There are those who would say that Sam Phillips was a foolish man.
In 1955, one year after Elvis Presley walked unannounced into Phillips's Sun Studios in Memphis to record his first song, Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA for $35,000. For RCA, it turned out to be the best deal in these United States since the Louisiana Purchase.
But Phillips had a plan. His entire life, he had hungered for his own radio station. Now he had some of the cash he needed. And he had a gimmick in mind: He'd start an all-female radio station.
When WHER, 1430 AM, cranked up in Memphis, its motto was "1,000 Beautiful Watts." It was the first--as far as anyone can determine--all-female station. Eventually, some men were hired in technical jobs, but by and large it was a female effort. By the time the station switched to a talk format in 1971, women in radio were commonplace and the WHER novelty--and era--was over. But for 15 years, the station was a Memphis attraction, the deejays were local celebrities and the women's movement had an early boost.
The first half of the WHER story will be told tonight during "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio, as part of NPR's yearlong "Lost & Found Sound" series. It will be heard at 4:35 p.m. on WETA-FM (90.9) and 6:35 p.m. on WAMU-FM (88.5). Part 2 will air Nov. 5.
The first WHER studios occupied a few spare rooms in the nation's third Holiday Inn, in Memphis. (Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson was a friend of Phillips and helped fund WHER.) The "jockettes," as Phillips called his female deejays, played soft rock and easy listening--a little Nat King Cole, a little Pat Boone. The women picked the tunes, but Phillips's wife, Becky, had the final say as to what ultimately aired.
As the years passed, the station moved into its own studios east of Memphis, and men slowly began filtering into its employ. Phillips sold it a decade ago. Now, 1430 AM is WOWW, a gospel station. (Phillips launched another all-female station in Florida shortly after WHER; it shuttered in 1969.)
The 25-minute documentary was made by the Kitchen Sisters, a San Francisco radio production group. It examines the curio that was WHER but also pulls back to illustrate what it was like for a woman to work in male-dominated radio in the '50s.
The documentary includes current interviews with several of the WHER deejays, Phillips and a couple of priceless quotes from now-retired Wilson, who says, "We had sense enough to hire some good-looking girls."
There's an on-air announcement from the station's early days, read by one of the jockettes, intended to educate '50s listeners about the station: "There's more to the job of girl announcer than what you hear from your radio. The girls pick their own music, run their own control board, plus look after our remote-control transmitter here at our studio."
The documentary has several insightful interviews with the WHER alums, including a heart-tugging one with a former deejay who says, "Even though my voice is smoky and scratchy now, at the time, I had a pretty voice." The piece would have been improved by the inclusion of more archival tape of them on the air.
Phillips, now 76, reunited with about a dozen of the WHER women last month in his home town of Memphis. It was remarkable to watch these women--ranging in age from their fifties to their seventies, most of whom went on to long careers in radio or other professions--still act like girls around Phillips.
At a reception across from Memphis's storied Peabody Hotel--where a young Phillips ran the soundboard for big band broadcasts on WREC--the WHER women gathered around Phillips for a photograph.
Dean Duvall, an early station sales manager known as "The Hat" for her flamboyant head-wear--settled onto Phillips's lap and swung a sexy gam over his knee. WHER began Duvall's career as a radio and TV ad saleswoman.
"She's got the firmest lower anatomy I've had on my knee in a loooong time," Phillips cracked. "I've got a whole case of Viagra at home!"
Phillips's son, Jerry, standing nearby, interjected: "What you need is Fix-a-Flat!"
Jerry then asked the assembled women, "What kind of boss was he?"
Former deejay Wanda Martin Price replied, "He was the best boss I ever had."
Despite all the tipsy giggling, the women said Phillips had given them a professional break no one else would in the 1950s South.
"Sam didn't treat us like women," said Bettye Berger, a WHER saleswoman. "He treated us like professionals."
Berger was asked if she had difficulty selling ads to businessmen.
"I'd be waiting in the reception room with all of those salesmen saying, 'I'd like to see what you're going to get,' " she said. But once she "got past the secretaries," she sold effectively, and the station made money.
The local press ate up the all-girl station; the deejays were invited to every party and opening in town, they say on the documentary.
Although Phillips was a man ahead of his time, he was also very much a man of his time. Even though he pioneered an all-female station staff, he insisted that his employees fit the Southern ideal of womanhood.
The jockettes sat for glamour portraits. The studio sales room was painted in pink and purple and christened the "Doll Den." Clotheslines were strung about and hung with "unmentionables" to scandalize visitors. Promotional photos showed the women checking their makeup in compact mirrors in the station. Several rode around town in a convertible like beauty queens, waving to passersby, while on their way to and from sales meetings with advertisers.
Phillips effectively manipulated the Southern male psychology. He knew that men might not take professional women seriously, but that they were too schooled in chivalry to toss them out of their offices.
Forty years later, in big-money corporate radio, there is no room for gimmick stations. (Memphis was also home to WDAI, the first station to feature an all-black air staff.) Despite WHER's pioneering ways, today's female radio personalities still don't get the big-money morning and afternoon drive shows. Today, female deejays tend to either helm midday or late-night slots, or graduate from reading traffic reports to being a sidekick on a male-dominated morning show.
In syndication, the few "women's" jobs are limited essentially to advice-giving. There are only three women among the Top 10 syndicated radio talk shows, as compiled by Talkers Magazine, which covers talk radio: Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Dr. Joy Browne, and Ken & Daria Dolan, who do a humorous money advice show.
Maybe there is something to chivalry, after all. And maybe Phillips doesn't sound so old-fashioned when he says: "Southern gentlemen have a way of showing love to a woman."
CAPTION: "1,000 Beautiful Watts": WHER's "jockettes" picked the tunes and ran the control board.
CAPTION: Sam Phillips and the "jockettes" of yore in Memphis. The WHER story is featured in a two-part "Lost and Found Sound" on NPR; Part 1 airs tonight.