The station’s first female African-American disc jockey was Willa Monroe, a society belle who hosted a program
for homemakers. The advice program, for the lovelorn and mentally torn, was hosted by the matronly-voiced Aunt Carrie. The first gospel disc jockey was Reverend Dwight ''Gatemouth'' Moore,
a former blues singer. ''My program was called ''Prayer Time'', Moore recollected, ''and my phone would ring and I've had
white people to say, 'What is happening on that radio station? My maid is tearing up the house'''!
Such calls proved to the station that they were penetrating
the black market. Advertisers, unaccustomed to reaching African-American shoppers, had to be coaxed, but the response was strong enough that those who bought
ads quickly renewed. Society was still so segregated that WDIA had to alert their advertisers that they’d be getting visits from black shoppers - lots and lots of black shoppers.
With novice disc jockeys breaking all the broadcast rules - there were no dulcet toned jocks on WDIA, and very
little restraint on the effusive personalities - the station assumed the mantle of top ranked in the city. It stayed there so solidly that other stations soon fought to be number 2 - because everyone knew
the number 1 spot was taken. Martha Jean ''The Queen'' Steinberg became Princess Premium Stuff. Ernest Brazzell gave crop advice and Robert Thomas became
a disc jockey named ''Honeyboy'' after he won a city-wide amateur competition. Among other notable personalities were Maurice "Hot Rod" Hulbert, Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade,
and Ford Nelson, who remains an active gospel disc jockey on WDIA in 2003.
The station had been broadcasting with 250 watts at 730 on the
AM dial, and in June 1954 they got permission to increase to 50,000 watts, which entailed a move to 1070 on the dial. With that strong signal beaming
from Memphis down into the Mississippi Delta’s dense African-American population (the signal reached from the bootheel of Missouri to the Gulf coast), WDIA was able to reach 10% of the total African-American population in the United States. A boast like that brought a lot of advertising power, including many national clients.
WDIA hadn't set out to be the Goodwill Station, but community involvement was a natural outgrowth of its position in the city. Walking
down the street in black neighborhoods, people could hear a song uninterrupted as WDIA emanated from each household. Early in the station's history, a woman came running into the offices saying she’d lost her child. She asked that the station announce a description; the child was found, and soon WDIA was making all sorts of community announcements:
missing persons, church events, even lost false teeth. The program ''Workers Wanted'' announced job openings; ''Call For Action'' put people in touch
with agencies to solve problems. WDIA was like a community bulletin board. They sponsored a talent show, put on a spelling bee at Tri State Fair (where they bought the championship hog), and on summer nights they set up a movie projector in different low-income housing projects, bringing free entertainment to the kids.
With all this talent and energy, and the connections with the record labels, it was also natural for WDIA to put on a show. Around Christmastime, the
Goodwill Revue brought in the best gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, and soul performers in the nation; the disc jockeys put on entertaining skits and many also performed. The
Goodwill Revues were enormously successful (and spawned the Starlite Revue in the summer). None of the monies raised by these WDIA events went to the station's operating budget - it all went toward charitable causes. WDIA gave money and food to needy families, bought busses which transported disabled black children to school, set up the Goodwill Home for Black Children, and established
a Little League for black children that grew to over 100 teams for 2000 kids.
WDIA's impact was enormous,
not just in Memphis but in the whole USA. Radio stations from other cities sent representatives to study how WDIA worked, returning to establish African-American stations in their own cities. WDIA began to call itself
''the Mother Station of Negroes''. In Memphis, the second black station, WLOK, opened in 1954. WDIA was sold by its original owners in 1957, but for decades after that, its spirit has thrived. WDIA celebrated a people
who’d known only insult, earning a prominent place in the history of American race relations - and entertainment. In May of 2013, WDIA will be inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.
© - Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame