Mildred Gaddis, Longtime Queen of Detroit Radio, Talks Career Journey and Legacy

Mildred Gaddis, a voice on Detroit airwaves for over 30 years, was once referred to by TIME Magazine as “one of the most astute political minds in Southeast Michigan.” 

While Detroit feels like home to Gaddis, she was born and raised in Mississippi. Gaddis recalls there being two things she wanted to do and become, a broadcast journalist and attend law school. Her plan was set in her head that she would do radio for a year and then attend Howard University Law School. Not that she had applied and been accepted, she jokingly recalled.  

However, life took at different course. She however did take an early route into broadcasting by asking a simple question. 

“When I was 15 years old I went to my local radio station and asked the owner, Vernon Floyd, if he would let me have a Saturday talk show for an hour,” Gaddis said. “And he said, yes!” 

Just a teenager in high school, Gaddis found herself behind the mics of WORV radio, a Black-owned station in Hattiesburg, Miss. 

Gaddis continued to hone her skills when at 17 she went away to Texas Southern University where the school had its own station. She attributes her instructors gearing her up for a career in broadcasting that “became so much a part” of her. 

“It was as easy a breathing”, she recalled. Unlike most journalists who travel around and live through different markets, Gaddis is thankful for the fortunate opportunity to have only moved once. After her time in college years in Texas where her professional radio days began in Houston, she moved and did radio in St. Louis for 10 years. 

Gaddis moved to Detroit in 1988 and has spent 35 years of her broadcast career here ever since. She got her start here as news director for WJLB radio. 

“I was not committed to stay here. I only wanted to stay here one year and then go back to St. Louis,” Gaddis said. “I was so committed to it, I flew back to St. Louis 11 times my first year, here,” she jokingly recounted. “I came to Detroit when the Coleman Young administration was nearing its end.” 

Gaddis, who has been known to be a powerful voice on the airwaves calling truth to power on important issues while holding officials accountable, took 12 months until she landed her first interview with Mayor Young, a beloved leader amongst most Detroiters. 

“When I came to Detroit, I became disenchanted with some of what I saw in a city that was being primarily run by Black leaders. I couldn’t understand why education was not at a higher level. I didn’t understand why coming to the city people only talked about two high schools as being the primary creme [the best]. I kept asking why? I’m like is that the best you got? Can’t we do better than that?” 

Coming in as an outsider, she brought a different lens and perspective on issues in the city. 

She recounts one of her most memorable career moments came during Nelson Mandela’s visit to Detroit. The mayoral administration considered the station’s disc jockey for an interview with Mandela, who instead referred the request to Gaddis. 

“I’ll never forgot this as long as I live,” Gaddis recalled. “You are not our friend and you can’t not come and interview Nelson Mandela,” a phone conversation she recounted between the press secretary for Mayor Young and herself. Gaddis said she would rebuff the notion she had to be a friend of the administration and noted she would go on-air the following day to repeat the statement issued by the mayoral press secretary.  

She couldn’t understand why she and the station’s Black audience would be denied an opportunity to hear from an important figure visiting their city. 

“It was the principle of the matter that was insulting. It wasn’t about me.” 

Gaddis quickly began to understand the media and political game that was played in some circles in order to get what you want. But Gaddis wasn’t deterred. 

Gaddis later worked a project to interview area leaders. During a meeting with the late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, he mentioned to Gaddis about interviewing with Mayor Young who then informed him, “they won’t speak with me.” 

“He picked up the phone and called Coleman Young and Young agreed to do it.” 

It was during a breakfast meeting when the relatively new Detroit radio broadcaster would finally engage with Mayor Young. 

“Mayor Young, who had never seen me before, I said ,‘Good Morning Mr. Mayor, I’m Mildred Gaddis.’ He looked at me, he said, ‘you that woman over there on the radio?’ I said yes sir. He gave me the biggest, most beautiful smile, shook my hand. I did the interview and that was it.” 

“So that was my, ‘Hello, welcome to Detroit,” Gaddis laughed. 

Gaddis said that over time she concluded there had not been a journalist in Detroit behaving the way she did who did not view the city as being a place for certain things or people you didn’t talk about, especially to Black leaders. 

But Gaddis would take the heat, daring to hold elected officials, especially during  the much-publicized era of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. 

“Our existence and where we find ourselves today in the country, there were certain things we weren’t supposed to be able to tolerate and it was okay to call those things out. That was my indoctrination growing up in the south.” 

It’s Mildred southern upbringing and awareness of the history of civils rights leaders who were fighting for a just cause, that was embedded in her experience and teaching to view leaders who would carry the torch of leadership with responsibility.  

“In my young life I was a part of the civil rights movement. Our people in Mississippi and Alabama were fighting for their very existence. So, those who were fortunate enough to lead carried with them a responsibility to honor the lives and work that had been done and the legacy of those that sacrificed for the rest of us.” 

As Gaddis questioned the behavior of Kilpatrick on-air every morning, she said the political environment during his reign as mayor was hard on her personally. She recounts having to hire private security and receiving a 4 a.m. knock at the door of her home by officers in uniform informing her about the concern they had for her personal safety. Raising an 11-year-old daughter at the time, she thought it was wise to go house hunting. Gaddis would ultimately move out of the city of Detroit to an area suburb. 

“That particular era of my life, there was some times I should have been afraid. It wasn’t easy but it was necessary While it was personal, my work and the content of my work was personal to those who opposed the nature of my work. It was not personal for me.” 

The Michigan Association of Broadcasters honored Gaddis for her efforts in providing critical needs for the area’s homeless population.  

The “Sleeping Bags for the Homeless” campaign is a component of The EMG Foundation founded by Gaddis in 2017, which also awards scholarships annually to Detroit area students attending Historical Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU). 

The 47-year Broadcast Journalist and host of Beasley Media’s “The Mildred Gaddis Show” on WDMK/105.9 FM KISS has had the opportunity of interviewing three U.S. Presidents and appearing on a host of national media outlets as a political commentator and analyst. Gaddis says there’s still more work to do. 

“I’ve had a ball,” she said. “I don’t see this as the end. I’ll be 86 years-old with a cane with a microphone in hand,” she says jokingly. “I’m not the girl that goes home, retires and sits on the  couch and goes to the refrigerator at every commercial.” 

So, expect Gaddis to stay the queen of Detroit talk radio for many years to come — as she says, “it ain’t over until I win.” 

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