Next time you are in Atlanta, be sure to visit this small brick building two blocks away from the King Center! That small brick building has some radio history. It is the home of the first Black-owned radio station in the United States that was called WERD.
In celebration of National Radio Day, let’s talk about WERD.
In the Fall of 1949, a bank president named Jesse B. Blayton purchased a radio station called “WERD” for $50,000. This purchase was a historical one, as he would become the first African-American man to own and operate a radio station. However, this wasn’t the only time he had made history, he was also the first Black CPA in Georgia, one of only four Nationwide.
After purchasing the radio station, Blayton changed the format of the radio station to focus on the local African-American audience. He played music that wasn’t played elsewhere.
Blayton then hired his son, Jesse Blayton Jr. to be the station’s first Program Director. From there, Blayton hired four Black on-air hosts: Joe Howard, Roosevelt Johnson, Jimmy Winnington, and “Jockey” Jack Gibson. “Jockey” Jack Gibson would go on to be one of the most popular radio personalities in Atalanta by the early 1950s.
In the early 1950s, WERD took a separate route from other radio stations by publicizing the Civil Rights Movement. The station was also housed in the same building as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the president of the SCLC and would often go upstairs to WERD to make announcements regarding the organization’s activities.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices in Atlanta, GA, in November 1967. The photograph was taken by renowned Leica Camera photographer, Benedict J. Fernandez. Leica Camera, Inc., is currently supporting Countdown To Eternity, a national photo exhibition providing an inspirational view of the famed civil rights leader through the photographs of Fernandez. (PRNewsFoto)
In 1968, Jesse B. Blayton sold the radio station. He was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995. By 1969, 16 other stations nationwide were Black-owned. While that number has increased over the years, we still have work to do to diversify, connect and represent BIPOC communities in radio. According to insideradio.com, as of October 2021, there were only 221 Black-owned radio stations including 117 FM and 103 AM stations. According to an article from radioink.com, in 2020 there were more than 1,000 Spanish-language radio stations in the U.S. but the article states that “The vast majority of their ownership remains in the hands of publicly traded companies and/or Caucasian men.” There is still work to be done to diversify radio in the United States.
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