Today as we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, it is good to remember the contribution of African-American radio stations in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Dr. King’s speeches and sermons on AM radio in the 1950s and 1960s rallied the faithful and promoted peace, justice and equality.
Dr. King’s voice was wonderfully suited to AM radio. He appeared dozens of times on WDIA, Memphis, the first all-black formatted radio station. WDIA inspired many other stations to adopt the format.
The definitive history of WDIA is the book Wheelin’ on Beale by Louis Cantor. It is out-of-print but copies are available at amazon [link].
The book tells the story of the founding and early years of WBIA.
After World War 2, the FCC approved the construction of hundreds of new commercial radio stations. The competition led to format-focusing. The first station to focus full-time on the African-American community was WDIA in Memphis. Similar stations soon signed on in many other cities and across the rural South.
In 2015 I produced a YouTube video about WDIA based on a 1953 promotional tape I found online featuring the voice of WDAI’s founder Bill Ferguson. The tape was intended to tell the story of WDIA and black radio for ad agencies in New York, Chicago and Atlanta.
WDIA was truly The Good Will station. I get chills when I hear Bill Ferguson describing the mission of WDAI. This is the spirit radio needs to have more of today:
Now we are talking about a radio station, which has become the member of the family, so to speak, because of it’s unique personal involvement with each individual listener. We thread these people together like a string of beads. And so create this single, solid, responsive market. They are an emotionally responsive unit, stimulated by WDIA.
WHERE TO HEAR THE HISTORY OF BLACK RADIO
In 1995 when I was Director News at then American Public Radio, now Public Radio International (PRI) I had the honor of working with Wesley Horner from Radio Smithsonian to promote and market the 13-part radio documentary Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was.
The series tells the story of radio's role in the evolution of America's black communities and the many contributions made by African-Americans to the history of broadcasting.
It was produced Jacquie Gales Webb and hosted by Lou Rawls.
|Jacquie Gales Webb working with Stevie Wonder|
Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was won a George Foster Peabody Award from the University of Georgia, an Alfred I. DuPont Silver Baton from Columbia University and numerous other honors.
The series was supported, in part, by CPB but is now hard to find in any audio format. Smithsonian unwisely sold its media catalog to private vendors in the early 2000s. A complete description of Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was (with no audio) can be accessed at Indiana University’s archives [link].
Jacquie Gales Webb is still active in radio today. She hosts Sunday Afternoon Gospel on WHUR in Washington, DC, from Noon to 3:00pm.
Jacquie has a very nice page on WHUR’s website [link] and I know she loves to hear from public radio pals.