much to so many, says longtime friend and former radioman, Melvin Sanders, that “we don’t ever need to let this icon in our community die.” Mr. Miller’s deep and melodic voice is preserved at the African American Historical & Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley in downtown Fresno, which Mr. Miller was instrumental in founding.
“He was born for radio,” Sanders says. “He commanded that type of attention when he spoke.”
Mr. Miller started in radio in 1950, working nearly every position in the industry before becoming co-owner of KLIP based in Fowler in the late 1970s, which then primarily broadcast soul, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel music and urban contemporary throughout the Valley. Mr. Miller also co-founded and ran Valley Black Talk Radio in Fresno along with hosting a weekly jazz show on Fresno State’s station.
He was born for radio. He commanded that type of attention when he spoke.
Melvin Sanders, Mr. Miller’s friend and co-worker
Sanders called Mr. Miller a pioneer and “the access to black music – real black music, here in Fresno.” Mr. Miller counted singer James Brown among his friends. “The godfather of soul” regularly visited his Fowler station to support the music he was playing. Mr. Miller’s daughter, Deborah Miller, said the music her father played made a big difference in boosting the morale of people still struggling in a society that oppressed people because of the color of their skin.
“We have problems in our community and a lot of that comes from low self-esteem, and his self-esteem was so high,” Deborah says of her father.
You’re already somebody at birth. You’re worthy.
Deborah Miller, about her father’s main message to the community
In addition to music, Mr. Miller broadcast community meetings, church services and interviews with community leaders and musicians.
“We’re not going to just be a jukebox,” Sanders recalls of his friend’s aim as a radio broadcaster. “We’re going to put something in your head, anything that was relevant to the furtherance of the community. That was his passion.”
Mr. Miller furthered that goal as an instructor at Fresno City College, teaching the history of African American music – the first course of its kind within the state’s community college system. Kehinde Solwazi, a friend and emeritus professor at the college and founder of its African American Studies program, recalls how the “pillar in our community” captivated his students with educational lectures that were as interesting as his entertaining radio shows.
Mark Kimber, publisher of The California Advocate Newspaper, which markets itself as Fresno’s African American community newspaper, says Mr. Miller “was respected for his integrity, for his kindness – he was one of the nicest guys – for his intelligence, and his knowledge about the music industry.”
We’re not going to just be a jukebox. We’re going to put something in your head.
Melvin Sanders, Mr. Miller’s friend and co-worker
Mr. Miller, who was born in Arkansas, grew up in Oakland and on a cattle ranch southwest of Fresno that was owned by his grandparents. His grandmother was a generous woman, Sanders recalls, and passed on the importance of helping to her grandson. After high school, Mr. Miller joined the U.S. Army, serving as an aircraft mechanic in a segregated black unit that helped with the clean-up of Japan following World War II.
He returned to Fresno in 1949 and was hired by a Fresno radio station owner, Morrie Mindel, who let him play music that resonated with the black community. Mr. Miller in 1956 went to work for radio stations in Bakersfield and later in the Bay Area before returning to the Valley in 1962 to accept an offer from Mindel to help run a new station in Fowler.
Mr. Miller recalled that offer in a 1998 article for Living Blues Magazine: “I thought, ‘Fowler?’ … I had other offers, but I thought maybe we could help Fresno.”
He did – in more ways than playing music. Mr. Miller also volunteered with a number of community and Catholic groups and helped lead presidential campaigns in the Valley for Robert Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. To honor his contributions, the city of Fresno in 1983 named May 14 “Woody Miller Day.”
De Arthur Woodrow ‘Woody’ Miller
Born: Oct. 22, 1927
Died: May 13, 2017
Occupation: Radio broadcaster
Survivors: Daughter Deborah Miller, son Micheal Miller, ex-wife Lillian Burkhalter, two grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and nieces and nephews.
Celebration of life service: 10 a.m. Saturday, June 24, at the African American Historical & Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley, 1857 Fulton St., Fresno.
Remembrances: In lieu of flowers, remembrances can be sent in Mr. Miller’s name to the African American Historical & Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley.