REAL WOMEN: WHER VIA THE KITCHEN SISTERS

This post – part of our new “Real Women” series for 2013 – is dedicated to two of the most “real” women I know: Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters.  Without their dedication to telling the “real” story, I would not be the designer, or the person, I am today. Lost and Found Sound changed my perception of storytelling in the Autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks: in the third story of a rented house on a green square in Savannah, Georgia. Boom. Life changed.

Ira Glass said of their work, “The Kitchen Sisters have done some of the best radio stories ever broadcast. I know people who got into radio because they heard Nikki and Davia’s work, and had no idea anybody could do anything like that on the air.”

These women are my heroes. (Along with a slew of others you will meet this year.)  They continue their storytelling on real women with their series: The Hidden World of Girls, and a new series entitled: The Making of…

Through a Peabody Award winning Lost and Found Sound broadcast, The Kitchen Sisters spurred my interest in this relatively unknown, yet groundbreaking group of women.

“1000 Beautiful Watts.” This was the slogan for WHER Radio – 1430 on your AM dial in Memphis, Tennessee. In October 1955, Shoals native and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips and his wife, Becky, took an original concept and made it reality: an all-female radio station. Though the station wasn’t technically the first female station to exist, it proudly referred to itself as the “First All-Girl Radio Station in the World.” As such, WHER broadcast for 17 years in the Memphis, Tennessee market.

Sam and Becky Phillips met while working in radio in Alabama. The two designed the concept of a female-only radio station as a way to corner an entirely untapped market and allow the talented Becky Phillips to continue working in radio – at that time, almost entirely a man’s world.

Co-owned by Sam Phillips and Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, the station was originally broadcast from the second-ever Holiday Inn in the country, out of an 18-by-35 ft room. According to Phillips, he brought many women into the studio to audition, each under the assumption that she was auditioning for the lone female broadcasting spot on a local station. Only a day or two before broadcasting began did the women learn that they would be the voices for a new format of radio: all women. The original on-air line-up included eight women, supported by one male technician.

According to Sam Phillips, the concept was a novel idea, “but not a novelty station.” Managed by both Becky Phillips and the no-nonsense station manager, Dotty Abbott, WHER hired women as announcers, sales people, and filled every possible position with a female. The women were not simply window dressing (though the Phillips and the station management proudly displayed the female “jockettes” whenever possible); they chose their own show formats and picked the music to play. They were in charge of technical aspects, like running the control boards and logging transmitter readings. But, the content – overseen strictly by Becky Phillips – was to be feminine. Love songs were the order of the day, not the rock and roll music that Sam Phillips had become famous for producing. Theirs was to be a specialty market, playing 12” LP records from sun-up to sun-down.

The station was initially targeted toward women. According to Sam Phillips, he believed that women would respond better to a woman’s tone and delivery than she would a man’s. A 1957 issue of Broadcast News Magazine wrote, “One of the biggest on-air problems are (sic) the baseball scores. There is something terrifying about them for some mysterious reason. Although the girls understand the UP Code, and know by consulting a chart which team is in which league – they can’t seem to make the scores sound believable.”[i] However, the same article noted that the female broadcasters and advertisers were able to move beyond selling spots to beauty parlors and dress shops and acquired sponsorships from auto repair shops and real estate agencies (gasp!).

The broadcasters were talented and professional, but it was almost too easy to capitalize on the camp of an “All-Girl” station in the 1950’s and 60’s. The station, eventually relocated to the Mid-City Building in Memphis, was painted in an all-pastel palette and the female broadcasters were stationed in a giant class cage surrounded by 8-foot mirrors. According to The Kitchen Sisters “Lost and Found Sound” segment on WHER, the on-air studio itself, called “The Doll’s Den,” was painted like a doll house and the Control Room was named, “The Playroom.” The engineering and sales offices were decorated with a clothesline draped with women’s stockings, slips, and other undergarments.[ii]

But, what now seems silly and, perhaps a little cringe-worthy, was somewhat revolutionary then. Dotty Abbott was once quoted as saying, “We are not trying to prove that we can get along in a world without men. We are simply trying to prove that when a group of women make up their collective minds that they are going to do something successfully, no force on earth can keep them from it.”[iii]

The women-only format lasted for sixteen years, until 1971, when the station was redesigned as WWEE, added male broadcasters, and moved more toward a talk radio format. Still, the trailblazing women of WHER made a lasting mark on radio in a time when women weren’t considered serious journalists or “real” reporters. Listen to the Lost and Found Sound segment, WHER – 1000 Beautiful Watts, and view a photo gallery of the pioneering women of WHER here.

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