Exploring the rhetorical impact of WDIA
The focus of this study is the rhetorical impact of WDIA in Memphis, the first radio station in the United States devoted exclusively to African American programming. The question which drives the dissertation is how the station maneuvered rhetorically to reach the black populace during a time of intense segregation and social change. Further, the study aims to determine the extent and means of influence the station had on its listeners, both black and white. The years in question for this study are from 1948, when WDIA began experimenting with black programming, until approximately two decades hence, in the late 1960s. These 20 or so years comprise a bellwether period for African Americans in the Mid-South, who were transitioning from a time of bitter segregation to the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights Movement.
Central to the study is the means used by the station, which was white-owned and white-operated, to negotiate the color line which so distinctly divided the races throughout the region. The conclusion reached is that WDIA maneuvered effectively around the vaunted color line by keeping the station removed from controversies or programming which might anger racist whites while also focusing closely on the tastes and desires of black listeners. Its authentic enactment of the Memphis black experience helped the station develop an abiding ethos with the African American audience, which provided WDIA with lasting credibility and loyalty. The ethos was greatly enhanced, as well, by the station's trademark efforts in community service. The study further finds WDIA influenced the attitudes of blacks by enacting a positive public identity for African Americans, in stark contrast to the racist representations previously portrayed in the media of the time. The newfound black presence on the public stage also proved influential as it affirmed and empowered the private notions held by individuals within the black community. Ultimately, the station had a subversive, albeit indirect, impact on the segregated system by fostering increasingly progressive attitudes within the African American community.
0708: Mass media