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WLOK Celebrates 40 Years of Black Ownership

Q&A with Station Owner Art Gilliam

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Forty years ago, WLOK 1340 AM became the city's first black-owned and first locally owned radio station when former WMC-TV news anchor Art Gilliam purchased the soul music station from William F. Buckley's Starr Broadcasting.

Even before Gilliam's purchase, the station was only the second in Memphis to offer programming to black audiences. It quickly became a competitor with the first such station, WDIA, which focused on R&B.

"When I was a teenager, I listened to WLOK. It came along as a more youth-oriented station," Gilliam said.

After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, tensions rose over the fact that a station with programming for black audiences was owned by white management. In 1970, the on-air staff walked out in a protest over low wages and poor working conditions.

WLOK will celebrate 40 years of black ownership on Saturday, June 4th with an event at the Orpheum featuring Al Green, the Brown Singers, the Gospel Four, the Tennessee Mass Choir, and the Stax Academy Alumni Band. The show begins at 7 p.m. — Bianca Phillips

Art Gilliam
  • Art Gilliam

Flyer: What made you want to buy a radio station?

Art Gilliam: I was the first black television anchor in Memphis back in the 1960s and early '70s. That sparked my interest in media. When Harold Ford Sr. was elected to Congress, I left WMC and went to Washington as his administrative assistant. That's how I began to start pursuing the actual purchase of the station. Ben Hook was an FCC commissioner at that time. I went to him for advice, and he provided information that led me to a radio broker firm that was handling the sale of WLOK.

Your purchase of WLOK was just a few years after Dr. King's assassination. How important was it for WLOK to be black-owned?

There was a tremendous need. As an aside, WLOK was the first media outlet in the country to make the announcement that Dr. King had been killed. The station is located just two blocks from the Lorraine [Motel], and somebody had run down from the Lorraine to let the on-air announcer know. That was Bill Adkins, who is a minister here now.

The previous owner had put Operation PUSH, which was considered by some to be militant civil rights organization, off the air because they were advocating for civil rights in some very strong ways. Some of the advertisers had approached the previous owners and told them they were going to stop advertising if they didn't take Operation PUSH off the air. And they took them off the air.

Black ownership understood the significance of Operation PUSH and other civil rights activities in the black community. We put Operation PUSH back on the air.

Wasn't Al Green the first person to congratulate you on the purchase?

He was a superstar, and I knew him only slightly. But because of the significance of black ownership, he came by to congratulate me. He was the first person to come by.

Weren't there parallels with WLOK's format and Al Green's career?

Al Green was an R&B artist, and we played R&B and soul. And we moved into a gospel format around the same time he started performing more gospel. There was quite a parallel.

Why did WLOK switch to a gospel format in 1980s?

We thought there was a demand for gospel. We're an AM station, and the best place on the dial for gospel was on the AM band. We'd been doing some gospel in the mornings, so we thought we'd add some additional gospel during the day, and it worked out well.

With the popularity of satellite and streaming radio, where do you see WLOK going in the future?

The key for any radio format is it's a very personal medium. We have an extremely loyal audience at WLOK. As long as radio stations can maintain that level of personal identification with their audience, then I think radio has a very bright future.

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