Historic Memphis Broadcasting

...Early Radio and the beginning of TV




Radio experiments had been conducted as early as 1897.  By 1910,  a system was widely used in ship-to-shore-communication.  This was not true "broadcasting" but rather the "dot-dash" method invented by Marconi.  What made true broadcasting possible was the invention of the audion vacuum tube by DeForest in 1906.  The tube permitted modulation of sound. 

Voices of Caruso were first broadcast in 1910.  And other broadcasts of various forms of vocal, music, and records were held from 1910 to 1917.   When the U.S. entered WWI, all radio was taken over by the U. S. Navy - and regulated under the "Wireless Act of 1910".


Click on small photos to enlarge them. 


Originally, Crystal Radios were the simplest type of radio receiver.  They could be handmade with a few inexpensive parts, like an antenna wire, tuning coil of copper wire, crystal detector and earphones.  They produced rather weak sound and could only pick up stations within a limited range.  They were the first widely used type of radio receiver and the main type used during the wireless telegraphy era.  They were the major driving force in the introduction of radio to the public, contribution to the development of radio as an entertainment medium until 1920.  After that, crystal sets were superseded by the first amplifying receivers using vacuum tubes and crystals  became obsolete for commercial use.


Crystal Set Crystal Set-Earphones Crystal Set Listening to Radio Program Early Crystal Set


The government removed restrictions late in 1919 - and the Radio Corporation of America was formed to control the use of the new equipment invented during the War.  Thus "Formal Broadcasting" is usually considered as beginning on November 2, 1920, when Westinghouse's KDKA-Pittsburgh broadcast the Hading-Cox election returns and inaugurated a daily schedule of programs.  Throughout this period, broadcasting was on an experimental, non-commercial, amateur basis.


RCA ad Vintage RCA Francis Barraud 1924 RCA Stock

Vintage Radios - showing progression of table models to large floor models


1923 to 1926 was a transitional period which saw the beginnings of broadcasting on a commercial basis.  Essentially, for the first time,  those in broadcasting saw a possible source of revenue from sale of time, rather than the sale of receiving sets

<  The first Memphis radio transmission was from the top of the Falls Building in 1913.  Memphis radio station WKN began broadcasting in 1921, WREC began broadcasting in 1922 as KFNG and radio WMC began broadcasting in 1923.


WKN New evidence has been sent to us by Alfred Cowles, Jr. that his father Alfred L. Cowles, Sr. started WKN, the first Memphis radio station in 1921.  It was on the roof of the original Riechman-Crosby Building at Beale and Front Street.  Mr. Riechman was the distributor for Majestic Radios and felt the future was in selling radios rather than in broadcasting.  He offered Cowles space at his building for the radio station.   Cowles was responsible, at 18, for the broadcast of every program sent out by WKN - the Memphis Press-Riechman-Crosby Radio Station.  When WKN closed down in a few years, it became WMC under a new charter. 

1st Riechman-Crosby Bldg


CA Articles

WKN WKN - the entire station  Radio Alfred Cowles

Alfred Cowles


Phonograph recorded music generally dominated radio programming, although in 1920, Alfred did broadcast a concert of the Cincinnati Music Symphony from the old Lyric Theatre.  To accomplish this, he moved his entire setup - transmitter and all, to the theatre and strung an antenna on top of the building.  He was 16 years old and a student at Central High.    In 1938 Cowles and John H. Viser established Bluff City Electronics to serve the ham and radio trade - still in business.

  Lyric Theatre 1929 Alfred  Cowles

CA  item  2010


WMC is one of the few surviving radio stations in the U.S. to use its original call letters.  The station's first broadcast was January 19, 1923.   The transmitter and tower were on the top floor of the old Commercial Appeal building.  Although Memphis was segregated, early programs featured late night concerts from blues singers.  Bessie Smith performed at WMC in October of 1923.  In 1927 WMC gave Memphis and the mid-south its first network programs when the station affiliated with NBC.  In the 1930s, WMC was still owned by The Commercial Appeal and carried the NBC Radio Red Network.  A transmitter building and tower were constructed on Highway 70.  That tower is now gone, but the art-deco building is still there.  In 1931, new studios were dedicated at the Hotel Gayoso.  Comedian Milton Berle was master of ceremonies.  WMC also broadcast a number of country and western artists from the old Goodwyn Institute Building.  Weatherman Dave came to WMC in 1977 and stayed for 30 years.   In 1973 WMC became the first 24 hour full-time country station in Memphis.  By 1989 it switched to News/Talk.  Today, it is the city's oldest radio station and presently programs a sports format.  WMC spawned the TV station WMCT.


WMC Marker     Old WMC on Summer Commercial Appeal Goodwyn Institute WMC radio building

1940 Promo Card    1946 Delmore Bros Olswanger 1941 WMC - 1930s WMCT pattern


Dave Brown -Weather



EKKO Stamp

1920s EKKO Stamp

WMC Tower


 WREC signed on for the first time on September 22, 1922 as KFNG.  It was owned by electrical engineer and radio dealer Hoyt Wooten and operated from his father's home in Coldwater, Mississippi.  In 1925, he moved the station to Whitehaven and changed its call letters to WREC.  In 1929 WREC moved to studios in the basement of the Peabody Hotel, where it remained for over 40 years.  WREC became well known as a major factor in local radio, featuring  popular shows and personalities.  Sam Phillips began his disc jockey career at WREC.  In 1955, the station was granted the right to operate a TV station and on December 31, 1955, WREC-TV began operation as a CBS affiliate.  Wooten sold his stations to Cowles Communications in 1963.   In 1971, the call letters of WREC-TV changed to WREG-TV. 


WREC Logo WREC WREC Station Mike Sam Phillips Mikes

Hoyt Wooten

1948 Ad 1930

Hotel Peabody




1926 to 1930.  Commercial radio became solidly established and networks were developed.  Programs were now sponsored by national advertisers.   The 1940s included World War II and imposed as many hardships on broadcasters as it did upon those engaged in other occupations.  On the other hand, revenues for both network and stations were greater than in the prewar period.  1941 to 1945 was the big money-making time for American radio.


1945 to 1952 saw an enormous increase in the total number of radio stations, the erection of 108 TV stations - and the beginnings of a shift in importance from radio to television - especially on the network level.


 WMPS  Radio Center was built in 1947 as the home of radio station WMPS.   It became a major part of Memphis music history  and 's noted for shaping the popular culture of Memphis and the country for over 50 years.  It was primarily a country-western station and shaped the early careers of Kay Starr and Eddie Arnold.   Disc jockey Bob Neal of WHBQ became Elvis' second manager.  Rick Dees began his career at WMPS in 1974 and quickly established it as number 1 for the two years he was there.  He was fired for "conflict of interest".   In 1985 the Radio Center building became the home of station WDIA.  The building has recently been renovated and is now apartments and condos named "Radio Center Flats".  It was added to the National Register in 1983.  


WMPS Logo WMPS Clock Bob Neal 1957 1947

WMPS Station WMPS WMPS Souvenir WMPS

Kay Starr Eddie Arnold Matchbook Top 40, 1957 Top 40, 1959 WMPS fires Rick Dees


     WMPS Country

1974 Survey

Bob Neal Album

WMPS 1950


WDIA went on the air in June 1947 from small studios on Union Avenue.  The owners, John R. Pepper and E. R. "Bert" Ferguson were white and the format was a mix of country and western and light pop.  The station didn't do well.  Nat D. Williams, a syndicated columnist and high school teacher, started "Tan Town Jubilee in October 1948.  It was the first program in the U.S. to specifically target black-listeners.  WDIA soon became the number 2 station in Memphis.  Shortly afterwards the station made a switch to all-black programming and became the city's top station.  In 1954 they were licensed to increase power to 50,000 watts and with this powerful signal, were able to reach 10% of the African-American population in the United States.  Many music legends got their start at WDIA, including B. B. King and Rufus Thomas.  Isaac Hayes was a regular on the station's Big Star Talent Show.  Elvis Presley was greatly influenced by the station.  The station's public face was African-American, but the offices were a model for integration.  The station's first female African-American disc jockey was Willa Monroe, who hosted a program for homemakers.  WDIA's impact was enormous, not just in Memphis but in the whole USA.  In 1985 WDIA moved to Radio Center - the former home of WMPS.  This building has recently been renovated and is now apartments and condos named "Radio Center Flats".  Clear Channel Communications bought WDIA in 1996.



Nat Williams 1940s Poster WDIA - Poster WDIA Souvenir Rufus Thomas

WDIA Display

WDIA 1948


Big Maybelle WDIA

R. Thomas WDIA


Quiz 'em on the Air

A. C. Williams

WDIA Lucky Penny


Maurice Hubert


WHBQ  became famous in the 1950s for playing rhythm and blues.  Its legend was made by Dewey Phillips, a disc jockey who played rhythm and blues music on his 1949-56 night-time show "Red, Hot and Blue", which was broadcast from the mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel.  In 1954, Phillips played a recording of "That's Alright Mama", marking the first time an Elvis recording was played on the air.  And Elvis' first radio interview was also conducted in the hotel by Phillips.  For many years WHBQ was owned by RKO and was like a tryout for young, aspiring DJs like Rick Dees and Wink Martindale.  They worked there in hopes of being moved to bigger markets like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.  Jack Parnell helped usher in the rock and roll era on WHBQ with his deep resonant voice - frequently referred to as "the voice of God".  In 1960, WHBQ became "Boss Radio" .  By the 1970s, they could no longer compete with the FM stations.  In 1988, RKO sold the station to Flinn Broadcasting.  Today the focus has shifted from music to sports.

WHBQ-TV began operation on September 27, 1953.  It was originally a CBS affiliate but lost that when WREC-TV signed on.  WHBQ-TV then took the ABC affiliation full time.  It is Memphis' second oldest television station, and the only one that has never changed its call letters or channel location.   It began as WNBR.  Today, it is affiliated with the Fox Network.


Flyer Flyer 1975 Flyer 1974 Flyer 1969 Flyer Flyer

Dewey Phillips    Rick Dees - etc WHBQ Xmas Card Top 40 - 1969 Sivad Sivad

Lloyd T. Binford Wink 1955 Wink WHBQ - TV WHBQ - Rick Dees

Survey 1975    WHBQ at the Chisca 1966 WHBQ Add

Dewey Phillips on TV


1973 top 30

1970 top 30

1973 top 30

Jack Parnell - 1950s


1981 Rick Dees 1977 Eugene Roper 1959 Wink, Elvis, Dewey




WHER  was the first "All-Girl" radio station in the nation when it went on the air in October 1955.   It was the brainchild of Sam Phillips, who used a portion of the $35,000 he made from the sale of Elvis Presley's recording contract to finance the station.  Kemmons Wilson supplied a portion of the balance of the funding.  He also provided the stations' first home, in a part of the third Holiday Inn ever built.  At the station, women did it all:  On the air they read the news, interviewed local celebrities, and spun the records.  Behind the scenes they sold and created commercials, produced and directed programming and sat the station's control boards.   Marion Keisker, a Sun Studio assistant to Sam Phillips, and Sam's wife Becky, were part of the female staff which kept WHER on the air for eleven years.  The station spawned a series of imitators, but later evolved into a mixed-gender staff rechristened WWEE.


WHER - All Girls     Becky Phillips WHER girls WHER ad 1962 slip WHER girls

KWEM  At the Goodwyn Institute building, Jerry Manuel hosted a live music show that was broadcast every Saturday night on radio KWEM.  The show was named "Saturday Night Jamboree" and was for amateur musicians who had a "day job" and played music at nights.  Some of the musicians who played there had great success in a new field of music called "rockabilly", including Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.  A very young and totally unknown Elvis Presley performed on several of the early shows in 1953.    


Jamboree Ad Goodwyn Bldg Young Elvis Carl Perkins Jerry Manuel


WNBR This station goes back to 1928.  By 1933 the "all-white" WNBR-Radio had begun broadcasting the weekly Amateur Night show from the Palace Theater on Beale Street, where widely different musicians performed blues, pop songs, jazz, and rhythm-n-blues numbers.  By the 1950s, WNBR had become much more famous as Memphis Radio Station WHBQ .

The Station held popular contests where viewers could write in and win prizes.  Below is a rare "prize" or 3 Shirley Temple photos from circa 1938. 


WNBR Stamp


1938 Shirley Temple Contest - Envelope and Prize

1936  Scramble

Depression Script


WLOK    This was the second Memphis station to offer programming directed entirely to the black audience.  The station purchased and moved to a new building at the corner of Talbot and S. Second in 1958.  In 1977, this radio station became the first Memphis radio station owned by African Americans.  It is now the #1 Gospel Radio Station in Memphis and a favorite among visiting DJs,   In 1963 WLOK changed to its current frequency of 1340.  

WLOK Staff The 2nd Street Building Historical Marker WLOK Hits

A Family Tradidion


WHHM  "...1340.   It was owned by Herbert Heriff Motors, hence the call letters WHHM.  It was country for most of its life and had the famous DJ Sleepy Eyed John on it.  In the 1960's it was taken over by Bill Gumble who turned it into a rock station.  It gave WHBQ and WMPS a run for their for a while.  They put out little stckers saying have you been WHHM'd.  You could listen every afternoon to the Bill Reeves Blast.   in the mid 60's Gumble had some legal truoble and lost the license and the station went silent.   That is when WLOK which was then a daytimer at 1480 applied for 1340 which was a 24 hour frequency.  The FCC gave it to them and they are still there today..." - Walter Bolton , 1-6-2015


1961 Music Survey


WHEY  "...WHEY was a day-timer at 1220 and it operated in Millington.  It was a rock station that was a little different and the kids liked it.  It was located in two stores in the back of a little shopping area on Navy Rd. in Millington and it was aimed for the Navy Base  It was the station that George Klein had one of his first jobs and it was the last place that Dewey Phillips worked before he passed away".  - Walter Bolton, 1-9-2015


Network Shows 1930 to 1958 
Below are a few of the network shows folks listened to on radio.   Some of them made it to TV Programs.
Abbott and Costello   (1940-1947)
Abie's Irish Rose  
Adventures of Ellery Queen  
Ozzie and Harriet  
Sam Spade  
( 1946-1951)
The Thin Man  
Amos n' Andy  

Backstage Wife    ( 1935-1959)
Believe it or Not  
Bell Telephone Hour  
Boston Symphony  
(1926 - 1957)
Breakfast Club
Burns and Allen  
Lights Out   
(1934 - 1947)
The Lone Ranger  


Burns and Allen Believe it or Not Amos n' Andy Lights Out!

The Lone Ranger


Miscellaneous Memorabilia

       Radio Card 1930        



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