It’s April 19, 1942, and the first broadcast of WJLD, a new radio station licensed out of Bessemer, Alabama, is on the air, broadcasting at 1400 kilocycles and 250 watts from 19th St. and 2nd Ave. inside the old Gary Hotel in downtown Bessemer. J. L. Doss and his brother J. R., who operated WJRD (get it!) in Tuscaloosa, got the license together. J. Ed Reynolds, who would eventually start WEDR 1220 in 1949, assists Doss. WJLD was the fourth radio station in the Birmingham area to hit the airwaves.
The transmitter was located on the Bessemer Super Highway near 31st St. Sorry no remote control yet and Ben Franklin, WJLD’s first engineer, is on site… and they played pop music and carried the programs of the Mutual Network which featured such news commentators as Gabriel Heater, Cedric Foster and Fulton Lewis Junior. WJLD also carried adventure series such as Tom Mix and Superman. J.L. Doss recruited some part time announcers out of Bessemer High School speech classes.
WAPI veteran Joe Rumore jocked. WASF Montgomery’s Leland Chiles, destined to run for the state senate, did news and sports. In 1943, Sadie Mae Patterson, with the sponsorship of Davenport & Harris Funeral Home, began the first gospel show. Sadie’s credited with giving gospel legend Alex Bradford his first break on the air.
In 1944, George Johnston I, organized the Johnston Broadcasting Corporation (father and son) and purchased WJLD. Black programming began under Johnston with gospel shows on the weekend. Quartets would buy time for $15 a half hour. Spots were two bucks. Trumon Puckett tried jocking country but it didn’t sell. He wound up hosting two hours of gospel mornings and two more at night and the “Old Gospel Ship” was born.
W. A. Clark from St. Peters Primitive was the first Black minister on WJLD around ’44 or ’45, later sponsored by Epps Jewelry Company. Deacon Richmond Davis was his announcer. Brother Davis — with a deep southern style — Stallworth and Johnson sponsored the Kelley Choral Singers with Norman “N.B.” Wooding, followed by the Four Blue Eagles. Willie McKinstry began his radio career in 1939 at WHMA Anniston, and in 1944 joined the Evangelist Gospel Singers on the air in Birmingham. At 82, N.B. is still on the air at WJLD every Sunday morning and currently, baritone of the Pillars gospel quintet.
In 1945, the station moved to the third floor of Bessemer City Hall (1800 Third Avenue North) and stayed there till ’47. Charles Manzella had an afternoon teen show. It was 1946 when Bob Umbach started the “Atomic Boogie Hour,” so popular it only stayed an hour for one day and eventually became six hours a day, Monday through Friday and five hours on Saturday! “Jive, Jam Boogie Woogie and Blues,” Bob played Christmas Blues by Gatemouth Moore while Gatemouth was still singing the blues. Johnston, Sr. was worried the KKK would chop down the tower but the ABH became the hottest sponsor draw in town. Payola was legal and Bob did well spending a lot of time at the Madison Nite Spot on the Bessemer Highway. Word had it that he was arrested by the Lipscomb police for dancing there on a Sunday and if that weren’t enough, that actress Jane Russell had the “hots” for Bob.
On the other side, this is “Your Roberta Roland” playin’ gospel and always working for the poor and using the airwaves to do it. Thank you Edwards Chevrolet for the Chevy station wagon. Willie McKinstry sang and MC’d on Sunday.
In 1947, the studio moved to the Bessemer Super Highway. Austin Auto Parts is now located in that building, which was specifically built for WJLD, with signature “port holes” for windows. In “46 and ’47, the most listened to were Trumon Puckett, William Blevins, Deacon Richmond Davis, Bill “Levi” Pope and Bob Umbach. Trumon organized the Hallelujah record label and recorded the Ensley Jubilee Singers singing “Glory Hallelujah.”
In ’48, Johnston constructed WJLN, an FMer at 104.7, atop Red Mountain with effective radiating power of 23,000 watts, reaching all the surrounding states.
The Welch Aggregation, the Sunlight Jubilee Singers and the Sterling Jubilees were on the air… the Sterling Jubilees sponsored by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).