Bernie McCain dies; popular WOL radio talk show host was 75

October 25, 2012

Bernie McCain, the WOL talk show host who for three decades was one of Washington’s most popular figures in black radio, died Oct. 13 at Georgetown University Hospital.

He was 75 and had renal failure, said his daughter Leslie Charleton. He had gone off the air more than a year ago because of his declining health.

Mr. McCain had worked in radio for more than 15 years when WOL (1450 AM) hired him away from the Washington AM station WRC in 1981. Today, WOL is owned by Radio One, a media company that serves a largely African American and urban market.

He quickly became one of the station’s flagship personalities and a daily presence known to listeners of his call-in show as “Uncle Bernie.” In an interview, Radio One founder Cathy Hughes described him as “a black version of Mister Rogers.”

“It was a learned voice, but he was sort of down-home,” said Denise Rolark Barnes, the publisher of the Washington Informer, an African American, woman-owned newspaper. “He made people comfortable calling and expressing their opinions.”


Bernie McCain, the WOL talk show host who for three decades was one of Washington’s most popular figures in black radio, died Oct. 13. He was 75. (Vanessa Barnes Hillian/The Washington Post)

Mr. McCain was most associated with the afternoon drive-time but had also done morning drive-time and midday shows over the years.

He was, by all accounts, opinionated. But he distinguished himself from many on-air personalities in radio by not being rude to callers, even when conversation touched on such sensitive issues as economic empowerment, education, political engagement and parenting.

“We want to make a difference in people’s lives,” Mr. McCain told The Washington Post in 1981. “We want to do more than talk. We plan to bring people to the mike who have control and power, people who make decisions that affect other people’s lives, so our listeners can question them and make suggestions.”

Harold Fisher, who hosts a public affairs program on WHUR (96.3 FM), said he first listened to Mr. McCain’s show as a young man, alongside his grandfather.

“You need to listen to him because he’s telling us what’s going on in our community,” Fisher recalled his grandfather saying.

Bernard Robert McCain was born Nov. 8, 1936, in Newark. He served in the Marine Corps in the 1950s and held a variety of jobs, including stints as the manager of a rock-and-roll group and, in Paris, as a produce truck driver.

The son and grandson of Baptist ministers, he was ordained a Baptist preacher at 29, The Post reported. Around the time of his ordination, a friend who disc-jockeyed at a Newark radio station asked Mr. McCain to fill in for him on the air.

Mr. McCain liked the work and continued on stations across the country before settling in Maryland in the late 1970s. He was a Bowie resident at the time of his death.

His first marriage, to Carolyn Allen, ended in divorce. His companion of five years, Sharron Lipscomb, died in 1998.

Survivors include his wife of 10 years, Wanda Hughes of Bowie; a daughter from his first marriage, Leslie Charleton of Pikesville, Md.; a daughter from his relationship with Lipscomb, Cairo McCain of Bowie; three stepchildren, Ja’nae Sturgis of Catonsville, Md., Mart’ian Hughes of Brooklyn and Julian Sturgis of Queens; and three grandchildren.

“Some people think I think I have all the answers,” Mr. McCain once told The Post. “Man, all I have is a lot of questions.”

Hamil Harris and Jeannine Hunter contributed to this report.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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