The Story of WHER, America’s Pioneering, First All-Woman Radio Station (1955)

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.

The Kitchen Sis­ters podcast–the cre­ator of the episode above–is fea­tured in our col­lec­tion, The 150 Best Pod­casts to Enrich Your Mind

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Simone de Beau­voir Explains “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in a Rare TV Inter­view (1975)

No Women Need Apply: A Dis­heart­en­ing 1938 Rejec­tion Let­ter from Dis­ney Ani­ma­tion

The Thrill is Gone: See B.B. King Play in Two Elec­tric Live Per­for­mances

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (4)
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  • Jean Perry says:

    In your nar­ra­tive, in the sec­ond para­graph, should­n’t “Howard John­sons” be “Hol­i­day Inns”? HI seemed to be impor­tant to the sto­ry which is why I men­tion it.

  • Valaraukarsbane says:

    ‘Iron­i­cal­ly, as women claimed more and more rights, men began to work at the sta­tion on and off air.’

    But does­n’t this make sense? I mean, the main rea­son to delib­er­ate­ly make a sta­tion that excludes men is if the oth­er sta­tions are delib­er­ate­ly exclud­ing women. Once tal­ent­ed women can work at the same sta­tions as tal­ent­ed men, mak­ing a sta­tion that excludes men no longer makes sense.

  • Ted Mills says:

    Jean, we fixed the error. Thanks for point­ing it out!!

  • Sherry Smith says:

    I was one of those ear­ly women work­ing for
    Sam as a DJ out of that Hol­i­day Inn on
    South Sec­ond along with Dot­ty and Jeanie
    and Dawn and Car­ol and Kay. The last two
    were my room­mates! What fun we had! I
    start­ed out down in Lake Worth, FL at WLIZ
    and Sam brought me to Mem­phis for
    WHER! I was Sher­ry Hunter then Sher­ry
    Kel­ly! I stayed in var­i­ous posi­tions in Radio
    and Tele­vi­sion Broad­cast­ing for the next
    34 years! Oh, the peo­ple we met!! And the
    good times we had! Now in Real Estate in

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