5 Star Stories: Celebrating WLOK’s 45th anniversary

Published: May. 31, 2022 at 11:00 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It’s the 5th oldest radio license in Memphis but the first Black-owned radio station in the city.

Kym Clark visited with the man behind the company, who for 45 years now, has made WLOK 1340 AM a voice of the community.

Mornings at WLOK 1340 AM live mean programming and plenty of community-oriented discussion for and with listeners.

“Because in The Morning Show you really have to be able to react, to talk about things that are going on, at that time,” said Art Gilliam.

Gilliam is president of Gilliam Communications which bought the radio station in January 1977 making it the first Black-owned station in Memphis.

“You have a lot of things you can do culturally and for the community so, radio to me has a closeness to the community, and then that’s one of the things that I like about it,” he said.

Before the Gilliam acquisition, the radio station had been on the air for at least 20 years as a Black-oriented radio station along with WDIA, which was the first in Memphis and the country, but both were white-owned.

Gilliam was the first Black writer for the Commercial Appeal newspaper.

“After Dr. King was killed here in Memphis, I contacted the paper because they didn’t have an expression of a Black point of view,” said Gilliam. “There was a lot of controversy about The Commercial Appeal because of failure to use titles for names are just generally disrespectful of the Black community those days.”

He was also the first at WMC.

“I did it for six years I was there from 68 to 74 and mostly I did that weekend anchor and then at one point later, editorials and then certain film features,” said Gilliam.

All that while still working full time at Universal Life, at that time one of the top Black-owned insurance companies in the world.

“And so it was a kind of a focal point in the sense that during those periods you had segregation, you know, in Memphis and so when you had civil rights activities, when you have voter activities, you had a company like Universal,” said Gilliam. “And so Universal was really a central point for those kind of activities in Memphis. And so, it was an economic bastion as well as cultural and social.”

While working for Memphis Congressman Harold Ford Sr. during the mid 1970s in Washington, D.C., Gilliam decided it was firm for a change in radio ownership.

With help from the first Black federal communications commissioner, Memphis’ Benjamin Hooks, Gilliam learned his favorite childhood radio station was up for sale.

After a bit of wrangling for a few years and $725,000 later, Gilliam Communications became WLOK’s new owner and almost immediately, there were changes, most noticeably: Returning to air a popular talk show with Operation PUSH-- a then-controversial activist organization.

“The previous owners had put PUSH off the air because the advertiser had come and said, if you don’t put these guys off the air we’re gonna stop advertising with you,” said Gilliam.

Gilliam Communications put the show back on air and it’s still popular to this day under the Rainbow PUSH banner and on of the longest-running shows in Memphis radio history.

“And of course, that’s one way of serving the community is by making sure the voices that are important in the community are being heard,” said Gilliam.

The WLOK Stone Soul Picnic, a free community-wide event is now in its 47th year.

“It’s the only, only event of its kind in Memphis in terms of its a free event, it has good entertainment and you can be there all day,” said Gilliam.

Another change under Gilliam’s leadership -- in 1985, the station changed to an all gospel music format.

“So, we decided to try it at night and the format was from 7 to midnight with James Chambers, who was a familiar announcer and we were the number one station at night,” said Gilliam. “So, we realized that we were probably on to something.”

Six years ago, the radio station also began the Black film festival. And today, WLOK still thrives after a $50,000 facelift from a downtown Memphis Commission grant.

It’s three buildings on Talbot near 2nd Street with a vibrant look.

“And now, we’re doing the inside,” said Gilliam. “We’re sort of working on doing several things here inside and the emphasis is really gonna be on, on the inside, is gonna be on the history of the station.”

A history that centers on community and family and likely will for many years to come.

WLOK also awards college scholarships. It’s also been recognized by Religion & Media Monthly magazine, as well as the National Black Programmers Coalition as one of the leading gospel stations in the U.S.

In 2016, the station acquired an FM translator that now gives WLOK an FM signal, as well. Also, this year’s Stone Soul Picnic will be held at Overton Park Shell on Saturday, September 3.

Copyright 2022 WMC. All rights reserved.

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