5 Star Stories: Bobby O’Jay, king of Memphis radio
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - He’s the king of Memphis radio, the one and only Bobby O’Jay.
The trailblazer’s voice and personality have helped make up the fabric of the Bluff City for decades as part of the historic legacy of the Mid-South’s first African American radio station, WDIA.
As one of Memphis’ most celebrated radio personalities, O’Jay will be inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame July 31 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
O’Jay says he knew what he wanted to do early on. He was inspired by his cousin, Victory in Christ Christian Church senior pastor, Melvin Jones, who was a radio and record executive in O’Jay’s early days. One hot day in Batesville, Mississippi, when O’Jay was picking cotton, his cousin visited and O’Jay knew he wanted to follow his cousin’s path.
The 12-year-old would turn the radio dial and listen to what DJs both talked about and sounded like for years. By age 17, O’Jay remembered walking the halls of his high school, using his “radio voice.”
Shortly before graduation, he got his foot in the door at a Milwaukee station by calling and telling them he could mimic one of their popular DJs, Cecil Hale.
“One of the DJs said to me, ‘let me hear it.’ So, I went through my little, you know, mimicking. He said, ‘man, you sound just like him.’ He said ‘can you come by the radio station?’”
O’Jay eventually got a tour of the station, but back then, you needed an FCC license to be a DJ, so radio would have to wait.
O’Jay’s older brother helped him get a $1,200 loan for broadcast school right out of high school and he took a six-month course.
“It took me about a year or so to get a job on the radio,” O’Jay recalled.
Radio proved to be a rocky road. Fired within three months of taking his first gig in Birmingham, that Milwaukee station he called during high school hired him and he quickly became program director. He was green so he hired an experienced executive who needed a job.
“I hired this guy and within two months, this man had taken my job. Then he fired me,” O’Jay laughed. “He slammed his hand down on the desk and said ‘you’re telling me you’re not going to play this record?’ I said I’m not going to play it.’ He said ‘you’re fired.’ Just like that.”
After Milwaukee, O’Jay crisscrossed the nation with DJ stints in multiple cities, from Houston to Dallas to Chicago, but as his popularity rose, so did temptations.
“I had a drug problem back then,” O’Jay openly admitted.
His drug of choice was cocaine.
“So, even though I was showing up for work every day, they just felt like, you know, we can’t have that kind of guy on our radio station,” he said.
So, he moved back to Houston to return to radio there.
Humbled, O’Jay came home to Batesville for a visit.
“And I got a phone call,” he remembered. “It was Memphis’ WDIA.”
He drove the 50 miles and interviewed on the spot.
“At the end of everything, they had given me this fat contract. And they even said to me, we’re going to even give you a company car to drive and this was February of 1983, and the rest is history,” said O’Jay.
But at the time he took the job, the drugs were still in his system.
He says his large family never pried, they just prayed and so did he.
“I know my mother and father knew I was on drugs. I have a huge family. I have eight brothers and sisters. Nobody said a word to me. All they did was just pray for me. They didn’t get in my business and things like that. They just prayed for me and June 28, 1985, I just went to work one morning after being out all night and called the general manager of the radio station. I called him at his home and I said, ‘hey, man, when I get off the air today, I’m going to rehab.’ He said, ‘for what?’ I said I got a drug problem. He said, ‘well, I thought you stopped using drugs.’ I said, no man. I need some help.”
So, that day, O’Jay walked into the St. Joseph Rehab Center. “[I] stayed the 30 days, haven’t touched drugs and alcohol since,” he said.
As WDIA’s program director, O’Jay made moves that turned the industry on its head.
“Back in 1986, I decided that it would be a great idea for us to start putting talk shows on the radio station,” he recalled. At the time, most stations had one talk show per week. I wanted us to be able to talk to our listeners every day about what was going on every day.”
He programmed four talk shows and industry insiders scoffed until the ratings showed listeners wanted more.
“I started opening the phone lines on my show in the morning for people to respond to things, all kinds of things, about kids and relationships and politics, and all the things going on in the world that affect our lives. I added the ‘What’s on Your Mind Line’ to stop the music at five o’clock in the afternoon so we could talk to our listeners and they can talk back,” said O’Jay.
After 44 years in radio, O’Jay is known around the nation for his Bobbyology.
“Bobbyology is my thought pattern. I’m not willing to say just anything. I’m more willing to say things to get your attention in a positive manner. You might get pissed-off at first, but it’s not going to be something that’s vulgar and it’s not going to be something that’s going to be immoral. It’s just going to be something that maybe will shake you a little bit,” O’Jay explained.
From Billboard Music Awards to the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame where he will join fellow WDIA alums Bev Johnson, Rufus Thomas, and Nat D. Williams, O’Jay’s awards are plenty. He was moved by the Hall of Fame announcement.
“It leaves a legacy behind, you know, for my family, you know, and of course for me and it also adds to the legacy of the radio station because now it will be four of us,” he said.
These days, he eats vegan and looks back with appreciation, hoping to further WDIA’s image as a goodwill station.
“Here’s a guy who came from the cotton fields in Mississippi. Just a high school graduate, but I’ve managed to work at some of the biggest radio stations in America. I have met some of the biggest stars in America. Even though there have been some ups and downs, it’s been more fun than anything.”
You can listen to Bobby O’Jay Monday through Friday, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 1070 AM.
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