Sam Phillips changed the course of music history with his label Sun Records, which gave us Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison and essentially the second half of the 20th Century’s pop culture. But he had a second act in a life where most people would have rested on their laurels. Although not as well known, Phillips helped the course of female liberation when he founded the country’s first all-female radio station WHER in 1955, bought with the money he received from selling Presley’s recording contract.
In this intriguing and history-packed two-part audio documentary from Fugitive Waves, we hear from Phillips and many of the disc jockeys who worked at the Memphis station that broadcast from the third-ever Holiday Inn built in the country. Philips thought the hotel concept was pretty cool and wanted to be associated with its modern design. The studio, called “the Doll Bin,” was tiny, pink and purple and decorated with bras and panties hanging from a clothesline. “1000 Beautiful Watts” was the slogan, and though, yes, that’s a bit cloying to modern ears, in 1955 it was one of the first cracks in the wall of male media dominance.
For an example of the sexism of the time, the podcast plays an except from another Memphis radio station, of Kitty Kelly interviewing musician and composer Sigmund Romberg, who uses the live interview as a chance to drool over his host.
Phillips created the station out of his love of radio and his curiosity over hearing women’s voices on the airwaves. His wife Becky was one of the first DJs at WHER and she, along with many of the women who worked there, narrate the tale. Women ran the entire operation from the voice to the engineer booth. Phillips was used to taking in women with no experience, because he had done the same thing at Sun Records.
WHER lasted through 1973, only two years after the National Press Club opened its membership to women. Ironically, as women claimed more and more rights, men began to work at the station on and off air.
The full documentary is less than an hour and worth the listen, as it proves that one of the volleys in the battle for women’s liberation came not from either of the coasts of America, but right from the heartland.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.