Let’s Put Him on the Air

By  |  February 2, 2014
"Twins at WDIA" by Dr. Ernest C. Withers Sr. © 1948. Courtesy of the Withers Family Trust, www.witherscollection.org "Twins at WDIA" by Dr. Ernest C. Withers Sr. © 1948. Courtesy of the Withers Family Trust, www.witherscollection.org

Late on a moonlit spring night in 1948 I was traveling west on a meandering road, headed home toward Memphis. Four of us from radio station WDIA had driven to Nashville to attend a convention of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters. To save money on hotel bills we left after the closing banquet. Bert Ferguson, our general manager, was driving and I was in the front passenger seat at his request. Our production manager, Don Kern, and a salesman were asleep in the back seat. The two-lane highway from Nashville to Memphis took us directly down the main street of each small town—houses darkened, grocery, post office, and hardware stores closed, a moment in a dimly lit town square, then out into the night again.

I was twenty-three and had been working at WDIA for one year, as long as the station had been on the air. Like any new radio station, we had attracted curious listeners and trial advertisers. But this early attention was flagging, taking our advertisers with it. We had only 250 watts from dawn to dusk with which to pitch our programs against four giants riding the national networks. Disc jockeys who had become local celebrities and women appealing to homemakers chatted away mornings and afternoons on the other stations, and Arthur Godfrey dominated the CBS affiliate. We had tried and failed to lure away their listeners and the advertisers who supported them.

At the broadcasters’ association, successful radio executives had focused on the necessity of beaming each program to a specific audience. All around us, the banquet speaker stressed, were audiences without programs, people with particular needs and interests. Bert’s car passed peaceful farmhouses where everyone lay asleep, but I stared out at the moonlit fields in a desperate reverie. We had music—country, popular, classical—but so far I had failed as program director to match any of our programs with a new audience and increase the number of listeners. Ages, times of day, men, women—possible matchups flickered in and out of my head.

Unexpectedly, Bert asked me to move a little closer to him on the seat. I edged over and waited but he didn’t speak. After a long moment he whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “What do you think of programming for Negro people?”

When the words finally reached my consciousness, my mental skies lit up with a flash. The minuscule audiences I had been searching for disappeared like candles when the lights come on again. The four other Memphis stations were dividing the white audience, competing to keep their share, and we had tried and failed to divide it again. Here was another audience of listeners nearly as large as all five put together—tens of thousands of people with names and faces who had served me at restaurants and ridden on the same bus. This vast, untouched audience was far more clearly defined and far more reachable than the nebulous groups we hoped to attract with our patchwork of music. Most devastating to my pride was that it had never occurred to me that although Negro people had many institutions of their own, including a newspaper, the Memphis World, they had no radio.

“Would you object to working alongside Negro people at the station?” Bert asked me. I said I wouldn’t.

We could play records by Negro musicians and singers and then branch out, experimenting with other programs, he whispered. We would start by hiring a Negro disc jockey. Then he suddenly stopped talking. Without words, we agreed for the moment to ignore the ugly realities this turnaround in programming might ignite. I moved back to my side of the car and we drove in silence for the remainder of the trip.

At that moment, on that highway, I began to transpose radio from white to black. Radio was a world of endless possibility and all we had to do was beam the best in weather, news, information, and entertainment toward a Negro audience. WDIA would be the first to do it!

The next morning I walked into the station with a light heart. We had left troubled by our failure to attract listeners, desperate to find ways to divert part of the Memphis radio audience, and miraculously, by a stroke of genius it seemed to me, Bert himself had provided the answer on the way home. We no longer risked financial ruin but could look forward to a successful future. Our work lay spread out clearly before us; we had a purpose and I had a personal and productive part to play. As if I were flying over the city, I could picture the Negro people I passed every day walking out of their houses and saying, “Here we are. Why didn’t you think of us before?”

I expected Bert to greet me with some recognition of our conversation the night before. Maybe he wouldn’t do it overtly, but surely he would make some discreet sign of our conspiracy. He might casually mention that we needed to talk later. I told him how much I had benefited from the convention and he seemed pleased but unresponsive. He was almost dismissive, which was not at all the way he had been the night before and not at all like Bert. I was puzzled as I went upstairs to my office. Had second thoughts sobered his judgment? Overnight the subject seemed to have been considered, discarded, and was now taboo.

 

I waited and watched, but in no way did Bert acknowledge what we had talked about on the night drive from Nashville. Nor did he tell me he had decided to abandon the plan. When we met, to my disappointment, he discussed the same programming we had talked about before the convention. “We already have a jump on the other stations. We broadcast our news five minutes before the hour,” he said, giving me a look that I took to mean:Don’t mention the other talk we had, don’t bring it up. We added a symphony in the afternoon, book reviews, and from a list of canned programs, we chose “Voices from the Past,” biographies and recordings of famous people who were now dead. I presumed that Bert must have decided he couldn’t risk his and his business partner John Pepper’s financial investment, that he couldn’t put anyone in danger. I knew exactly why Bert had whispered his plan to me at midnight on a lonely road. In the spring and summer of 1948, the battle over desegregation (as we called it then, for we couldn’t imagine integration) was tearing apart the Democratic Party and the country. It was a grim and fiery political pit and it could be dangerous for anyone, Negro or white, to go stumbling around its edges.

Even though I accepted that it was not possible to start broadcasting to the Negro people of Memphis that summer, I still hoped that the political climate would improve in a few years and we would be able to do it then. I began to take a proprietary interest in the darker faces around me; they were our future listeners. As I walked the mile and a half from Union Avenue to my apartment, I could count on passing a cook going to work, or a workman with his round molasses lunch bucket swinging from his arm. People I had taken for granted were now the ones I watched for information: the young women who carried my tray in Britling’s Cafeteria for a ten-cent tip, the legendary tuxedoed waiters at the elegant Skyway on top of the Peabody Hotel, where I occasionally went on a date, the men and women who gave up their seats to me on the bus or sat above me in the balcony when my younger sister Jane talked me into going to the movies with her. On Thursday nights the downtown stores stayed open and I watched as the whites strolled through the open doors of stores and restaurants while the Negro people continued walking along the street to the bus stops. Young and unimportant as I was, I knew that no Negro man or woman, regardless of age, education, intelligence, or accomplishment, would step in front of me to be waited on, call me by my first name, or knock on my front door and expect to be invited into my home.

All that summer I listened to the exchanges between the white bus drivers and their Negro passengers. If a Negro didn’t go quickly to the back, or replied even mildly, some drivers started the bus and then slammed on the brakes. The Negro passengers in the aisle had to grab the seats in front of them to keep from falling. But carefully! Heaven forbid they touch a white person’s shoulder. Their patience astounded me, but now I also noticed the upset in their faces. When a bus passed the last mowed lawn and entered a neighborhood of small rundown houses cramped close together, I knew I was in a Negro section. What struck me now was that city maintenance ended at that line—their streets were filled with potholes.

By mid-October the cotton bolls had burst and the fields were covered with fluffy white puffs. Pickers gathered every morning on the street corners and in front of the Employee Security Department to wait for growers and overseers who would drive them across the Mississippi for a day of hard labor in the cotton fields of Mississippi and Arkansas. I saw them sitting on benches in the backs of pickups, or standing, protected only by two shaky wooden rails.

When I walked into the station one morning, Bert was standing in the front hall. He walked over to me immediately and told me he had decided to go ahead with it. I knew instantly what “it” meant. He had found the perfect host, he added, Nat D. Williams, a history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. Williams, I learned later, was also a columnist for the Memphis World and served as master of ceremonies at every important African-American event in the city. He would start the following week, so we had about ten days to pull the program together.

The first thing I did was tell the women in the copy department what was happening. They didn’t say much in response to my brief announcement. Then I pulled out my trusty yellow legal pad and tried to come up with a name for the program. The name seemed to me a very delicate matter. We needed to send a message to our future listeners, preferably without alerting white listeners, but there was no time to poll people and find out what they wanted to be called. At that time, you never called anyone “black.” Black was an insult. Ebony? We decided it was too obscure. Negro was the polite term but we couldn’t say “Negro” in the newspaper’s weekly radio guide. Overruling my list, Bert chose “jamboree” for the last part of the name. He also liked “tan” and “town.” I strongly objected to “town.” It sounded too much like Niggertown, a pejorative name for the segregated areas where Negro people lived. I thought “brown” had a nice mellow sound when you said it aloud. My list was now pages long. I added possibilities and crossed off others. Every day Bert and I conferred. “Sepia” we discarded because no one would know what it meant. Time was short. We were down to “brown” and “tan.”

A few days later Bert walked out of his office at the bottom of the stairs and started up the steps with me. “Tan Town Jamboree,” he said in a tone I recognized as final. In case I was going to argue, he added, “Put away your legal pad!” Bert reasoned that not even white people could object to the word “tan.” In those days a suntan was considered healthful, beneficial, and even protective.

One afternoon Bert called me into his office and closed the door. “You know,” he said, “there could be trouble.” We didn’t need to exchange details. He and I had grown up under segregation and knew its double-sided ramifications and convolutions. Negroes were supposed to stay in their “place.” When one spoke up, people would say, “He doesn’t know his place.” Their place was to listen, to be talked down to, but here we were about to put a Negro man on the air, not to listen but to be listened to, to speak for himself. “Maybe,” Bert said, “we should start the program on Friday afternoon and let the brouhaha die down over the weekend.” We had to decide quickly, and since we always started a new weekday program on a Monday, I thought we should proceed as normally as possible and start on Monday. Bert went along with me.

I worried all weekend before the show. My fear was that at the last minute Bert would back out. I could imagine the scenario. In fact, I obsessed over it. In my nightmare a Negro man was seated at the microphone in the studio ready to begin his first program. Bert would reach for the microphone and say, “Sorry, this has all been a mistake. I’m sure you understand, we just can’t go through with it.” Then he would pull the microphone away. The Negro man would nod, rise, and leave.

Monday, October 25, 1948, arrived. About 3:45 in the afternoon, Nat walked into the station, directly from school. He wore round glasses with thick Coke-bottle lenses. Bert, Nat, Don, and I went into the empty studio to set Nat up. We busied ourselves with removing the microphone from the table and placing the table and chair where Nat could see the hand signals from the announcer at the switchboard. Nat sat down and appeared confident. The props were in place: the solid wooden table, the microphone, and the chair with the leading actor, a Negro man, seated in it. Don left and sat at the switchboard to introduce Nat. I was so absorbed in making sure the show went on that my mind blanked out and I only knew what happened when Nat told me later.

I came to my senses when the first record spun round on the turntable and filled the studio with music, engulfing me in a warm and welcome wave of relief. The hour of execution had arrived and we had gone through with it. Nat had spoken and laughed loudly. Even inside the soundproof studio, we could hear the dull reverberations of the phones ringing, and Bert sent me to find out what the callers were saying. I reported back that there had been no threats; about the strongest protest was “Get that (the usual pejorative) off the air!” One caller said that if John Pepper’s grandfather knew what his grandson was doing, he would turn over in his grave.

When the station went off the air at the usual fifteen minutes before sundown, Nat came out of the studio and he, Bert, Don, and I gathered in the hall. Nat said to me, almost apologetically, “When you placed that microphone in front of me, I was so nervous, all I could do was laugh.”

“Me?” I gasped in surprise. I had never handled a microphone or any other equipment. Caught up in my fearful drama of Bert backing out, I apparently picked up the microphone and placed it on the table in front of Nat. Nat’s roaring belly laugh became his trademark, and after that, every one of his shows began with it.

Although everything had gone smoothly, the next day the station was filled with a sense of unease. No one knew what would happen next. Would a cross be burned outside the station? Would we be ostracized as “nigger lovers”? Businesses that catered to Negro customers were usually regarded as inferior, even tainted. Would we lose our white listeners and advertisers?

In the end we received some letters protesting Nat’s program. Most were written on ruled paper torn from small tablets, sometimes in pencil. Not one letter delivered a believable threat. We also received, from the salesmen, an inkling that our financial ruin might be averted. The businesses that advertised on Nat’s program reported an upsurge in sales from a new market, Negro customers.

 

One rainy spring morning I was working at my desk upstairs when Bert called me to come down. He wanted me to hear a musician who had arrived unannounced at the station. He introduced a thin young man who stood waiting with his guitar, nervous and shy. He was neatly dressed in a black suit with a tie. Bert told him to go back into our unused front studio, stand at the microphone, and play two of his songs again so I could hear them.

He compliantly walked back into the studio and took his place in front of the microphone, where he metamorphosed before my eyes. Gone was the person who had stood nervously before us. He strapped on his guitar, straightened his shoulders confidently, struck a few chords, and began to sing, first one song and then a second. I was totally unprepared for what I heard. The sight of the young Negro musician in his damp suit standing there singing so assuredly, and the chords that came from his black hand striking hard at the strings on his guitar, stunned me. I had never heard music that raw and harsh before. It assaulted my senses and scared me. I felt as if all the Negroes of the Delta had abandoned their tractors, their hoes, their long cotton harvesting bags, and their brooms and cooking pots and were rushing toward Memphis. His name was Riley King and he had walked in the rain from the bus station down Union Avenue to our studios at 2074, a distance of several miles.

Bert asked me what I thought. My first impulse had been to escape. On the other hand, the music of B. B. King might be just what we were searching for. I think Bert and Don had already made their decision, but Bert was waiting for my answer. After struggling with myself for a moment, I managed to gasp, “Let’s put him on the air.” 


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Christine Cooper Spindel was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She worked at radio station WDIA as continuity chief and program director from 1947 to 1954. She currently lives in Memphis.