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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts

Mike and I were reminded on a recent episode of Memphis Beat (our vote’s still out on that show) of the way-back Memphis radio station WHER, the first “all girl” radio station in the nation.

The station was born in 1955, the brainchild of legendary Sam Phillips who discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others. Phillips, always the innovator, had long wanted his own radio station – and wanted one with a twist. Women were nowhere to be seen in ‘50s broadcasting. Women weren’t visible anywhere in corporate America. Phillips created the groundbreaking format with money he raised from selling Elvis Presley’s Sun Studio contract to RCA. The balance of funding came from another Memphis entrepreneur Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inns. Wilson also gave the radio station its first home in one of the early Holiday Inns in Memphis.

The story goes that, as Phillips hired personnel, he told none of the women it was to be an all-female endeavor. Each had thought that one woman on-air was a momentous breakthrough. When they learned the truth, they thought Phillips was crazy. He wasn’t. Women almost exclusively ran the station. They read the news, interviewed local celebrities and spun popular records. They sold and produced commercials, directed and engineered programming and sat at the station’s control boards.
Staffers included broadcast pioneer Vida Jane Butler.

Over its 17-year run, WHER generated a series of imitators, but ironically it was the women’s movement that brought the station down. Whereas the radio station had been created to give female broadcasters on-air opportunities, the women’s movement was about inclusion. That’s when pressure was exerted to include men in the format, and the station evolved and was re-named WWEE.

In 1999, 14 of the original WHER “girls” attended a reunion in Memphis with Sam Phillips. (see second photo)

From a later radio interview Sam Phillips said: “It was not, I'm gonna tell you, it was not a novelty. WHER was an embryo because there wasn't anything else like it in the world.”

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