Tracy Bethea

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Tracy Bethea has a few ideas in mind to expand WDIA’s reach into the community, such as taking The Bev Johnson show on the road or Stan Bell showing up in a neighborhood park and playing music.

“WDIA [1070 AM] is a community station. It always has been. That’s why they were the goodwill and good times station,” said Bethea, referring to a slogan the radio station used decades ago to promote its community involvement. 

Bethea now has an opportunity to implement her own ideas, forge her own path, as WDIA’s newest program director, a position that had been vacant since the death of Bobby O’Jay in May of last year.

Since Bethea is the program director and on-air personality for 95.7 Hallelujah FM, WDIA’s sister station, she had been “helping out” at WDIA before Sue “Big Sue” Purnell, senior vice president of programing for iHeartMedia Memphis, offered her the position.

“I was already doing things that programmers do anyway,” said Bethea, adding that a job search for the program director’s position had already been initiated before she was tapped for the job.  

Feeling a sense of joy and pride, Bethea still had to think about the offer and talk it over with her husband. It meant extra work, she said. [But] then she prayed about it and decided to take the job. 

“I said, you know what? This is a full circle moment for me. And to continue the legacy [at WDIA], it’s my honor,” said Bethea, also giving honor to O’Jay for his groundbreaking work at the station.

“I learned a lot from him,” said Bethea. “And so, when I became a program director at Hallelujah FM, he would tell me, ‘Tracy, I’m so proud of you.’” The compliment still warms her heart.

Bethea’s “full circle moment” began in 1987 when she interned in the newsroom at WDIA, the first radio station in the country to switch its format in 1947 to all-Black programing and all-Black on-air personalities.

“I worked there for 10 years overnight and on Sundays,” said Bethea, mulling over her ascension at WDIA. Over the years, she was dubbed “The Young One,” the female voice of gospel.

She continued to climb the proverbial ladder one rung at a time. Her passion for the job soon blossomed into opportunities. One of them was launching the 24-hour gospel station KWAM 990 The Light, where she served as chief operator.

In 2002, she played an integral part in Clear Channel Communication’s launch of Hallelujah FM, also a 24-hour gospel station, before Clear Channel was rebranded iHeartMedia, Inc. 

Bethea has been with Hallelujah FM since its inception and has been programing since 2016. “We just celebrated 20 years on the radio,” she said, then touted the station’s rank among the top five in Memphis.

“We also have Hallelujah radio stations throughout the Southern region, including St. Louis; Jackson, Miss.; New Orleans; Birmingham, Ala.; Mobile, Ala.; Montgomery Ala.; and Savannah, Ga.”

iHeartMedia, Inc. syndicates Bethea’s mid-day show throughout the Southern region. She wears several titles now: Hallelujah FM’s program and music director, music supervisor of gospel for the iHeart Media Custom Brand, and now WDIA’s program director.

“I’m passionate about the station,” said Bethea. “I grew up on WDIA… and I want to take it higher. My plans are to first and foremost continue to be the heart and soul of Memphis.”

“The Heart & Soul of Memphis” is WDIA’s current slogan.

“Overall, the community is my biggest thing,” she said. “I want us to show up more in the community. But the music won’t change because people love the music.”

Bethea has more than 30 years in radio. She is a two-time Stellar Award-winning “Announcer of the Year” and was inducted by the Stellar Awards in 2002 and 2016. She also accepted the award for “Radio Station of The Year” three times.

In 2015, Bethea was inducted into the Emissaries of Memphis Music, which was presented by the City of Memphis. She also served on several boards. Now she’s the first Black woman to take the helm as WDIA’s program director.

It didn’t dawn on her that she’d made history “until Bev Johnson reminded me of it.”