WLOK Owner Art Gilliam Recounts Memphis History and a Time of Change

    By Drew Smith

    As the featured guest at the PRSA Memphis February luncheon, local entrepreneur Art Gilliam looked back over his storied media career and shared his memories of acquiring radio station WLOK in 1977. Gilliam made history with that move, when WLOK became the first radio station in Memphis to be owned by an African-American and he became its CEO.

    Gilliam's ownership brought change to a station struggling with its identity. He recounted that the programming staff was black, while sales representatives and leadership were white. Concerns about content upsetting advertisers had caused management to drop progressive shows.

    Prior to purchasing WLOK, Gilliam was already an established voice for African-Americans in Memphis. Starting in 1968, he wrote weekly editorials for The Commercial Appeal, leading local television station WMC to ask him to become the first African-American reporter and weekend anchor in the market.

    After working as an administrative assistant to Harold Ford, Sr., the draw of media as an agent of change called Gilliam to radio station ownership. When the opportunity to buy WLOK presented itself, Gilliam decided to purchase it to help the African-American community in Memphis. But at the time, the station didn't reflect the vision he and others aspired for the city to reach.

    “There was segregation, not only in Memphis, but also in the radio station,” Gilliam explained. "We made changes to our staff that helped us connect with the community and establish us as a voice for African-Americans."

    Bringing diversity to the staff by hiring more African-Americans and women behind the scenes helped WLOK innovate. Gilliam led the charge to bring back progressive content and helped establish the radio station as a place to hear the African-American perspective. As WLOK’s popularity grew, so did its community presence through such popular events as the Stone Soul Picnic, which was organized by WLOK and grew into a popular annual tradition.

    The changes also helped with the bottom line.

    "Showing advertisers that WLOK had access to this niche market was key to growing WLOK, and the changes we made helped ensure that we did," Gilliam said.

    Following his interview during the luncheon, the broadcasting pioneer took questions from the audience. When asked about the push back he experienced as he worked to change the status quo, Gilliam had a ready response.

    "I didn't focus on the push back, but the push forward."

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