Legendary Airwaves: KWAM Radio



Radio has been a throughline for America’s modern history. The soundtracks of our lives were broadcast over the local airwaves, long before satellite and streaming services, and KWAM is one of those stations still in operation today. With this rich history and who’s who of performers and disc jockeys, KWAM is being honored this summer as the 2024 Legendary Station of the Year by the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame (TRHOF). Brian Craig, Historian for TRHOF detailed the selection: “From the blues of Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson to the rockabilly and country of Johnny Cash and Eddie Bond to the many gospel quartets that performed live on Cousin Eugene's show, so much of the influential music that came out of Memphis and the Mid South in the 1950s was first heard on KWAM.”

The station was founded in 1947 in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the original call letters of KWEM reflected the broadcast location. (The call letters were later changed to KWAM, but it is the same station and has been continuously in operation since the initial launch.) It was built as part of a statewide network of stations to carry Arkansas Razorbacks football games and to promote coverage of their football program in the eastern part of the state as well as the larger Memphis area. Also in that era, West Memphis was described as the “Las Vegas of the South” and a lot of talent was drawn to the area to perform in the clubs along Broadway Street and subsequently live on-air at KWEM.

The roster of performers on KWEM is a who’s who of singers and musicians that shaped an era. The legendary blues singer and guitarist Howlin’ Wolf started his career at KWEM. He had a show on the station from 1949 through 1952. It was during this time that Ike Turner heard him, and he introduced him to Sam Phillips at Memphis Recording Service. Shortly after, Howlin’ Wolf moved to Chicago, and his legendary music career was launched.

Sonny Boy Williamson, another blues great, also had a popular program on KWEM, and he gave Riley King from Itta Bena, Mississippi, an opportunity to play on his program. The young blues player became none other than B. B. King, and Sonny Boy is credited with giving him his start in the music business on KWEM radio. As was the practice during that era, the station allowed aspiring musicians to pay $15 or $20 for 15-minute blocks of air time to play their music live on the air in hopes of being discovered. Johnny Cash's first radio broadcast was on KWEM in 1953. Also in 1953, a young Elvis Presley made his first radio appearance on the station. That  performance was not especially successful because he did not have a band, and he moved around too much. The exposure on KWEM for both Johnny and Elvis eventually led to contracts with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, and the rest is music history. More than 200 artists played live on the station, and many went on to recording contracts and successful careers in the music industry.

The original studio was located at 231 Broadway in West Memphis before moving across the river to Memphis in 1953. The station was housed in a WWII-era quonset hut at 64 Flicker Street where it remained for several decades before moving to the present location in East Memphis. The call letters were changed in 1959, replacing the “E” with an “A,” becoming KWAM. In addition to the performers, many other radio and music professionals got their start there including George Klein, Jim Stewart (Stax Records co-founder), and Eddie Bond, a singer, club owner, and jack of many trades.

Jerry “The King” Lawler is another notable Memphian associated with KWAM, eventually helping him to get his start in the world of wrestling. Jerry was hired to paint artwork at a steakhouse co-owned by Jackie Fargo, the famous wrestler, and Eddie Bond. Eddie was also a deejay and manager at KWAM, and he hired Jerry as a deejay at the station. Jerry promoted wrestling on the air, which led to getting in the ring himself and becoming The King. Once again, KWAM was instrumental in impacting Memphis history.

Through the decades, KWAM continued to broadcast and build on its rich history. In March 2020 the station was acquired by Starnes Media Group, led by Todd Starnes. A native Memphian, Todd built a successful career as a conservative American columnist, commentator, author and radio host before returning to his hometown.  Memphis was once known as having one of the most vibrant and diverse radio communities in the nation. And we wanted to do our part to restore some of the luster to live and local radio,” Todd stated.

The KWAM legacy continues with a diverse mix of nationally syndicated programs and locally produced programming. “When I bought KWAM I wanted to create a radio station that would be a gathering place for conversations - the front porch of the Mid-South. And my goal was to deliver excellence in broadcasting to our city,” said  Todd. “Our team has not only embraced that calling, but they have excelled.” 4Memphis radio partner Earle Farrell hosts the longest running program on KWAM with The Earle Farrell 4Memphis Show airing daily 3-5pm. “I’m so thankful this honor is being bestowed on KWAM radio,” Earle said. “I started my show on this historic radio station 14 years ago. It’s truly an honor to be listed with all the greats who have been heard on this great radio station over the years.”

With a tradition of legacy and excellence in broadcasting, Todd notes that in the past four years, KWAM has been recognized for broadcasting excellence. “KWAM is the only radio station in the Mid-South to win a regional Edward R. Murrow Award. The station has also been honored multiple times by the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters for our news coverage and our talk programs,” he shared. Congratulations to Todd and the entire team at KWAM for being honored as a legend on the airwaves, impacting radio history in Tennessee with music heard around the globe.

Share Legendary Airwaves: KWAM Radio for 4Memphis!