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4 The New Memphis Sound: The Birth of Black Programming Before Dewey Phillips could become the Pied Piper of the new rhythm and blues hit parade, Mid-South radio fans would have to be shaken out of their traditional listening habits. That is precisely what happened only months before Red, Hot and Blue first aired. The breakthrough occurred late in 1948 when WDIA put the South’s first publicly recognized black disc jockey—Nat D. Williams—on the air. His immediate success was so overwhelming that it caused a shift in the station’s programming to an all-black format, something completed by the summer of 1949. By breaking the color barrier in the South, this Memphis radio station started nothing less than a national entertainment media upheaval. After 1949 stations not only in the South but also throughout the entire country began to follow WDIA’s lead and adopt some form of black programming, often by adding black deejays to their staffs.1 Bert Ferguson, WDIA’s congenial white manager and co-owner, may have quietly started a musical revolution with his all-black format, but he certainly never intended one as such. He began the experiment only because the station was going broke—and fast. He was, to put it quite simply, completely and utterly desperate.2 WDIA had come on the air in 1947 as a conventional station with conventional programming. Ferguson had tried classical music first, then country, and a finally a little bit of everything, but he was still unable to make even the slightest dent in the Hooper radio ratings. It seemed that Memphis lacked the market for yet another radio station. Going under financially and sensing the hopelessness of employing a traditional format, Ferguson decided to experiment with what was then still an unusual notion: black programming. 04.64-73_Cant.indd 64 2/8/05 1:52:11 PM The Birth of Black Programming 65 The concept had been around a short while, albeit in a scattershot form. WHBQ’s fledgling attempt to appeal to an all-black audience in Memphis during World War II was only a temporary expedient and used a white announcer. Likewise, Schwab’s Blues Time was established only because there was a war on. The program was run by regular WHBQ staff personnel—white announcers only. WDIA’s real breakthrough was the use of all-black on-air personalities . Before that there was still no such thing as a publicized black disc jockey south of the Mason-Dixon line.3 The only other radio station in the South that had attempted anything approximating a black format was Nashville’s powerful fifty thousand–watt, clear-channel WLAC, but hereagaintheexperimenthadbeenconductedwithall-whitepersonnel. Although some commercials were aimed at a black audience, WLAC’s entire format was not. Its experiment was nonetheless an innovative breakthrough, even though, like WDIA’s, it came about inadvertently. It began innocently enough when legendary white deejays Bill “Hoss” Allen, Gene Nobles, and John Richbourg (“John R.”) began playing race musicexclusivelyonlate-nightradioinNashville.ThoughNobles,Allen, and John R. were incalculable innovators, the real “grand old papas” of the rock ’n’ roll revolution (the “Holy Trinity of rocking white deejays” asBrianWardhaslabeledthem),thetasktheyaccomplishedwassimplicity itself.4 All they did was successfully persuade station management, which insisted on sticking to its traditional format during the day, to allow them to experiment late in the evening hours with shows featuring up-and-coming black artists. Until that time WLAC, like all the other radio stations in the South, had mistakenly assumed that its audience consisted almost exclusively of white people who would be offended by the boogie and blues sounds of black artists.5 Nothingcouldhavebeenfurtherfromthetruth,aswasquicklyevident from stacks of mail that began to pour into the radio station instantly. “People started writing in from El Paso to Richmond,” remembers Hoss Allen, “and from Detroit to New Orleans and from the Bahamas and all over.”6 In no time at all, WLAC began devoting its entire evening programming to the new black sound. With its powerful signal booming throughout the South—sound traveled even further during evening hours—thestationquicklyaccumulatedanaudienceofblacksandwhites far beyond its wildest expectations. Thus, almost effortlessly, WLAC had invented black programming, which in the South in the days before WDIA meant having the white deejays at the station play black artists and, between records, read com04 .64-73_Cant.indd 65 2/8/05 1:52:11 PM DEWEY AND ELVIS 66 mercials for products geared for what white sponsors assumed black people would...


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