First Black Radio Station
When I was growing up, one of the highlights of the year was visiting our hometown of Memphis. Being a military family, we often lived miles away from our relatives in Tennessee. Still, nearly every year, we would take a family vacation and drive to Memphis. Travel by car would lend itself to scenic routes and exploration. However, the greatest joy for me was when we were able to tune in to WDIA. We usually could reach the frequency about 100 miles or so outside of Memphis. When we heard the soulful sounds of Stax Records, Motown, and the plethora of Black entertainers that pierced the airways, we knew we were almost home. WDIA was the nation's first radio station that catered to a Black audience. More than just a radio station, WDIA was the heart that pumped life into the very soul of Memphis.
The Story of WDIA
The story of WDIA began on June 7, 1947. John Pepper and Bert Ferguson, both white, owned a radio studio on Union Avenue in Memphis. Powered with 250 watts at a frequency of 730 kilohertz (kHz), the station's format was country and western, sprinkled with the soft sound of pop. Specialty programs included homemaker shows, soap operas, and classical music.
An Untapped Memphis Audience
The fledgling station had a poor start. While pondering on how to increase audience appeal, Bert Ferguson had a revelation. He suddenly realized that there was an untapped Memphis audience that no other radio station served. When it became clear that African Americans could hear 50 percent of WDIA's signal, WDIA hired the South's first Black disc jockey.
The Most Popular Radio Station in Memphis
WDIA commissioned Nat D. Williams, an African American high school teacher and syndicated columnist, to reach Memphis's Black listening audience. In October 1948, Williams started a WDIA program called "Tan Town Jamboree". As one of the first U.S. radio programs to appeal to a Black audience, the show propelled WDIA to the second most popular radio station in Memphis.
After switching to an all-Black format, the overwhelming response resulted in WDIA becoming the city's number one station. In June of 1954, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted WDIA a license to increase transmission from 250 to 50,000 watts. The increase resulted in the station's move to 1070 kilohertz (kHz). Extending to 10% of the African American population in the United States, listeners heard WDIA from the Missouri Bootheel to the Gulf Coast.
WDIA Radio Personalities
WDIA hired other radio disc jockeys who quickly became well-known household names.
WDIA personalities included:
- Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, aka "Princess Premium Stuff"
- Ernest Brazzell, the giver of crop advice
- Robert Thomas, aka Robert "Honeyboy" Thomas
- Maurice "Hot Rod" Hulbert
- Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade
- Ford Nelson, who, until 2013, acted as a gospel D.J.
As the station's popularity and influence increased, WDIA became an asset to the community. A Goodwill Fund was created in 1954 by disc jockey A.C. Williams. Often the tagline "50,000 Watts of Goodwill, W-D-I-A Memphis" would resound through the city's radio speakers.
WDIA Goodwill Fund
- Provided school transportation for disabled Black children
- Awarded college scholarships
- Established a boys' clubs
- Provided 125 little league baseball teams to Memphis and neighboring communities
- Provided low-cost supplemental housing
A.C. Williams stated, "We have raised over $900,000 over the years."
WDIA recognized talent and helped many young entertainers to launch legendary careers.
Among others, WDIA helped to launch the careers of:
- B.B. King
- Rufus Thomas
- Elvis Presley
In early 1949, B.B. King was a young, beginning entertainer with a 15-minute WDIA show advertising a medicinal tonic called Pep-Ti-Kon. King's show eventually promoted WDIA's first major advertiser, Lucky Strike cigarettes. The next year B.B. took a D.J. position on Maurice "Hot Rod" Hulbert's afternoon show. King often gave WDIA credit for giving him the freedom to build his audience and establish his career.
First Black General Manager
Until Chuch Scruggs became the general manager in 1972, the management of WDIA had been mostly white. As the first Black general manager and vice president, Scruggs served at the station for 12 years. Scruggs helped in the redevelopment of Beale Street and Stax Recording Studio, which the city refurbished as Soulsville, USA. He was also instrumental in preserving the Lorraine Motel. The motel (revamped as the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum) is where Martin Luther King Jr. got assassinated. In 2020, along with the Beale Street Historic District, WDIA became a part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Multi-Platform Media Entity
In 1985 WDIA left its location at 112 Union Avenue, near the Main Street intersection, in downtown Memphis and relocated to Southeast Memphis. The identifying neon marker remained to overlook a historical monument honoring the station's community-based goodwill accomplishments. Clear Channel Communications bought WDIA in 1996.
On September 16, 2014, Clear Channel, WDIA's parent corporation, announced its name change to iHeartMedia. The name was chosen to reflect its success, reach, and impact as a multi-platform media entity. When WDIA and its sister studios moved to Southeast Memphis, the broadcast still used a High Definition transmitter located in North Memphis. Through the mass media of the internet, audiences worldwide began hearing and experiencing the sound of WDIA. The station started using the tagline, "WDIA, The Heart and Soul of Memphis." Not only "the heart and soul of Memphis," the pulse of WDIA will forever reach the heart and touch the soul of the world.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Robert Odell Jr