How WERD became the first Black-owned radio station in the U.S.

The station didn’t just broadcast Black jazz and blues performers; it empowered Black Atlantans working to create change during the civil rights movement

Remembering WERD
Paul E.X. Brown provided political commentary and programming at WERD in the 1950s.

Photograph courtesy of Indiana University; Jack Gibson Collection

From Black-owned financial institutions and restaurants to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the NAACP, and the legendary Royal Peacock nightclub, Atlanta’s Black history makers have always made their way to Auburn Avenue. So it should be no surprise that, tucked away in a small brick building on that iconic street, is the site of the first Black-owned radio station in the United States, WERD.

WERD was purchased by Jesse B. Blayton Sr., Georgia’s first Black certified public accountant, in 1949 for $50,000. Blayton, who was also a bank president and professor at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), then hired his son, Jesse B. Blayton Jr., to work as the station manager.

“One thing that’s not talked about a lot is, originally, WERD was not on Auburn Avenue. It was on Broad Street, and it was a white country music station,” says Marsha Washington George, president of the local chapter of the National Black Radio Hall of Fame and author of Black Radio . . . Winner Takes All. George’s uncle, Ken Knight, was the station’s first program director, and today George owns the rights to the call letters. When the Blaytons bought the station, its original building would not allow Black people to use the restrooms, so the Blaytons moved their operation to the second floor of Auburn Avenue’s Prince Hall Masonic Grand Lodge on October 3, 1949.

WERD quickly became a staple in Atlanta’s Black community after Blayton Jr. hired Jack Gibson, also known as Jack the Rapper, to be the station’s announcer. But the station didn’t just broadcast Black jazz and blues performers; it empowered Black Atlantans working to create change during the civil rights movement.

“During those times, we listened to folks that were discussing the issues going on, getting things for our future generations established, and in support of making our community better,” says George. Martin Luther King Jr., whose Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices were located in the same building, made public statements and announcements on WERD. The station also broadcast King’s Sunday sermons.

“They came into something that was more magnificent than anyone thought it was going to be,” George explains. “WERD became a community-oriented phenomenon.”

Today, WERD broadcasts online at Live365 while the station makes plans for a traditional broadcast channel. “We’re just playing a mixture of music right now, as we train the DJs who are going to be coming on board—then we’ll start doing our program formatting,” says George.

As for its historic home in the Masonic Lodge, the building is currently being restored, with plans to open a radio studio and museum there in the next few years.

This article appears in our November 2023 issue.