CLEVELAND — In March of 1993, Cleveland became home to the nation's first commercial gay and lesbian radio show, "The Gay 90's."
The show's slogan? "Sometimes serious. Sometimes humorous. Never straight talk."
The show was the brainchild of its host and creator, the late Buck Harris. Before 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 stepped into the spotlight when then-Gov. Dick Celeste appointed him gay health consultant for the state of Ohio amid the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The appointment was likely the first role of its kind in the entire nation.
Cleveland State University professor J. Mark Souther 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 spokesman for anything, really," Souther remembers 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."
Making its debut from the Tower City studios of WHK 1420, the show wasn't without controversy: A bomb threat on premiere day made headlines, and a hateful billboard went up on Pearl Road. But as Harris' widower Mike O'Connor recalls, Buck was unfazed.
"That 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" ultimately cultivated a devoted fanbase. John Farina began as one of those listeners and went on to become a longtime producer and host on the show. Despite the local attention, he admits the show didn't get much national publicity.
"We didn't get, like, media, like press," Farina told 3News. "There was no CNN reporter knocking on the door saying, 'Hey, we want to do a story about this,' but we did find that publishers knew we were out there ... people who knew about us in ways that they could find us to promote things to the LGBT community."
Thirty years ago, acceptance and inclusion was 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 closeted and afraid to lose their job or their home, or get kicked out of the house," Farina added. "We were this outlet for people."
Looking back, Farina says he's proud of his work with the show.
"We did such important stuff," he said. "It makes me feel good to know that there were people who heard our voices and we meant something to them. We were their connection. We were their friends, we were their family."
After six years covering important issues of the day and landing memorable guests across two stations, the show went off the air in 1999, a victim of the evolving media landscape and changing times. Harris went on to open a restaurant and the long-running yoga studio No Place Like Om in his beloved Ohio City neighborhood, but he battled health issues, and after a lung transplant and a battle with lung cancer, he passed away in 2018 at the age of 70.
"You know, Buck was a larger than life vibrant figure," Farina remembered of the man who became a lifelong friend. "He dressed colorfully, he always had a big smile on his face, he was very gregarious, never afraid to talk to anybody. And he was not afraid to say who he was and be who he was."
Cleveland State University is now home to the Buck Harris Collection, an archive of tapes, memorabilia, and promotional materials from his years in the public eye and his time on the groundbreaking show—a show and a man who helped carve a new path forward for his community and the generations that followed.
"I hope [the next generation will] appreciate the courage that it took for him to do what he did," O'Connor said. "Never underestimate the ability of people in society to change. I could have never imagined the world being like it is now, where I could get married with my family there to celebrate, to be out at work.
"Sometimes courage is not one big act; it's one foot in front of the other. Stay the course and see what happens, and miracles happened."
You can watch the full episode of A Turning Point: Pride below:
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