The call letters WLOK originated in 1956 when frequency 1480 WBCR was sold to the OK group, a three-station chain from Louisiana. The new management changed the call letters from WBCR to WLOK. WLOK was the second Memphis radio station to offer programming directed entirely to black audience. As its influence continuously grew, WLOK underwent several changes to meet the demands of an expanding business. The station purchased and moved to a new building at the corner of Talbot and S. Second St in 1958. In 1963 WLOK changed to its current frequency of 1340. Starr Broadcasting later bought the station from the OK group.
A group of popular disc jockeys increased WLOK’s popularity. DJs like Dick “Cane” Cole and “Hunky Dory” increased WLOK’S rating. WLOK with only 1,000 watts surfaced as the young hip, black listener’s preferred station. While most of their parents were listening to rhythm and blues sounds of rival station WDIA, African-American teens and young adults were listening to the new soul sound of WLOK. By the mid 1960s, WLOK emerged as the top station for younger African-American listeners. After 1968 and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, tensions increased between blacks and whites in this city especially at stations with all-black programming that claimed to be the “voice” of the black community, but were white-owned and controlled by white management. Late in 1970, on air staff walked out of WLOK Protesting low wages and poor working conditions. After a 10-day strike and a series of negotiations that lasted several months, changes were made not only to benefit the programming staff, but also the black community at large.
First and foremost, WLOK hired an African-American station manager, Harvey E. Lynch. Furthermore, white ownership came to understand that the all-black programming staff knew more about what their listening audience wanted from a station, and the result was a greater emphasis on getting involved with the community. WLOK set up a community information center headed by the famous Joan E.W. Golden, “The Golden Girl”.
As the decade advanced, the station enjoyed close ties with the NAACP and civil rights organizations like Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), established by Rev. Jesse Jackson. A few of the founding members of the Memphis Chapter of Operation PUSH were full-time DJs at WLOK.
Even though the changes were positive, it wasn’t until February 1977 that the most significant change, from a racial perspective, happened at WLOK. Art Gilliam, a young, progressive-minded, Yale-educated black businessman bought the station in 1977, making WLOK the first black-owned (and the first locally owned) radio station in the city of Memphis. That same year, Melvin “A Cookinh” Jones was named Billboard Magazine’s #1 DJ of the Year. Under Art Gilliam’s leadership, the WLOK Stone Soul Picnic was organized and professionally managed, drawing tens of thousands of people to the Martin Luther King Park each year in the 1980s. By the mid-eighties, the station had changed its R&B format to a full-gospel format, and by the late nineties, WLOK had won honors and acclaim from every major gospel association in the country, earning for several consecutive years the title of #1 Gospel Station in the nation by Religion & Media Quarterly.
In February 1997, twenty years after WLOK became the first African-American owned electronic media outlet in Memphis, the station was recognized by the Tennessee Historical Commission as a Tennessee Historical Landmark.