In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Caitlin talks about WDIA, the first all-Black radio station in the U.S.A. We learn about how the transformation of this station into all-black programming and on-air talent exposed some of the best local talent to become major music icons we recognize today.
On June 7, 1947, WDIA transmitted onto the radio waves for the first time from its 2074 Union Avenue studio... one of just six Memphis radio stations at that time! Owned by John Pepper and Bert Ferguson, two white guys, the station played pop and country western music… and it headed towards bankruptcy very quickly. However, in October of 1948, they hired high school teacher and columnist Nat D. Williams, who started the first radio show for black listeners in the country on WDIA and saved the station.
Williams' show, Tan Town Jubilee, catapulted WDIA to 2nd most popular radio station in Memphis. The station then became the TOP station in Memphis after switching to all-black programming and all-black on-air talent. In 1954, the station increased to 50,000 watts, which meant it reached into the MS Delta, a bit of Missouri, and down to the Gulf Coast… which reached the ears of 10% of the black population in the US at that time. The station would go on to be known as the Starmaker Station because of the amount of exposure it provided local talent.
One thing that was really instrumental in the station’s success was that Williams was friends with Rufus Thomas, and got him onto the station… Thomas actually kept up his show until his death in 2001. Their ties to Beale Street got BB King’s career off to a start on the station as well as many other musicians. After Beale began declining, WDIA was really a big source of musical influence (even inspiring good ol’ Elvis Presley).
Another famous show on the station was called Goodwill. It covered civic news, missing children announcements, and raised money for community projects like scholarships, a bus for disabled kids, little league teams, and an orphanage, to name a few. The show turned into big fundraisers hosted by the WDIA DJ’s called the Goodwill Revue and the Starlight Revue. Big time local and national musicians like BB King, Rufus Thomas, Bobby “Blue” Bland, the Spirit of Memphis, Elvis, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, and Ray Charles performed for free. The local black community received about $100,000 a year from all of the Goodwill efforts.
Even though black talent and programming made WDIA so popular, and the staff was integrated in 1950 (rare for the South), it wasn’t until 1972 that Chuck Scruggs became the first black general manager and vice president. Under his 12-year service, the station helped raise money to preserve the Lorraine Motel and create the National Civil Rights Museum, and participated in the revitalization of Beale Street and the creation of the Stax Museum.
For full show notes go to memphistypehistory.com/WDIA