When Memphis Made Radio History

By Wilson, George T. | American Visions, August-September 1993 | Go to article overview

When Memphis Made Radio History


Wilson, George T., American Visions


Turn on your radio today, and wherever you are, you'll hear the roots of African-American culture pour out of it. But there was a time when the voices of African Americans could barely be heard over America's airwaves. Blacks weren't completely excluded; since the early 1920s, they have been involved in the development of popular music in radio, but the same can't be said of drama, comedy, news, quiz and variety shows. Well into the '50s, black characters, whether portrayed by black or by white actors, were stereotyped as butlers, maids and buffoons.

One of the first radio stations in the United States to develop programming by blacks for blacks was WDIA of Memphis, Tenn. No radio station in America has ever assembled a more diverse and talented cadre of black disc jockeys and entertainers than WDIA. Back in the late 1940s, a white advertising salesman quipped that WDIA stood for "We Done Integrated Already." His slight recognized an important truth.

In the early '40s, listening to the radio was the national pastime. The four major networks--ABC, CBS, C and Mutual Radio--dominated the airwaves. Less than 25 percent of stations in the United States were independent, and not affiliated with one of the majors. To attract an audience, independent stations specialized in programming that was not offered by the networks or by television, which was still in its infancy.

Until the late '40s, few independent stations (few networks, for that matter) devoted extensive programming to African Americans. The problem was sponsorship. Advertisers feared that they would alienate their white customers, particularly those in the South, if they associated their products with programming aimed at blacks. Consequently, advertisers shied away from financing all-black or racially mixed programs. In 1943, for example, there were only four radio stations in the country that offered programming specifically for blacks.

The end of World War II brought a softening in attitudes toward blacks, which encouraged some financially strapped independents to pioneer programming for the African-American market, and in the early '50s, the recognition of a sizable black consumer market made African Americans commercially attractive to sponsors.

In the fall of 1948, when WDIA began assembling its black staff, the station was floundering in red ink, so haunted by impending doom that the white general manager and partner, Bert Ferguson, had feared that selling out was the only possible salvation. Two factors changed his mind. "When I was with WHBQ--years before we put 'DIA on the air--we aimed several individual shows at the Negro audience," he recalls. "Even though the on-air personality was no Negro, the music was performed by Negroes. The shows were very successful, so that idea of programming stuck in my mind."

Chris Spindel, WDIA's first female program director, says, "The turning point came when we went to a Tennessee broadcasters convention and a speaker emphasized that the secret of success was finding the right audience." On the return to Memphis, Bert Ferguson and his partner, John Pepper, made a decision: All-black programming would turn WDIA around.

When Nat D. Williams, the first black WDIA disc jockey, went on the air, with a show called Tan-Town Jamboree, the station received 5,000 letters in the first week. According to Louis Cantor, a =[A graduate and a history teacher at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, 20 to 30 white listeners called in saying, "Get that guy off the air," but this flurry of calls soon died down.

"From Nat D.," Ferguson remembers, "we just felt our way along. As we came across performers we thought could succeed, we'd put em on the air and try 'em out. It took a year to get complete all-black programming, and even then there were skeptics. But the ever-soaring ratings confirmed the soundness of our original idea. By the early 1950s, we unquestionably had the largest radio audience in the Memphis market, and this was done with a dawn-to-dusk license, which was no small handicap in those days. …

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