Gaddi Ben Dan, a pioneer in community journalism in Madison, died Tuesday at 76.
Dan, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, founded community newspapers like The Madison Times, and co-created the long-running TV show "Club TNT," which aimed to entertain and inspire youth audiences.
Former Cap Times reporter Erik Lorenzsonn interviewed Dan in 2018, and wrote this story:
When a public commission gave Gaddi Ben Dan the Madison and Dane County Humanitarian Award earlier this year, it was for a long list of things the busy 71-year-old leader has done in his lifetime.
Dan has long been a social justice and black rights activist who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He’s a journalist who founded community newspapers like The Madison Times and the Wisconsin Free Press; most recently, he was an editor for the Ambassador Times Journal, a paper run by community leaders from across Madison that shut down in 2017.
He’s also a music producer and promoter who has hosted radio shows and organized major concerts in venues like Breese Stevens Field and Warner Park.
Today, he may be best known for his work producing the youth-centric TV show called “Club TNT,” which airs every Saturday morning on TVW, a subchannel with Channel 3000. The show mixes skits, interviews, cartoons and public service announcements with a mission of “increasing knowledge of issues that impact the well being of youth and families.”
That doesn’t even touch on the work done by his nonprofit Today Not Tomorrow, which has spearheaded initiatives from the black history project Stony the Road to community baby showers.
Let’s start with “Club TNT.” I’m guessing some of our readers haven’t seen the show. Could you describe it?
We’ve been on the air, in September, 15 years. We used to say that we use the medium of entertainment to inform and educate. Back when we started the show, the music that was being played was a little more decent than what’s being played now. We’d bring the kids in, have them do vignettes and skits about staying out of drugs, staying out of gangs. That was the main thing, we’d have them do skits and vignettes — stand up against risky behavior.
What is it like these days?
It’s about saying no to drugs and gangs, respecting your parents, respecting your community.
(We film) all over the place. You might see us out with the cameras. We’re at community events, especially. Sometimes we’re the only media there at the African-American events. We’re very present in the community.
We have a campaign, we call it the Lock it Up campaign. We say, lock up drugs in the home, so that kids don’t get drug habits.
We’ve got a lot of animation...we have Big Stomp and Little Stomp. It’s two elephants, a mother elephant and a daughter elephant. What they do is they stomp out risky behaviors. They come out of the jungle, and they stomp out drugs, gangs, prejudice, racism.
We’re going to do ride-alongs. It’s going to be really exciting. It’s to emphasize, how does community policing look. It’s going to show the professionalism of cops. It would be interesting if we could see not just the ride-along, but their personal life — show that these people are more than just a badge. We’re calling it, “The Peacemakers.”
We’ve got the chief’s support. Some people talk about him, but he’s a good brother, man. With the politics in this city, it’s like … well, there’s this vignette about Jesus. Since we’ve got Lake Monona here, I’ll set it in Lake Monona. So Jesus was on one side of the lake, and reporters were on the other side of the lake. Jesus tells the reporters, come on over and interview me, talk to me. The reporters say no, come on over here and talk to us. So Jesus came over and talked to them. You know what the headlines read the next day? “Jesus can’t swim.”
What are some of the things you think we in the mainstream media miss?
I wouldn’t say that you don’t pay attention. I’d say some things are given scant attention.
There was Wanda Smith (and her fight for nonprofit funding in Fitchburg). That should have had more positive coverage. They showed the negative parts about it, but there was a lot of positive parts — the community came together and organized and talked about it in-depth.
Talk to me about the role of community newspapers, which you have a lot of experience with. Do you see them as a tonic of sorts to these oversights you see in mainstream media?
Yes. But it takes money, man. That’s why the Ambassador Times Journal shut down last year. See, people have to see the vision. We had leaders of the community acting as editors from all four corners of Madison. But the project needed funding.
I consider myself — and I’m not bragging — a crackerjack marketing man. All the papers we ever started, we didn’t have any money. But we’d put together a prototype and I’d go out and sell it. The problem is maintaining it. That became the problem. Someone is intelligent, and they’re literate. But you say, why don’t you do a column for the paper. They say, “I can’t write.” I say, yes you can. That’s the job — to maintain those people.
Giving them a stipend, that’s what we did with the Ambassador Times Journal. Once that stopped, everything fell to the wayside.
We’re going to start that paper back up, man. It’s a powerful concept, to have leaders of all the communities to be the editors of this periodical.
For more than 30 years, this work you’ve done with music, community newspapers, and television has largely been with fellow community leader Betty Banks. What has that partnership been like?
She had the revolutionary concept of her mother and her grandmother and her aunt — they were all community-minded people. They advocated for the health, interests, needs and rights of people in the community. She was a direct descendant of that.
I wanted to work with her (after meeting in 1984). We started a newspaper, the Wisconsin Free Press, together. Everything, we did together. We brought national concerts here. We brought Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam here. We brought concerts to Warner Park. African-Americans hadn’t had anything like that in this city.
I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about your history as an activist. How does the activism for black rights that you engaged with in the 1960s compare with the activism you see today?
It’s different now, man. Back when I first got started, the issues were housing, jobs education. All of those things were out of whack. You didn’t have to really encourage people to march. It was just time. You know how sometimes it’s just time?
I would say, people have been quieted. Cap Times people aren’t as vocal.
What about the Black Lives Matter movement?
Brandi Grayson (founder of the black activism group Young Gifted and Black)? Man, Brandi is the spirit, man. Seriously, she’s a Sojourner Truth. You’ve got to print this. She’s Harriet Tubman. She’s on time. Brandi is a strong advocate for the health, interest, needs and rights of people of color. Not just African-Americans, but for all people of color. She’s grassroots. And that’s where it starts, at the grassroots level. She’s in the trenches. I respect her very, very much.