Arkansas AM Station That Launched Legends Returns

Decades ago, unknown blues musicians paid $15 to appear on an east Arkansas radio station, hoping a few minutes of exposure would help them become the legends they now are: B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Ike Turner.

KWEM-AM fell silent in 1960 after more than a decade in the Mississippi River town of West Memphis, which musician Rufus Thomas then called “the Las Vegas of the South.” Fifty-four years later, the station will be revived online this week by Mid-South Community College and on 93.3 FM by mid-August.

“Those musicians that came through KWEM were making great music, but moreover, they were making history,” said Diane Hampton, the college’s vice president of institutional advancement. “And the radio station preserves that history better than anything we could think of.

“It’s one thing to tell it. It’s another thing to hear it.”

KWEM’s original frequency has survived as KWAM in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis resident Dale Franklin purchased KWEM in 2009, briefly bringing it back on the air via the Web. He later sold it to Mid-South Community College, choosing the West Memphis school because he says he “wanted it in the right hands.”

On Thursday, the school will host an event called “Flip the Switch” to celebrate KWEM’s return to broadcasting online.

Mid-South wanted to “capture the story, before everybody got so old that they couldn’t remember it,” college president Dr. Glen Fenter said.

West Memphis used to be a destination spot for musicians, because, according to station historian Franklin, the city had “everything you’d have on Bourbon Street” in New Orleans.

KWEM began broadcasting in 1947 and offered unknown artists — such as Scotty Moore and Johnny Cash — to perform live as long as they paid the fee or found a sponsor.

Resident Mary Toney, 67, recalled listening to KWEM as a child while her uncle drove her around town in his red GMC pickup. She also serves on the college’s board of trustees.

“It was just what you did. You turned it on with pride because it was in your town,” she said.

Toney remembers thinking that B.B. King’s voice was “impressive” when it came on for a commercial. She was familiar with him already: His voice used to ring through the walls of her childhood home on summer nights when he played at Square Deal Cafe, which was just a street over from her home.

“You would hear him playing on the weekend, because it was hot and the windows were open,” she said. “There was no air conditioning.”

Station manager John Bennett won’t reveal what will be KWEM’s inaugural song when it officially comes on the Web this week.

“It’s top secret … we’ve got to have suspense here, to sweeten the pot,” he said.

And while it’s a challenge to bring back the station’s history and inform listeners about contemporary artists that were influenced by the live music played years ago, Bennett said, “it’s a really good, fun challenge.”