1570 Woodmont Drive, Tuscumbia
“We are the voice to and for our community… Educating while entertaining, that’s what this radio station does. We represent and advocate for the demographic that is often underserved.”
WZZA is the first and only locally owned African-American radio station in Northwest Alabama. Located in Tuscumbia, the station was founded by Bob Carl Bailey and his wife Odessa Bailey in 1972, and is operated today by their daughter Tori Bailey.
Born in Leighton, Alabama, Robert Carl Bailey (1935-2001) graduated from Leighton Training School in the mid-1950s and enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving a total of three-and-a-half years. Upon returning to the Shoals from Germany, where he had been stationed, he got his first job in radio as a disc jockey at WJOI in Florence, becoming one of North Alabama’s first African-American radio voices.
Bailey subsequently moved to Huntsville to attend Alabama A&M and work part-time at radio station WEUP. He went on to become the Huntsville Police Department’s first Black officer. Fired after complaining about the unequal treatment of Black officers by their White supervisors and colleagues, Bailey relocated to Triana, Alabama, where he served for one year as the city’s first black police chief before returning to the Shoals.
During the 1960s, while working at Star Motors in Sheffield, Bailey met the dealership owner’s son-in-law, Rick Hall. When Hall left the car business and started FAME Studios, Bailey introduced him to childhood friend and fellow Leighton native Jimmy Hughes, whose song “Steal Away” (produced by Hall) would become one of the Shoals area’s first million-selling singles.
Bailey, too, spent time in local recording studios and tried his hand at music production. He also operated several entertainment venues and teamed up with his friend Leonard Skipworth to promote concerts by James Brown, Clarence Carter, Little Milton and others at the Florence-Lauderdale Coliseum. In 1972, Bailey himself appeared on record, working with blues singer Z.Z. Hill at Broadway Sound Studio and contributing spoken-word vocals to his album The Brand New Z.Z. Hill, which featured the hit single "It Ain’t No Use."
Encouraged by Brown (who owned several stations) to get into the radio business, and inspired by WEUP owner Leroy Garret, Bailey co-founded Muscle Shoals Broadcasting, Inc., with a group of established White businessmen. Using Bailey’s money, the partnership purchased local station WRCK and dissolved a year later, at which point Bob Carl and his wife Odessa assumed full ownership and changed the call letters to WZZA.
"They knew that there was this need for a voice that was uncensored and unfettered. A voice that we controlled, that would speak to people in our community about issues that affected people in our community. A place where people could go to hear music, and not have to listen for an hour or two to hear a song that they recognized… There was a void, and they filled it."
In addition to serving the Black community in the Shoals by promoting minority-owned businesses, church services, school functions, live performances and other events, WZZA provided a platform for social commentary. Bailey held events to honor Black teachers, launched the first "Radio-thon" to promote awareness of sickle cell anemia (which disproportionately affects African Americans) and raised money for causes in the Black community. In particular, Bailey used the station to encourage Black participation in local elections, even arranging transportation to the polls for listeners on Election Day. He also used WZZA to support the presidential candidacies of Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson.
Bailey’s own experiences with racism were part of what motivated him to go into business for himself. After it became widely known that WZZA was Black-owned, some White businesses terminated their advertising, while others in the White community reacted with violence. Many White business leaders, however, eventually recognized the potential economic benefit of reaching out to a Black audience, and began to support the station by buying advertisements.
"There are still bullet holes at the radio station where the doors were shot out. There were incidents, one after the other. Someone threw a watermelon through our picture window. Someone shot at the radio tower. I think the final straw was when there was a cross burned at the radio station… Dad called up some of the local Klansmen, and he asked for a meeting. They came to the radio station, and he said, ‘I want to know why my business is being targeted.’ And they said, ‘It’s not us.’ Apparently, they were offended... that someone would burn a cross, because that’s their thing… So they investigated and they found the culprits… They even patrolled the station. And there were no problems after that. So the Klan handled the problem when law enforcement didn’t."
Tori Bailey has followed in her father’s footsteps as a community leader. An entrepreneur and philanthropist who donated money to feed the poor, helped churches and families pay bills, and worked tirelessly on behalf of community organizations, Bob Carl Bailey was “was doing what the NAACP was supposed to be doing in this area,” says Tori Bailey, who now serves as president of that organization’s Tri-County Branch. She also serves as chair of the W.C. Handy Music Festival and chair of the Colbert County Commission, and serves on several state and local boards, in addition to serving as general manager of WZZA and hosting its public affairs programming.