5 Star Story: WDIA celebrates 75 years

Published: Jun. 27, 2023 at 10:27 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - This 5 Star Story about the people, places and things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home is 75 years in the making with plenty of goodwill and good music.

And as we finish out Black Music Month this June, it’s only appropriate that we focus on the first Black formatted radio station in the nation that’s based right here in Memphis, Tennessee.

We’re going inside the “Heart and Soul” of Memphis at the studios of AM 1070 WDIA. We caught up with the Stan “The Bell Ringer” during the last hour of his morning drive show.

Bell is a Memphis radio staple who’s worked at just about every urban radio station in Memphis.

WDIA was the first Black radio station in the country.
WDIA was the first Black radio station in the country.(Action News 5)

“So when I get up every morning at 4:30, I got to get myself in gear, think about the pioneers on the shoulders who I stand on and go in that doggone studio and give it the best I got,” said Bell as he described his daily motivation.

And it’s for good reason; WDIA is a legacy station that in October of this year will celebrate 75 years on air--a storied history that Bell, a former WDIA high school reporter, does not take for granted.

“Namely Nat D. Williams, the first Black radio announcer on WDIA. He was an educator, taught at Booker T. Washington High School history. They called him the walking textbook,” Bell said while talking about some of WDIA’s early on air personalities.

“A.C. ‘Moohah’ Williams at Manassas High School was an educator. He did the morning show. Bell was an educator himself for more than 20 years with Memphis-Shelby County Schools. You had an educator who on the other hand was on the air, so that was good for the school, for the kiddoes, someone to look up to.”

WDIA first went on air at its Union Avenue studios back in 1947 with a country western and pop format that did not do well. Within a year, the owners realized there was an untapped market in Memphis and became the first radio station in the country to cater to African Americans and soon after, it was the number two station in the market.

Bev Johnson, arguably the queen of AM radio in Memphis, taught dozens of years at Southwest Tennessee Community College while also serving as an on-air personality at WDIA for more than 40 years.

WDIA was the first Black radio station in the country.
WDIA was the first Black radio station in the country.(Action News 5)

She sat down with us shortly before her daily talk show went live.

“When Black folk didn’t have anything else to listen to, they could listen to WDIA and get the truth. They believed in the personalities that were on WDIA,” Johnson said while describing the importance of the radio station to listeners in its early days.

And according to her, listeners tuned in from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as the Missouri bootheel and still do to this day. And like so many others, Johnson was an avid WDIA listener in her youth.

“I can remember as a teenager going to the Starlight Revue,” Johnson recalled.

The station’s first female program director, Tracy Bethea, not only grew up listening to WDIA, but was also an intern when she was 19 years old.

“Radio has changed, but the programming of WDIA really has not changed in 75 years because it’s always been about community and family, and so the music won’t change. Will we grow? Yes. Will we continue to be your Goodwill and Good Times station? Absolutely,” Bethea said.

She says the station has and will continue helping families through it’s Goodwill Fund that which provided transportation to school for disabled Black children, college scholarships, boys clubs, low cost supplemental housing and Little League Baseball.

“Think about Fred Jones, Southern Heritage Classic...Fred was a WDIA Little League Baseball Player. When you think of Nat D. Williams, the first deejay of WDIA, well, James Alexandar of the Bar-Kays was a student when he was teaching,” Bethea recalled.

WDIA also helped music legends get their start like B.B. King, who joined the station in 1949 with a 15 minute daily show.

Weekend gospel personality Mark Stansbury, a former Southwest instructor himself, also grew up with WDIA in the background.

He was also a Teen Town Singer before actually landing a job there in 1958 and worked among some of the station’s early and current legends.

“Brother Leo ‘Bless My Bones’ Wade, Nat D, and A.C. Williams, but you can just go on...Robert ‘Hollywood’ Garner, Robert Thomas and Martha Jean ‘The Queen’ Steinberg. They’re all greats and, you know, Rufus and Bobby and Bev Johnson, all three in the Tennessee Hall of Fame. And I don’t think any other radio station can say that,” he boasted. “I think people know that WDIA supports them. It gives us a voice where most radio stations you can’t call into, WDIA, and that’s what we are known for morning and afternoon. And letting the people voice their opinions.”

And it’s a format that, thanks to the iHeart Radio app, can now be streamed anywhere in the world, adding even more layers to WDIA’s storied legacy.

“And I hope they understand what this station meant to Black folk and what it still means to Black folk in this community. It’s a legend,” explained Johnson.

It’s also another reason why we’re proud to call Memphis home. For more information about WDIA, click here.


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