KWEM Radio was set up by the KLXR-Razorback Network in 1946, in West Memphis, Arkansas. Efforts were made to get the radio station on air before the end of 1946, but equipment problems delayed the opening. Tests were made during the second week of January 1947, and the station's formal opening was held on February 23, 1947.
Their studios were at 231 Broadway Street in West Memphis, in the west side of the Merchants and Planters Bank Building, now the Regions Bank building. In 1954 a second studio was added at 64 Flicker Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The tower and transmitter were south of the viaduct between the Harahan Bridge and the U.S. Engineers Office. KWEM was a daytime station with 1,000 watts on 990 kHz.
George Mooney, sportscaster for the Razorback Network, was the manager. Other staff members were Bill Trotter, commercial manager; Frank Keegan, program director; Vernon Dillaplain, chief engineer; Erie Cutrer, salesman; Bill Garrett, announcer; Hal Hill, announcer; Douglas Clark, announcer; Johnny Kenlo, announcer; James Klaser, in charge of production; Betty Dabbs, receptionist; Jean Mooney, traffic director; and Ed Beck, engineer. Later, Franklin Page of Little Rock was added as an announcer. Officers of KWEM included, J. O. Johnson, president; J. W. Rich, vice-president; J. C. Mccaa, secretary; Melvin Dacus, director; and John Cooper, director. KWEM was later sold, and in 1960 would officially become KWAM.
KWEM Radio featured live music performance in the years from 1947 to 1955, a pay to play method generating revenue for radio stations who could not make enough money from conventional advertising sponsors and the spinning of records. Unknown artists who appeared on KWEM during the late 1940s and early 1950s were B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Scotty Moore, Stan Kessler, Warren Smith, Paul Burlison and Joe Hill Louis. All of these artists performed live on KWEM, and for many it was their first radio exposure. Listening to KWEM Radio would inspire another young West Memphis area youth, Albert King, to learn to play and he appeared to support his band at the T-99 Club in Oceola, Arkansas. He would launch his career and become a major influence on Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Joe Hill Louis began his music career with his own show in 1949. He would record for Sam Phillips that year. Louis moved to WDIA in the early 1950s and replaced B.B. King as the "Pepticon Boy". Louis would also become a Sun Records recording artist and session musician.
Sonny Boy Williamson II had become the most well known musician in the Mississippi Delta while appearing on the King Biscuit Radio Program on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Williamson arrived in West Memphis in 1949 and launched his own live daily KWEM program, sponsored by Hadacol Elixir. While at KWEM, Williamson worked with Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Parker, and James Cotton, bring his friends from around the delta to perform on his program. These included Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Robert Nighthawk (King Biscuit regulars) and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. B.B. King made his first radio appearance anywhere at KWEM in 1949, appearing on Williamson's show.
Howlin' Wolf was the first "colored" artist to have his own daily show on KWEM from 1949 to 1952, before progressing to help create Chicago's electric blues sound.
Elvis Presley's first radio appearance was on KWEM in 1953, performing first with Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio, and then with a country group, the Shelby Follin Band. Paul Burlison, guitarist for the Johnny Burnette Trio, had been performing on KWEM since 1949 and played with Howlin' Wolf.
Johnny Cash recorded a demo of a song he wrote, "Rock n Roll Ruby" in the KWEM studios. The song was recorded by Warren Smith for Sun Records after Cash and Sam Phillips appeared at the Cotton Club and offered Smith's band the chance to record the song.
Eddie Bond also played on KWEM, whilst his guitarist, Reggie Young, grew up around Blytheville, Arkansas. KWEM's station manager, Dick Stuart, became Carl Perkins' manager. Stuart's brother-in-law, Charlie Feathers, also appeared on the radio station.
KWEM is listed on the National Historic Buildings applications for Sun Studios and Graceland, as having been a major influence on Presley, and the Memphis area in the development and birth of rock and roll, along with WDIA.
KWEM returned to the air in March 2009, as a part of the Live 365 Radio Network (the largest radio network in the world), joining Disney Radio, Rock.com and others. KWEM is a web-based global broadcast station broadcasting around the world. The programing includes the historic music that started the station; it is also only one of two internet stations to broadcast the Beale Street Caravan.
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