The first federally licensed radio station took to the air in Pennsylvania in 1920, and by 1923 Mississippi was the only state without a radio station. The following year the US Department of Commerce listed four in the state—KFNG in Coldwater, WCBH in Oxford, WDBT in Hattiesburg, and WCBG in Pascagoula. The latter was licensed for a traveling evangelist, and all operated at just ten watts of power—only enough to cover a small town. The radio landscape remained chaotic until Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927; by 1930 much of the programming on radio was provided by the three national networks (CBS, NBC’s Red Network, and NBC’s Blue Network, which later became ABC). In 1942 Mississippi had just 12 stations, a number that increased rapidly after the end of World War II, reaching 48 in 1952 and 180 in 1960 and topping 250 in 2012.
Radio kept Mississippians informed, providing community calendars, news, farm reports, sports coverage, weather bulletins, and “swap shop of the air” programs. Eudora Welty worked for a year at Jackson’s WJDX, writing scripts and newsletters. There and at Hattiesburg’s WRBJ (later WPFB), entertainment was provided by staff orchestras, bands, and pianists; talent shows; gospel quartets; serial dramas; and live feeds from churches, hotel ballrooms, and performance venues, including Hattiesburg’s Saenger Theater. National performers also appeared on the air during visits to Mississippi, and in 1944 nine-year-old Elvis Presley sang live on Tupelo’s WELO, which was broadcasting from the Mississippi-Alabama Fair.
As on national radio, African Americans were seldom heard on the airwaves in Mississippi prior to 1948, when Memphis’s WDIA (whose signal reached into Mississippi) became the first station in the nation to feature all-black programming and on-air talent. The most notable exception was the weekday live blues program King Biscuit Radio Time, featuring Glendora native Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller), which was first broadcast in 1941 over KFFA from Helena, Arkansas. Later fed via Clarksdale’s WROX, the show was enjoyed by many Mississippi agricultural workers. In the late 1940s Williamson and Elmore James also hosted a live program in Belzoni that was broadcast via telephone line over Yazoo City’s WAZF and Greenville’s WJPR. In the mid-1940s a young B. B. King sang with his gospel group over Greenwood’s WGRM.
The first African American deejay in the state was apparently Early Wright, who hosted blues and gospel on WROX from 1947 until 1998; other deejays at WROX included a young Ike Turner. Future civil rights activist Charles Evers began broadcasting on Philadelphia’s WHOC in the late 1940s, and in 1987 he started Jackson’s nonprofit WMPR, which features gospel, blues, and political talk shows. In 1954 Jackson’s WOKJ became the first station in the state to institute all-black programming, while Mississippi’s first black-owned station was Hattiesburg’s WORV, founded in 1969 by Vernon Floyd, Robert Floyd, and Ruben Hughes.
During the civil rights era conservative forces including the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and the Citizens’ Council used radio to defend white supremacy. African American activists, conversely, had difficulty advertising their goals and brought legal challenges against the stations, a strategy that caused the US Court of Appeals to strip Jackson’s WJDX of its Federal Communications Commission license.
Radio continued to expand, and deregulation and changes in programming strategies during the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a relative homogenization of stations, with deejays who chose their own playlists becoming a disappearing breed in Mississippi as in the rest of the nation. Notable players in the contemporary market include national behemoth Clear Channel Communications, which owns multiple stations in larger markets; Jackson-based TeleSouth Communications, which operates the influential Super Talk network; and the Tupelo-based American Family Network. However, many Mississippi stations continue to emphasize local news, sports, and religious events. WCPC in Houston, Mississippi, has broadcast Sacred Harp music every Sunday since 1959.
Notable changes in recent years include the launch in 2008 of two digital stations by Mississippi Public Broadcasting, which was founded in 1983 and broadcasts uniform programming over eight FM stations. In 2000 Gulfport’s Rip Daniels, owner of terrestrial station WJZD, launched the American Blues Network, which uploads blues programming via a satellite feed and as of 2011 was being programmed on more than fifty stations nationwide. Noncommercial LPFM (low power FM) stations, encouraged by a 2000 FCC decision, now include Jackson’s WLPM and Bay St. Louis’s WQRZ, which remained on the air during Hurricane Katrina.
- Bob McRaney Sr., The History of Radio in Mississippi (1979)
- Mississippi Blues Trail website, msbluestrail.org
- Brian Ward, Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South (2004)