WDIA was by no means the first U.S. radio station to hire black broadcasters. It was the first in the U.S. south to go with an all-black format. But other black broadcasters preceeded Nat D. and company in other parts of the country.
In the early days of radio, blacks were stereotyped in a negative way. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the show “Amos and Andy”, an insulting portrayal of African-Americans that drew complaints from the NAACP. There was also the character of “Rochester” on the Jack Benny Show. Black announcers on network radio were, of course, unknown. And most of the top black dramatic actors were ignored by the white-controlled networks.
It was not all bad news, however. Many distinguished black musicians appeared on the national airwaves, among them Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson. And there was black programming, albeit limited, on local stations.
The first black radio announcer was the legendary Jack L. Cooper, who first appeared on the Chicago airwaves in 1929 with a show called “The All-Negro Hour” on WSBC. By the late ’30s, this one hour of black radio had expanded to 10 hours a week. At this time Cooper’s show, according to some estimates, extended into “half the black homes in Chicago.” When Nat D. Williams made his first appearance at WDIA in 1948, WSBC was already devoting nearly 20 hours a week to black programming. In addition, Cooper’s production company had an estimated 150 shows on numerous other stations at the time.
Other black radio pioneers included Atlanta’s WJTL, which in 1935 offered a daily 15-minute newscast about the black community and delivered by black announcers. There was also Sonny Boy Williamson, who sang – but did not announce – on a daily 15-minute show called “King Biscuit Time” on KFFA in Helena, Ark. (The name was derived from the program’s sponsor, King Biscuit Flour).
Further inroads were made by another Sonny Boy, whose real name was Rice Miller. The second Sonny Boy, often called Sonny Boy II, persuaded KFFA’s white owner to give him a daily 15-minute show. The listening public liked it so much that the Saturday version was expanded to 30 minutes. The show’s format consisted of Sonny Boy and his group the King Biscuit Boys playing music while being introduced by a white announcer. Initially, Sonny Boy and crew were paid nothing but later made $10 a week for their on-air appearances. Howver, it must be added that Sonny Boy promoted his Helena appearances on the show, which boosted audiences and his own bankroll.
Not only was WDIA not the first station with black announcers, there is even some argument to the claim that Nat D. was the first black announcer in the south. According to a Pittsburgh newspaper article, Keith Knight, program director for black-programmed WERD Atlanta starting in 1949, had worked as announcer at WROD in Daytona Beach, Fla., for several years prior to that. Also Theodore Bryant is said to have appeared in Chattanooga, Tenn., prior to Nat D. at WDIA, but he was not promoted as being a black man. Nat D.’s claim is that he was the first black dee-jay promoted as such.
Within a year of Nat D.’s debut, WERD in Atlanta and WEDR in Birmingham, Ala., followed WDIA’s example and converted to all-black programming. It was the beginning of a renaissance in black broadcasting. By the mid-50s, Detroit dentist Haley Bell had become the first black to build a station from the ground up: WCHB in Inkster, Mich.; to this day it is black owned and black programmed. Many other U.S. stations – including those in the U.S. South – were entirely or partly-owned by blacks by the mid-1950s.
Even though it was always the leader, WDIA did have competition for the black market in Memphis. In 1949, WHBQ became the second Memphis station to go all black; it had carried some black appeal shows as far back as the 1930s. WHBQ’s big early star was George W. Lee, who did his show live from his Atlanta Life Insurance Company office on Beale St. However, his on-air appeal didn’t measure up and he lasted only a short time. Ironically, it was a white man who would boost WHBQ’s fortunes.
In the early ’50, it became commonplace for stations to hire white men, who sounded or appealed to blacks, to do a black music show. One example of this was Dewey Phillips at WHBQ. Phillips was launched at WHBQ in October, 1949 with a nighttime show called “Red, Hot and Blue.”
Even though he was white and made no concerted attempt to sound black, listeners thought he was. Other white announcers of the period who sounded black included John R. at WLAC, George Lorenz at WKBW and Hunter Hancock at KGFJ. Reflecting the racist mood of the times, a white man playing black music and sounding black was “legitimized” the music in the eyes of white listeners and advertisers.
However, the result was positive for black music: it helped popularize it and bring it into the cultural mainstream. And black-programmed stations thrived.
Since WDIA was a daytime-only station until 1954, other Memphis stations attempted to grab the nighttime audience. WHHM featured Benny Fields from 10 p.m. to midnight, but he failed to catch on. Later, “Screamin'” Eddie Teamer did much better in the 9 p.m. to midnight spot with a mixture of jazz, swing, bebop, spiritual gospel music. However, WDIA cut into that audience when it went 50,000 watts daytime, 5,000 nighttime in 1954.
WLOK adopted an all-black format on June 18, 1954. Dee-jays such as Dick “Kane” Cole proved popular but its weak 1,000 watt signal proved no match for the 50,000 watts of WDIA. In fact, WLOK went to an all-black format the day before WDIA went to 50,000, so it was an uphill battle for WLOK.
By the mid-50s, big city stations like WDAS in Philadelphia, WWDC in Washington, D.C., WEFC in Miami and WLOU in Louisville, Ky., all had black formats and many more were on the way. Radio’s color line hadn’t just been broken, it had been obliterated.
Today, black musical artists and black-programmed radio stations command a huge share of the entertainment market. The days of struggling for air time on white-owned radio stations are a distant memory. Yet, we mustn’t forget those who paved the way – the pioneers of black radio broadcasting.