WDIA radio is branded as the “heart and soul of Memphis.” 71 years ago, it became the first radio station in the country programmed entirely for African-Americans. Its first legendary on-air personalities were ambassadors of what was known as the “goodwill station.” As Local 24 News reporter Rudy Williams tells us, today a new set of personalities carry on the radio station’s mission.
“As a kid growing up, WDIA was bigger than life. I mean here I am a little kid growing up in Mississippi and I’m listening to this radio station,” says Bobby O’Jay, WDIA Program Director & DJ.
Back then, Bobby O’Jay never could have imagined that nearly his entire radio career would be spent on the airwaves of WDIA, as the program director and DJ.
“This old radio station is still a new and fresh radio station with a history to it,” says O’Jay.
That history goes back more than seven decades. WDIA was the dawn of a new day for radio.
Bev Johnson’s name is synonymous with WDIA. Call her the un-official historian of the station.
When WDIA hit the airwaves on October 25th 1947, it played country music and little bit of this and that from studios on Union Avenue in downtown Memphis. You may have walked past the historical sign marking the spot.
A year later, WDIA station owners John Culpepper and Bert Ferguson, two white men, got the idea they’d make the station more profitable by entertaining an untapped market in the Mid-South.
“It was unheard of to be broadcasting to then the Negro community,” says Johnson.
In June of 1948, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas heard the voice of Nat D. Williams, a teacher at Booker T. Washington by day and frequent Beale Street talent show emcee by night. Williams was recruited by Ferguson and Culpepper as the station’s first black on-air personality. He hosted “The Tan Town Jubilee.”
Listeners stayed tuned into 1070 am for Mooha Williams, Rufus Thomas, Ford Nelson, and Brother Wade.
“What they said on WDIA was the truth and people believed them,” says Johnson. “… and my mentor Martha Jean Steinburg. The queen, she was known… The queen. People believed the air personalities on WDIA.”
It’s a legacy Johnson says she aspires to when she sits before the mic, sorting out the facts with power players, like an interview with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.
During the days of segregation in the Jim Crow south, WDIA was *the* trusted source in the black community.
“If there was no radio, then they only heard about it at church or word of mouth, WDIA was that catalyst,” says O’Jay.
Was and still is today.
Once the number 1 station in Memphis, listeners of all ages call into the station’s hotline to talk about hot issues. One of those calls came with a potentially deadly result; the day a man called into Johnson’s show threatening suicide.
“Dr. Dorothy Jeffries, we talked to him, and we talked to him until he didn’t do it,” says Johnson.
Ask almost any WDIA personality, and you’re guaranteed to hear a story about something the station did to help the community, from the Goodwill Revue, concerts with big name talent benefiting local charities.
“I remember we did 30 days at Hurt Village housing project. It was pretty rough,” says O’Jay.
WDIA broadcast the dire living conditions of Hurt Village to the world.
“And I think that’s why the radio station is still such a viable part of our community,” says O’Jay.
Legends in their own right, Johnson and O’Jay continue the legacy of the goodwill, good times station.
“I get that I’m not going to be here forever, but I hope the station is,” says Johnson.
2019 will be a big year for Johnson. In August, she will become the first African-American woman inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.