23 minutes | Sep 2, 2020

Episode Four: Firsts in Memphis

This episode is about Firsts in Memphis. It occurred to me, after several tours of our favorite place, Elmwood Cemetery, that our city has numerous things that happened for the first time, here in our city. We’re going to talk about a few of them today. We’ll revisit this topic periodically, we’ve got a few more on the list, but if you have any suggestions, of course, please let us know! “We are not trying to prove we can get along in a world without men. We are simply trying to prove that when a group of women make up their collective minds that they are going to do something successfully, no force on earth can keep them from it.” -Dorothy Abbott, Assistant Manager and Program Director of WHER.  This quote was from the program director of the first all female radio station.   WHER was started in 1955 by none other than Sam Phillips, the man behind helping to make Elvis famous. Phillips used the money he received from selling Elvis’ recording contract to start the station. According to Philips, he created the station from his love of radio and his curiosity of hearing women’s voices on the air. Women ran the entire operation - everything from being on air personalities to engineering their programs. Phillips' wife, Becky, was one of the first djs. He drew women from all over the Memphis area, most who had no experience in radio. He employed models, actresses, telephone operators, and housewives, just to name a few. WHER was recorded and broadcast out of the third ever Holiday Inn (another Memphis first we will discuss in a moment), in a studio named the Doll Bin. It was decorated all pink and girly. The djs delivered news and played music on the air, conducted interviews with local celebrities, created and sold commercials, produced and directed the programming and ran the control boards. The radio station ran from 1955-1973. WHER inspired women everywhere to start similar stations.   In sticking with the radio theme, Memphis is also home to the first radio station programmed for African Americans with African American on-air personalities. WDIA was originally created in 1947 as a country, western, and light pop station, and it failed. The owners of the station, John Pepper and Bert Ferguson, both white, decided to take the station in another direction. They hired Nat G. Williams, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, to be the DJ of the Tan Town Jubilee, the first program to appeal to black listeners. This new show exploded and the station switched formats to an all black programming station. It became the number one station in Memphis.   WDIA was known as the “Starmaking Station”. Many musical legends, such as BB King and Rufus Thomas, got their start at WDIA. King started out hosting a 15min show and then moved on to hosting a full afternoon program. It was during his show that the station got their first major advertiser. BB King credits the station for helping to launch his career. By 1954, WDIA increased its power to 50,000 watts making it possible to be heard from the Missouri bootheel to the Gulf Coast.  Also, in 1954, the station created the Goodwill Fund. Originally it was designed to transport disabled African American children to school and then later it grew to be an organization that offered college scholarships, established boys clubs, provided little league teams, and helped provide low cost supplemental housing. Until 1972, the station management had been an integrated one, which was pretty uncommon for the time, but that year, Chuck Scruggs was promoted to general manager. He became the first black general manager at the station. Mr. Scruggs did more than just run a number one radio station, he helped preserve one of Memphis’s historic sites, the Lorraine Motel. When it was in danger of being torn down, he donated the money to save it and helped create the Civil Right Museum. WDIA, the heart and soul of Memphis, is still running today,
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