National Radio Week: Radio as Activism

Interviews, National Radio Week
08/14/2017
Matthew Howland

As part of KEXP's National Radio Week coverage, on the KEXP Blog we will be spotlighting some of the stories and personal testimonials given by a variety of radio luminaries in interviews done with KEXP DJs John Richards, Kevin Cole, and Morning Show producer Owen Murphy. These interviews articulately explain the enduring legacy of early independent radio stations, as well as the importance of radio to shape and create a community through shared love of music.  In the words of WFNX DJ Kurt St. Thomas, "if you pay enough attention, radio will probably change your life."

This post focuses on the role of radio as a medium for activism, introducing new perspectives into often hostile or unreceptive communities, and giving oppressed groups a necessary voice. Two radio stations featured today on the Midday and Afternoon Shows particularly demonstrate radio's power to incite increased social awareness: Washington D.C.'s WGTB and Memphis, Tennessee's WHER. KEXP spoke to WGTB's Leo Del Aguila (Professor Mota) and NPR's Davia Nelson (The Kitchen Sisters) about the role WGTB and WHER had in their respective communities.

WGTB on the air in 1975 // photo courtesy of Georgetown University
WGTB on the air in 1975 // photo courtesy of Georgetown University

Based on the Georgetown University campus in Washington D.C., WGTB gained notice in the late 1960s and 70s for their vehemently progressive programming, featuring a focus on women's health, LGBTQ rights, and the civil rights movement, as well as independent music of all genres. Remarkably, this was done on the campus of Georgetown University, a Catholic institution. WGTB DJ Leo Del Aguila spoke about these culture clashes between the school's administration and the radio station, as well as the station's ground-breaking programming.

Leo Del Aguila: [There] was a conflict between the administration and community in the radio station, which wanted to explore where we were as a society. [The late 60s/ early 70s] was a period during the end of the Vietnam War, and various civil rights issues that we were trying to sort out. A lot of this involved gays and minority groups, who formed organizations that would eventually become central to the women’s lib and gay pride movements.

WGTB, in terms of our news broadcasts and general programming, reflected these movements. We had Friends, which dealt with issues in the gay community. It was amazing at the time we were able to do that, in 1974-1975. This was basically the first time you could turn on the radio and hear someone talk about how proud they were of being gay. We also had feminist radio programming, which explored feminist issues and featured music made by female musicians. It was a combustible mixture that created a lot of tension between the administration and management.

The station's news programming was matched by music programming which was politically aware and experimental, forming a blueprint for the later college radio movement.
Del Aguila: We tried to match the subject matter with songs of dissent and revolution. I remember one [occasion] in particular that touched a personal note, and it had to do with Allende’s fall in Chile. We eventually found out the CIA had to do with his coup d’etat, and we had a freelance reporter in Chile who came back with a number of tapes. We were able to, with our rudimentary journalistic experience, put fairly balanced representations of what happened in Chile, and mixed it in with songs by Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs, people who talk about dissent. This music represented what we were talking about, and the social issues of the time.

At the same time, we also explored music in a different fashion. If you were a DJ on GTB at the time, you wouldn’t have a playlist. You would perform live on the air. I remember some of my sets—I would go from Motown, into Stax, to perhaps the British Invasion, Beatles, Dave Clark Five. Then, I would also mix in classical music pieces as well as new music like King Crimson, David Allen, Gong, Velvet Underground. Music which eventually became an inspiration for entire movements. I think that is the contribution we as a radio community made. The irony of this whole thing is that even as it was sometimes amateurish, it set the stage for radio as we know it now.

Ultimately, due to ever-growing tension and a pile of FCC complaints, the station's license was sold by the administration to the District of Columbia for one dollar, which effectively silenced a musical and activist community that had built around the station. NPR's Bob Boilen explains: "It wasn't like now... there are so many alternatives [to radio]. There was nothing else. Zero. There was no other way to listen to anything. It's impossible to comprehend that nowadays." However, Del Aguila remains optimistic about his work at the station, as well as its impact on the community:
Del Aguila: This was a group of people that thought we could make a difference, or eventually make changes that would have an impact on our lives. I believe we have—we opened up a lot of doors in regards to feminism and gay and lesbian issues, as well as minority issues and the civil rights movement. I believe that that stuck with us. We had a commitment to making our society a better place to live in and enjoy.

WHER
WHER

Memphis's WHER similarly broke barriers of radio, featuring an all-women on-air and production staff. Started by legendary producer Sam Phillips (Sun Records), who was in turn motivated by his wife Becky Phillips, WHER proved immediately controversial and influential in Memphis, eventually starting a wave of female broadcasters in radio. KEXP spoke to NPR's Davia Nelson about WHER and its impact on Memphis, as well as the personal lives of the staff members.

Davia Nelson: A lot of people thought that these women were crossing a line. Like, what were women doing on the air? What does “an all-girl station” mean, where are the men? They didn’t want to get their news from women and didn’t want women queuing up the music. Why were they working outside their homes?  That was hard for a lot of families. It also broke up some of the marriages. Some of the women told us stories of bringing their kids to the WHER lobby and had them sit in the lobby while they did their air-shifts. A couple of the women moved in together, living together in one house. They became an independent support network for one another.

Sam, always the sonic visionary, thought the next great soulful idea was to create an all-women radio station. In all the radios stations at the time, if they had a woman on staff there would just be one, and she would be doing the housekeeping or the ladies' show or the afternoon gossip show.

These women were definitely badass. First of all, they were all so funny and had a great Southern sensibility and sense of humor. They knew they were crossing a line, and took all that risk. They had code ways of talking to one another on the air. If they wanted each other to know how the date they went on last night went, they would play a certain piece of music.

Many of the women hired by Phillips had no previous experience in radio. Relying on intuition, Phillips and station manager Dotty Abbott scoured local radio and TV stations for possible candidates, according to Davis, also "go[ing] to bus benches and listening, overhearing women in conversation." This gamble paid off -- many of the anchors at WHER remained in broadcasting after the demise of the station.
Nelson: One woman, Betty Burker, who was on the radio in Memphis until a couple of years ago, was a record producer and manager. She came to Sam with interest in starting a men's store in a Memphis hotel, thinking he might invest in the idea. Instead, he brought her in for a radio interview with Dotty Abbott. Betty had never done radio, but suddenly she became one of the major disc jockeys on WHER.
In spite of the station's eventual fall, Nelson remains optimistic about the legacy of WHER, as well as the impact it had on the Memphis radio landscape and music scene:
Nelson: Ironically, the women's movement was almost what sunk the station. Though Sam pioneered this idea, in the end, more and more women got on the radio airwaves and there became less of a reason to have an all-women station. It ended up being renamed WWEE, or "WE Radio." The Morning Show, if you listen to recordings of it, was still with a woman named Jane Rodack, but she was now cast as the dumb blonde. It changed so quickly it was like whiplash.

WHER [remains] important for many reasons. Memphis is the fountain of so much of the soundtrack of America. When you think about what Sam was doing in Memphis recording studios, and think about WDIA, the first all-black radio station, and WHER, let alone what Stax Records would come to do, and all the other sounds and music that came out of Memphis, it was like Greece at its height. It was the Roman Empire of sound.

KEXP is celebrating National Radio Day all week long both online and on the air; click here to see all our coverage on the KEXP Blog.

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