Published November 24, 2006
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – John R. Pepper II, co-founder of the first nationwide radio station with programming targeting a black audience, has died. He was 91.
Pepper died Monday at St. Francis Hospital after an extended illness, according to Forest Hill Midtown Funeral Home, where services were held Friday.
Still one of Memphis' top stations, WDIA-AM was the first in the South with an all-black on-air staff. Clear Channel Broadcasting Inc. now owns the station, which reaches five states.
WDIA, which Pepper founded with Bert Ferguson in the 1940s, helped launch the careers of B.B. King and Isaac Hayes, among others, and eased the way for blacks throughout the country to break into broadcasting.
Hayes was a member of the station's "teen-town singers," and King, whose real name is Riley King, picked up his stage name while working as a WDIA disc jockey from 1949 to 1955. He was known then as the "Beale Street Blues Boy" and later as simply "B.B."
Pepper also founded what later became Pepper Tanner Advertising Agency.
Pepper is survived by his daughter, Dianne Gilliland of Memphis; two sons, Sam Pepper of Anchorage, Alaska, and John R. Pepper III of Huntingdon, Tenn.; and a granddaughter.