I recently stopped by the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library to see a local legend at work. No, it wasn't some superhero librarian working the stacks. I was down in the basement, where George Klein was celebrating the taping of his 150th episode of Memphis Sounds on WYPL, the library's broadcast wing (channel 18 on local cable, 89.3 on your FM dial, and streaming on the internet).
Klein was every bit the professional and in very fine fettle as he wrapped up the broadcast. Of course, he's an old hand at such things, having started in television with 1964's Talent Party, not to mention his years of DJ'ing before that. He recounted to me how he first persuaded Talent Party's producers to integrate the show. “They said, 'Okay, we'll do it. But you've got to get a big star to start with. I called Fats Domino, who was an old friend, and he agreed. He insisted that I personally pick him up at the airport. So as we were on our way to the station, he tells me to stop at a liquor store. I told him, 'Fats, you know that's against FCC rules to drink on the show.' He said, 'I know George, but here's what we'll do. You get me a little paper cup and I'll keep it down on the floor while I'm playing, and then I can take a little sip now and then'.”
Once he'd hosted Fats, it was an easy matter to get James Brown and many other great African-American artists on the show, which was on the air until 1973.
But while Klein was one of the first to take the Memphis Sound to the airwaves via WYPL, he's now being joined by other DJ's on the station's radio channel. Every night of the week is dedicated to a different aspect of Memphis music, drawing on the library's deep archive of local artists' output. There are shows on Memphis music of the 60s, the 70s, gospel, soul, Sun Records, and current sounds. And with the radio programs live-streamed online, WYPL is taking these sounds around the globe.
“Honestly it all comes from the upgrades we've done in the last two years,” says station manager Tommy Warren. “The city of Memphis has put in a lot of upgrades. You can do so much more with the latest computer software; we're actually able to do more with the same amount of staff.
“The Memphis music programming promotes the Memphis music collection that we have here in the library. Over the last few years while we've been doing that, I've had my two radio producers working on those shows, but with all the equipment upgrades and reevaluating what we do, we decided that the Memphis music programming is now what we need to focus on as far as building up. And that's where we've started having people come in and start volunteer hosting these shows. And we've gotten really good feedback in the short amount of time we've been doing it. And I think the streaming of the shows has a lot to do with it. Everybody knows how much people love Memphis music. We look at ourselves as a marketing branch for both the library and the city of Memphis.”
But Warren adds that the daytime programming of live readings of current magazines and newspapers, a public service for the vision and reading impaired, is still important to the station. “We have readings 365 days a year. People overlook the significance of that program, until you need that program. The audience that we have for that depends on our programming more than other radio audiences do.”