How the US Got Its First Black Radio Station


In 1948, Memphis channel WDIA became a community voice and a rock ‘n’ roll star-maker.

Joe Hill Louis, aka The Be-Bop Boy (right) was one of WDIA’s DJs in the early 1950s. MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

ALTHOUGH NEARLY 10 PERCENT OF the United States’s population was African-American following World War II, you wouldn’t know it by listening to the radio, the main form of entertainment at the time. White voices—almost exclusively male—dominated the airwaves. Even the actors portraying the African-American leads in the popular Amos and Andy radio program, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, were white.

White men owned the nation’s radio stations, too, and they programmed for white audiences. As a result, mainstream radio stations sounded very similar, which is why WDIA struggled to find an audience when it became Memphis’ sixth radio station in June 1947.

Like its competitors, WDIA initially featured white male radio personalities playing country and pop hits that appealed to white listeners, like “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” by Tex Williams and “Time After Time” by Frank Sinatra. Similarly, its news and commentary reflected the interests of white Memphians even though roughly 40 percent of the city’s population was African-American.

Facing bankruptcy in October 1948, WDIA’s white owners, Bert Ferguson and John R. Pepper, realized they had to take a risk if they wanted to save their station. Instead of focusing their entire programming on white listeners, they decided to introduce a half-hour show aimed at “a big segment of the population that had musical tastes and community needs that were not being answered,” according to Ferguson in a recorded interview 20 years later.
Nat D. Williams at the mic, interviewing for WDIA. DR. ERNEST C. WITHERS, SR. COURTESY OF THE WITHERS FAMILY TRUST

Tan Town Jubilee premiered that October with Nat D. Williams, an African-American syndicated columnist, high school teacher, and local talent show host, playing blues records from his own collection. Aside from a few initial bomb threats from whites, it was well received. In fact, so many African Americans tuned in to listen to “Nat D.” that WDIA rapidly rose to the number two spot in the market.

In an interview with the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, singer and WDIA personality Rufus Thomas likened the program’s debut to when Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier to become the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. For the first time, what African Americans in Memphis heard on the radio, in that half hour, was a reflection of their community.

Toni Bell, who grew up listening to WDIA and worked at the station in the 1980s, says hearing Williams, Thomas, and other African-American personalities on the radio meant so much because no one on the air before spoke directly to their community or addressed the issues that concerned them.

“WDIA was the only place we could get someone black talking to us,” she says.



  1. A great story, I would have really enjoyed much of that programming .

    It is sad that RAP and it’s hate of women, police, worship of Money, Drugs, and the rest has seemed to dominate what was once such a positive message .

    Makes me wonder why the Worshipped POTUS Obama and his Wife never took the opportunity to speak against the RAP music and culture that encouraged the abuse and disrespect of women, Cops, straight productive employment, and everything else negative about RAP .

    If anyone could have shown young people RAP was a Cancer in Society it was the Obamas, imagine how much they could helped get a better productive message across to young people of all religions and ethnicities by coming out against the RAP Culture and exposing it for what it really is .

    Instead they embraced the worst of the RAP Culture and Millions of young people’s futures have been lost .

    How sad, what could have been .

    And PC SJW thought Obama was cool and great . Think again .


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here