They called it “the station with feminine flair at 500 beautiful watts.”
WLIZ, a tiny AM radio station on a Lake Worth back road, was a radical concept when it opened 59 years ago. In that pre-liberation era, when booming male voices defined the airwaves, the disc jockeys were all women. Or as their ads put it: “All Girl.”
A headline on an October 1965 Palm Beach Post story exclaimed: “GIRLS! — That’s What WLIZ Is Made Of.”
One of those DJs was “Dede” Hall, a Palm Beach Junior College student. “She narrates her program, schedules commercials and chooses records to play,” a photo caption read.
Years later, after she became TV soaps star Deidre Hall of “Days Of Our Lives” fame, she recalled working at the sunup-to-sundown station on 7th Avenue North.
“I wasn’t qualified or skilled, but they said we’ll teach you how to do it,” Hall told The Post in 2006. “I did everything - news, weather, sometimes I signed the station on, sometimes I signed it off. I did interviews, I read the commercials, spun records, gave the time, did the logging, I did it all.”
WLIZ, which began on May 1, 1959, is mostly forgotten now. But for a small operation, it had an outsized celebrity pedigree: It’s not every Palm Beach County radio station that has a connection to Deidre Hall, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and ESPN’s first female sportscaster.
And it all happened because the station’s creator believed that women could fill more than traditional roles. But then Sam Phillips was used to thinking outside the box. After all, he basically invented rock and roll.
From Memphis to Lake Worth
It’s an oft-told tale. In 1953, a young truck driver walks into Memphis Recording Service, a studio where owner Sam Phillips is dedicated to promoting music by overlooked black artists. Two years earlier, Phillips had produced Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” often cited as the first rock and roll song, in part because of a fuzz-drenched sound created accidentally from stuffing paper into a busted guitar amp.
Phillips believes he can make millions from a white singer who can translate black music to a mass audience. He eventually gives the truck driver a try. After a few false starts, the singer starts wailing on Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and Phillips immediately knows he’s found nirvana. The singer, of course, is Elvis Presley, and his singles on Phillips’ Sun Records label are nothing less than rock’s transformational blueprints.
A year later, Elvis has gotten too big for Sun, but Phillips is already focused on another business venture, “an idea as revolutionary as the original concept for the studio had been,” according to Peter Guralnick’s definitive biography, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
“He was going to establish the first All-Girl radio station in the nation.”
Phillips developed Memphis’ WHER partly as a tribute to his radio announcer wife Becky, and because he viewed women as “an underutilized resource, a vast pool of unappreciated talent,” Guralnick wrote. And the sex appeal angle didn’t hurt.
After WHER’s easy listening format became a success, a broadcaster friend in Lakeland told Phillips about an available frequency in Palm Beach County. By 1958, he was applying to build a second “all-girl” station in Lake Worth, wrote Guralnick.
Over the years, the Post and other outlets have reported that Phillips used the $35,000 he got from selling Presley’s contract to RCA to kickstart the Lake Worth station. That story is undoubtedly apocryphal.
As Guralnick tells it, Phillips was busy burning money on new Cadillacs and houses, promoting Sun stars Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (who then caused a worldwide scandal by marrying his teen cousin), as well as starting a new label and recording studio. Plus, there was a fair amount of womanizing: Phillips wasn’t a faithful man.
But he somehow juggled everything. Phillips, who didn’t like airplanes, would make long drives from Memphis to Florida, Guralnick reported. He found five acres off 7th Avenue North, erecting a compact white building with plenty of room out back for a towering antenna.
To stock the station, he sent down microphones, a mixing board and a reel-to-reel tape recorder that had been used to cut Presley’s first Sun hits. There wasn’t any sense that these were historic artifacts: Who knew that rock and roll was going to have a history?
As for his all female setup, Phillips didn’t see it as a novelty.
“It wasn’t a gimmick,” he told the Post in interviews over the years. “I felt women were good for more than reciting recipes on the air…We wanted it to be an all-women station for the women of Palm Beach County.”
Another woman — Liz Taylor — was the inspiration for WLIZ’s call letters because, as Phillips told a Sun Sentinel reporter, she “was the hottest female going in 1959.” The station’s slogan was “You’ll love LIZ, LIZ loves you.” Pastel lettering on the front door read: “Where The Girls Are.”
Despite Phillips’ feelings about women’s on-air potential, this was still 1959. A Billboard story on WLIZ’s opening said Phillips was taking a big risk: “It’s an axiom in radio, based on painful experience, that lady announcers don’t have what it takes.”
Local media coverage wasn’t any more enlightened. Few stories in the Post bothered to interview the female DJs, who had to be both on-air personalities and obtain third-class engineer licenses to operate the station’s transmitters. In the 1965 story that featured Deidre Hall, station manager Steve Keegan is the only one quoted, and he is described as “king of his harem” and “surrounded by lovelies.”
‘A great sisterhood’
The women finally got some overdue attention when it was too late: “Feminine Flair Vanishes Into Thin Air,” read the Oct. 16, 1966 Post headline. “All-Girl Station Has No More Girls.”
The Post’s Rhonda Glenn, a college golf champion and former WLIZ DJ who went on to become ESPN’s first full-time female broadcaster, reported that new management had dropped the “all-girl gimmick” and switched to “the usual male announcers.”
Glenn’s story said that more than 1oo calls came in protesting the change. She openly mocked the decision that men were better at radio: “Unfortunately, none of the girls had the sterling qualities of the new force, like a bass voice.”
Her story regaled readers with anecdotes about life at WLIZ. On-air puns: “And now, here’s the news from abroad.” Interviews with Jackie Gleason and Arnold Palmer. Glenn giving Burt Reynolds, then a young star of “Gunsmoke,” a staged golf lesson. The time one DJ ended a broadcast with a case of the hiccups. Doing remote broadcasts at Lake Worth Casino beach parties, and making appearances at parades and cow-milking contests.
More than 50 years later, one DJ still marvels at her “amazing” experience.
“It was a fun job,” recalled Jane Lamb Sidler, who was a disc jockey for several years in the early ’60s, as well as the station’s unofficial bookkeeper. “It was a great sisterhood.”
Her sign-on music was “(Theme From) A Summer Place.” They didn’t play Sam Phillips music on Sam Phillips radio.
“Some people today might call it elevator music,” she said of WLIZ’s playlist. “We did a lot of Percy Faith and his Orchestra. Dave Grusin picked up the beat a little. I remember on a Saturday morning I played something by the Monkees and I hoped my manager wasn’t listening because I wasn’t sure he would approve.”
She remembers interviewing The Lettermen singing group. And racing from classes at FAU down a two-lane Military Trail to make it on air. Or getting through morning gigs on coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes. “I remember my cigarette setting a fire in an ash-tray or trash can. You have to seem real cool on the air while at the same time you’re putting out a fire.”
The remote broadcasts and appearances could range from parties at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse to the time Sidler sat on top of a makeshift flying saucer at a farmer’s event. Her mother, a seamstress, made the gold “spacesuit” she wore.
And she still has it. “My sons used that for a costume all through elementary school,” said Sidler, now 74 and living in Fairview, Texas after a career in teaching and educational television.
She recalls Hall (“Tall, dark-haired and beautiful. Very poised”) and Phillips, who traveled with his brother Jud and a small entourage. There was never any talk of Elvis. “He was the owner,” she said. “It was all business. I was so young and naive…probably too naive to be impressed.”
Patricia “Pat” Sidman, a female trailblazer in South Florida radio, was an original WLIZ disc jockey.
“She was the early bird and did the morning shift,” remembered her proud daughter, Susan Sidman Murtagh, of Palm Springs. A painted sign in their house read “Early Bird Sleeping,” to remind the kids to be quiet when she needed rest for a sunup gig.
Murtagh would often visit the WLIZ studios and help her mom out, doing school safety public announcements: “Hi, this is Sue Sidman reminding you…”
She said her mother, who died in 2010, had an eclectic approach to the music she spun on ’60s radio. “She played everything from Dean Martin to Tijuana Brass to rock. She had very unusual taste.”
So why did Phillips drop his all-female format so quickly? Station manager Dave Webster told the Post in 1970: “It’s a well known fact that men do not like to hear women reading the news and sports.” So much for WLIZ championing women.
The easy listening approach also didn’t pay dividends. By 1969, WLIZ switched to a country music format and Webster claimed the change put the station “in the black for the first time in 10 years.”
In 1975, the station switched formats again to Christian music and was managed for a long time by Gene Tognacci, who in an earlier career had been a circus acrobat known as The Great Drisco. One of his stunts was being shot out of a cannon over the top of two ferris wheels.
Another change came in 1986, when Phillips dropped the LIZ and switched the call letters to WLVS to honor his connection to Presley. For a brief time, the station even interrupted its daily flow of sermons and praise songs for a 15-minute tribute to Elvis, which didn’t please some listeners.
In 1995, the station packed up its Elvis-era equipment and shipped it off to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Phillips died in 2003. The station was sold, and its call letters changed to WWRF Radio Fiesta, which today broadcasts a steady stream of Spanish pop for the Latin and farmworker communities.
A piece of history
If you drive out past the trailer parks and industrial buildings on 7th Avenue North, there’s not much to see on the property that Sam Phillips developed. The station’s broadcasting antenna is still there. But the low-slung white building is shuttered, its windows boarded up. Cardboard boxes and trash litter the ground.
Amazingly enough, a metal front porch railing survives from Phillips’ era. It’s rusted now, but you can spot it in pictures on the digital archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame. They show a nattily dressed Phillips and his wife in Lake Worth in April 1959, posing in front of the building with large, decorative W-L-I-Z lettering and the station’s 1380 dial number.
It’s a reminder that the man often credited with creating rock and roll also created something here. Not quite as earth-shattering as Elvis, of course, but it was also something never heard before — a social, on-air experiment 500 beautiful watts ahead of its time.