50,000 Watts of Goodwill: Earlier this month, legendary local AM station WDIA released an inaugural project, a double-disc archival compilation, on its own WDIA Records imprint. The CD, which is titled WDIA AM 1070: The History, The Music, The Legend, was compiled by veteran on-air personality James Davis, who has been with the station since the mid-'90s.
While Davis is somewhat new to the scene at WDIA, he's well-schooled in the station's historic legacy that of becoming, in 1948, the first radio station in the country to be programmed by African Americans for an African-American listenership.
"I remember listening to 'DIA as a kid," Davis says. "And back in '98, when we were preparing for our 50th anniversary, we prepared a 15-minute video on the history of the station and realized the wealth of material we had on hand."
Davis says that the material that made its way onto this two-disc set was culled from various sources delicate glass and aluminum records, reel-to-reels, and cassette tapes and was sent to a transmitter site when the station relocated from downtown Memphis to its current offices out east.
"Things weren't stored properly, and it was almost a calamity," says Davis, crediting the station's chief engineer, Alonzo Pendleton, with saving the archives. "We were losing a lot of stuff, and we needed to put it into a permanent format, so he set up all the equipment record players that played 78, 16, and 33 rpm speeds and a cassette machine in a room where I could get all these things played."
What Davis found was a treasure trove of recordings public service announcements and radio jingles half a century old and vintage commentary from deejays such as AC "Moohah" Williams, Nat D. Williams, Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade, Rev. AD "Gatemouth" Moore, and Rufus Thomas.
Listening to disc one of WDIA AM 1070 is like traveling in a time machine to downtown Memphis, circa the early '50s. Urban African Americans had established their own society, touted over the air via programs such as "The Hoot and Holler" and "The Tan Town Jamboree." A fund-raising concert called "The Goodwill Revue" which drew regional and national talents such as Ray Charles, Howlin' Wolf, Pigmeat Markham, and even Elvis Presley was in full swing, with earnings earmarked for such WDIA-centric civic activities as the city's first black baseball little league, its first school for handicapped African-American children, the Keel Avenue School, and the Teen Town Singers, which groomed nascent performers such as Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes for stardom. In those days, the "Goodwill Station" also posted a regular lost-and-found for listeners, even one time famously locating an errant cow.
Like the station's current playlist, disc two of WDIA AM 1070 is Stax-heavy. J. Blackfoot, The Bar-Kays, William Bell, The Mad Lads, and Johnny Taylor all weigh in with their only-in-Memphis sound.
"Once we got going, more and more people got on board," says Davis, who mentions Carl Wise and Select-O-Hits owner Johnny Phillips as the facilitators for the project's musical component.
"[Studio co-founders Bert] Ferguson and John Pepper backed into this whole thing," Davis says, explaining how WDIA came to make broadcasting history. "They wanted to make money, but, at the same time, they held the African-American community in high esteem. They had the courage to treat the folk with dignity and respect."
A decade ago, media conglomerate Clear Channel purchased the station, but, Davis insists, it's still business as usual at WDIA. "In the minds of our listeners, it belongs to the community as much as it belongs to Clear Channel," he says.
"People in the Mid-South feel an ownership of the station. Make any changes here, and you'll hear about it. I direct community affairs, and people still call about the same issues they called in about 50 years ago. If you need help, and you don't know where to turn, you call WDIA."
WDIA AM 1070: The History, The Music, The Legend is available at local record stores. For more information, go to AM1070WDIA.com or read Louis Cantor's definitive history of the station, Wheelin' on Beale, which was published by Pharos Books in 1992.