JAS CAFE CORNER – BRINGING THE BLUES TO THE RADIO
Dee Dee Bridgewater will be bringing her new show “Memphis” to the JAS Cafe on Dec. 29-10. Here’s a little background on how the sound of Memphis stayed with and influenced Dee Dee over the years.
Dee Dee’s father, a trumpet player also affectionately known as “Matt the Platter Cat” was a DJ at WDIA, the top Memphis radio station. Even when the family moved to neighboring Flint, Michigan, as a young girl Dee Dee would listen to the great sounds of the Memphis music scene by tuning-in late night from across state lines. And oh what a music scene it was!
WDIA was the first radio station in the US programmed by and for African Americans, hitting the airwaves in 1947. At that time is was one of only six stations broadcasting in Memphis. Initially programmed to appeal to the white demographic with classical, country-western, and various other musical genres, WDIA failed to distinguish itself, and in a last attempt to stave off failure, began to play Blues records. It featured shows by Beale Street legends such as Nat D. Williams, Rufus Thomas, B.B. King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. King would later attribute his success as a musician to the recognition he received from his early career airtime on WDIA.
In 1949 the station was #2 in Memphis in terms of audience. It then switched permanently to all-black programming, and quickly moved into first place. Broadcasting Blues, Gospel, and various talk programs, WDIA became known as a “direct appeal” to advertisers who wished to reach the African American demographic. Acquiring the right to broadcast at a higher wattage, the station became capable of reaching as far north as Missouri and as far south as the Gulf Coast. That range included about 10% of the black population of the United States which in turn garnered substantial advertising revenues.
Influencing every black radio station to follow, WDIA assigned itself the moniker “the Mother Station of Negroes.” It earned the nickname “the Goodwill Station” as well because it broadcast public service bulletins announcing employment opportunities, missing children, social service agency information, and the like at the behest of its listening audience.
Though the on-air talent was black, as were the artists whose music they played, ownership remained white. The office staff was racially integrated by 1950 which was rare in Memphis or any Southern city at that time. In 1997, following a series of local white owners, WDIA was bought by media giant Clear Channel Communication.
Today, WDIA’s major playlist offers very little in the way of the Beale Street Blues and Gospel that established the station, but spans the 1960s music to the present day, with significant air time devoted to the classic Soul sounds of the 1970s, and an occasional offering from its early on-air contributors B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland.