A sultry female voice reads the call letters for “WHER – a thousand beautiful watts” on October 9, 1955 in Memphis Tennessee. This marks the start of something unique – the beginning of “all-girl” radio, opening doors for women-centered radio programs, stations, and collectives of today. The station, which was broadcast on AM frequency 1430, was the brain child of Sam Phillips. Phillips was a record producer with a sharp ear, responsible most notably for the discovery of Johnny Cash and Elvis. When Phillips, owner of Sun Recording Studios, sold Elvis’ recording contract to RCA, he had enough leverage to launch the radio station. According to Sam: “… I’d wanted a radio station all my life. Radio to me, it’s a living thing…” Women didn’t just set their voices free over the airwaves, they ran almost every aspect of the station including marketing, programming, and running the control board. The music mainly consisted of jazz selections highlighting Sinatra, Fitzgerald, and other greats. Phillips felt jazz suited the feel of the station and filled an empty niche in Memphis, Tennessee’s existing radio play.
The studio space was tiny but was designed to be lighthearted and play up the theme of an all female staff. Rooms were painted bright colors reminiscent of a doll house and in the same vein, was referred to as the doll’s den.
By many of today’s standards, the ideas of women and feminism promoted by the station would be considered restrictive and perhaps even the slightest bit misogynistic, but at the time the idea was groundbreaking and progressive. Assistant Manager and Program Director Dorothy Abbott was quoted as saying: “We are not trying to prove the we can get along in a world without men. We are simply trying to prove that when a group of women make up their collective minds that they are going to do something successfully, no force on earth can keep them from it.”
But all goods things come to an end and WHER was no exception. The station was recast as WWEE in 1966 and sported a mixed-gender staff.
The WHER story has been recently documented by the Kitchen Sisters, a powerhouse and award-winning storytelling duo consisting of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. They have created and produced more than 200 radio pieces including numerous segments for NPR in the past. They are currently working on a piece about girls around the world.
NPR has hosted the special on several programs, including most recently the eclectic show “Hearing Voices”. The 52 minute long segment can be heard currently on the Hearing Voices website. All the music in the piece was culled from WHER’s own library. Music credits can be found here.