On an AM Radio Station

People always said good ol’ Sam Anderson knew how to make a nickel go a mile. That was a great attribute to have in a small town, Helena, in the middle of farm country in the Mississippi Delta region of extreme eastern Arkansas in the 1930s. Sam was also one of the first people to invest those nickels in communication, specifically, one of the first AM stations in that part of Arkansas. KFFA was set up by Sam and the US government in 1941, and it operated a full day’s programming of music and news.

The station made good money for Sam. In later years, his son complained that Sam never gave him an allowance despite the good living the station provided; however, Sam did allow the son to sweep up the station and empty the trash for a nickel a week. Sam had a lock on the local businesses advertising on his station, but he was always looking for another way to make a buck.

Now you have to remember that Arkansas in the 1940s still was an extremely segregated society. Blacks and whites did not intermingle in the schools or the churches or the stores. The only time a black person would be in a white person’s house would be if he or she was employed or doing some kind of work for the white person. But Sam was a smart enough businessman to realize that there were black-owned businesses whose money was just as green as the white businesses owners’ money was. So, Sam developed an idea.

He knew that lunchtime was a period when the local black population would have about an hours’ break in the middle of the day. He also knew that while they ate their lunch, many of these black citizens would listen to the radio. Sam decided to dedicate that lunchtime hour to selling advertisements to black businesses aimed specifically and targeting the black lunchtime listening audience. Almost no white businesses reached out to black-owned businesses in the south at that time. Even more, the programming that Sam decided to put on the air for that hour was what most people referred to as black music—Mississippi Delta Blues.

So, for all of the day except the hour around noon, Sam’s radio station was listened to by the white population of Helena and the surrounding area. At noon, most white folks turned off their radios or switched to one of the nearby Memphis, Tennessee stations because they didn’t want to hear that Blues music. After lunch, the locals turned their radios back to KFFA.

There’s something you might already know about AM radio. The AM signal, if it is strong enough, can carry a long way. For sure, several things can interfere with AM signals—metal buildings, solar flares, and even electric lights—but some strong AM stations can be heard hundreds of miles away across open land. Sam’s station had an effective radius of 150 miles in any direction. That took the signal as far as the Mississippi Alabama State line. In fact, it was in a town in Mississippi near the Alabama State line that KFFA was heard by a young man in the early 1950s, and what he heard changed his life.

This young guy was poor, so poor that his family was looked down on by most of the other white families in the neighborhood. They were so poor that some of this young man’s friends included members of the black community, and that was a rare thing in that time and place. But what the young man heard on KFAA changed him. He made sure he listened every noon time to the Blues music that was pouring out of Sam’s radio station. He decided he wanted to learn to play that kind of black Blues music because of what he heard of KFFA.

And that happened because good ol’ Sam Anderson wanted to make more money.

You know this young blues fan as Elvis Aaron Presley.

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