"I remember when the black ambulances could not haul white people. They had a white company, I'll never forget, called Thompson's. I was on my way to the station, and when I come around the curve there was the ambulance from S. W. Qualls with the door open, and there was a white lady laying in the ditch, bleeding. And they were waiting for Thompson's to come and pick her up. Qualls couldn't pick her up. I guess I waited thirty or forty minutes and still no ambulance. They tell me that the lady died. So I came to WDIA and told the tale. I said, 'Look here.' I said, 'Black folks put their hands in your flour and make your bread, they cook the meat, they clean up your house, and here's this fine aristocratic white lady laying in the ditch bleeding and they won't let black hands pick her up and rush her to the hospital.' And the next week, they changed that law where a black ambulance could pick up anybody. I got that changed on WDIA."
-- Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth" Moore, WDIA disc jockey
WDIA is the first radio station in America that was programmed entirely by African-Americans for African-Americans. It empowered a huge segment of the population that was, until the late 1940s, largely unrecognized. WDIA’s monumental achievement was all the more extraordinary as it occurred during a time of institutionalized racism.
When WDIA became Memphis, Tennessee’s sixth station in June 1947, radio was still America’s primary medium for entertainment and news. There were barely 30 television stations yet established in the country. Most all programming was geared toward the nation’s white audience. Women were rarely on air, except as characters in dramas, and with very few exceptions—such as Jack Cooper in Chicago and Sonny Boy Williamson in Helena, Arkansas—blacks were not on the air. Even *Amos and Andy.* a “Negro” comedy show, was performed by whites.
Initially, WDIA broadcast country and western music, classical, light pop—like the other stations in town. But the listening audience didn’t need another station like the rest, and WDIA was a failing enterprise. In a final act of desperation before closing, station owners John Pepper and Bert Ferguson hired local high school teacher and nationally syndicated columnist Nat D. Williams, an African-American, to host a show. Though Memphis’ population was 40% African-American, no major media addressed them in the late 1940s. When Nat D.’s “Tan Town Jamboree” first aired on October 25, 1948, the response was overwhelmingly positive—except for the requisite bomb threats by the threatened white segregationists. WDIA bought some blues records, and a loyal listenership quickly grew.
Nat D. Williams was a prominent figure on Beale Street, and he brought the street to the station. Rufus Thomas, who co-hosted the Palace Theater Amateur Night with Nat, began hosting the 15-minute Sepia Swing Club and soon had a 2-hour nighttime show called “Hoot and Holler.” B. B. King, who’d begun making his name at the Amateur Night, knocked on the station’s door one day in 1949 and impressed station personnel with his audition. B. B. went on the air promoting Pepticon, the station’s cure-all, and his career as a recording artist, and as a product spokesperson, took off. He recorded his first single in the station’s studio during off hours.
Station owner John Pepper learned in early 1949 that WDIA, with partial black programming, had become the #2 station in the city. By the Fall of 1949, WDIA was programmed entirely for an African-American audience. A. C. “Moohah” Williams, a biology teacher at Manassas High School, became the station’s first full-time African-American employee when he was hired as promotions consultant. A. C., in addition to hosting shows and generally running things, instituted the Teen Town Singers, a choral group that was as much about camaraderie, discipline, and leadership as it was about singing. Among the early Teen-Towners were STAX 'Queen of Soul' Carla Thomas and long time station personality Mark Stansbury. Oscar winner Isaac Hayes was a regular on the station's Big Star Talent Show, and the former president of MLGW Herman Morris played on one of several station sponsored little league baseball teams.
The station’s public face was African-American, but the offices were a model for integration. In addition to the white owners, other whites were integral behind the scenes. David James Mattis was the program director. A former member of the Army Air Forces during WWII, he ran a tight ship, insisting on a professionalism that allowed the on-air personnel’s looseness to seem easy. He also established the Duke record label, which recorded much of the early talent that came through station; he later sold Duke to Don Robey in Houston. Chris Spindel facilitated programming, helping to organize shows like “Brown America Speaks,” which gave a political voice to the station.
The station’s first female African-American disc jockey was Willa Monroe, a society belle who hosted a program for homemakers. The advice program, for the lovelorn and mentally torn, was hosted by the matronly-voiced Aunt Carrie. The first gospel disc jockey was Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, a former blues singer. “My program was called ‘Prayer Time,’” Moore recollected, “and my phone would ring and I’ve had white people to say, ‘What is happening on that radio station? My maid is tearing up the house!’”
Such calls proved to the station that they were penetrating the black market. Advertisers, unaccustomed to reaching African-Amercan shoppers, had to be coaxed, but the response was strong enough that those who bought ads quickly renewed. Society was still so segregated that WDIA had to alert their advertisers that they’d be getting visits from black shoppers—lots and lots of black shoppers.
With novice DJs breaking all the broadcast rules—there were no dulcet toned jocks on WDIA, and very little restraint on the effusive personalities—the station assumed the mantle of top ranked in the city. It stayed there so solidly that other stations soon fought to be #2—because everyone knew the #1 spot was taken. Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg became Princess Premium Stuff. Ernest Brazzell gave crop advice and Robert Thomas became a DJ named “Honeyboy” after he won a city-wide amateur competition. Among other notable personalities were Maurice "Hot Rod" Hulbert, Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade, and Ford Nelson, who remains an active gospel DJ on WDIA in 2003.
The station had been broadcasting with 250 watts at 730 on the AM dial, and in June 1954 they got permission to increase to 50,000 watts, which entailed a move to 1070 on the dial. With that strong signal beaming from Memphis down into the Mississippi Delta’s dense African-American population (the signal reached from the bootheel of Missouri to the Gulf coast), WDIA was able to reach 10% of the total African-American population in the United States. A boast like that brought a lot of advertising power, including many national clients.
WDIA hadn’t set out to be the Goodwill Station, but community involvement was a natural outgrowth of its position in the city. Walking down the street in black neighborhoods, people could hear a song uninterrupted as WDIA emanated from each household. Early in the station’s history, a woman came running into the offices saying she’d lost her child. She asked that the station announce a description; the child was found, and soon WDIA was making all sorts of community announcements: missing persons, church events, even lost false teeth. The program “Workers Wanted” announced job openings; “Call For Action” put people in touch with agencies to solve problems. WDIA was like a community bulletin board. They sponsored a talent show, put on a spelling bee at Tri State Fair (where they bought the championship hog), and on summer nights they set up a movie projector in different low-income housing projects, bringing free entertainment to the kids.
With all this talent and energy, and the connections with the record labels, it was also natural for WDIA to put on a show. Around Christmastime, the Goodwill Revue brought in the best gospel, blues, R&B, and soul performers in the nation; the disc jockeys put on entertaining skits and many also performed. The Goodwill Revues were enormously successful (and spawned the Starlite Revue in the summer). None of the monies raised by these WDIA events went to the station’s operating budget—it all went toward charitable causes. WDIA gave money and food to needy families, bought busses which transported disabled black children to school, set up the Goodwill Home for Black Children, and established a Little League for black children that grew to over 100 teams for 2000 kids.
WDIA’s impact was enormous, not just in Memphis but in the whole USA. Radio stations from other cities sent representatives to study how WDIA worked, returning to establish African-American stations in their own cities. WDIA began to call itself “the Mother Station of Negroes.” In Memphis, the second black station, WLOK, opened in 1954. WDIA was sold by its original owners in 1957, but for decades after that, its spirit has thrived. WDIA celebrated a people who’d known only insult, earning a prominent place in the history of American race relations—and entertainment.
In May of 2013, WDIA will be inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.
For more information on WDIA, try reading Louis Cantor’s Wheelin’ On Beale or Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis. Special thanks to Mark Stansbury, Assistant to the President, University of Memphis, for historical input.