John R. Pepper II died this week at the age of 91. When he was 32 years old, he and Bert Ferguson took failing Memphis radio station whose programs were aimed–as were all radio programs in 1947–at white listeners, and created the first station aimed at black folks.
Rufus Thomas and B.B. King became disc jockeys here, with the latter recording his first song during off-hours in one of the station’s studios. According to the WDIA history (see link below), “the first gospel disc jockey was Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, a
former blues singer. ‘My program was called ‘Prayer Time,’’ Moore
recollected, ‘and my phone would ring and I’ve had white people to say,
‘What is happening on that radio station? My maid is tearing up the
While WDIA began during times of rigorous segregation, day to day operations were a model of integration. Again, quoting from the history, “WDIA’s impact was enormous, not just in Memphis but in the whole USA.
Radio stations from other cities sent representatives to study how WDIA
worked, returning to establish African-American
stations in their own cities. WDIA began to call itself “the Mother
Station of Negroes.” In Memphis, the second black station, WLOK, opened
in 1954. WDIA was sold by its original owners in 1957, but for decades
after that, its spirit has thrived. WDIA celebrated a people who’d
known only insult, earning a prominent place in the history of American
race relations—and entertainment.”