Zenas "Daddy" Sears was a white man known for his progressive views in regard to both music and social issues, began his career as a disc jockey after being exposed to black music via the Armed Forces Radio. After leaving the army in 1945, he took a job at WATL in Atlanta, and in 1948 he moved to WGST, a station located on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus. His show "The Blues Caravan" aired nightly on the station, and Sears soon moved into promoting and arranging live performances, including talent shows featuring local Atlanta artists like Tommy Brown, Billy Wright, and Chuck Willis, as well as regional performers like Little Richard.
In March 1954 Sears left WGST and, working with a group of investors, in 1956 purchased WATL (located at 1380 on the AM radio dial) from James Woodruff for $500,000. He changed the call letters to WAOK changed the format. It was one of the first in the nation to feature as its primary format such African American musical forms as blues, rhythm and blues (R&B), and soul.
Sears's program "Diggin' the Discs" became enormously popular and was eventually syndicated around the country, including markets in Newark, New Jersey; Chicago, Illinois; and Norfolk, Virginia.
In addition to Sears's show, WAOK featured programs hosted by such local Atlanta R&B luminaries such as 2007 Georgia Radio Hall of Fame inductees William "Piano Red" Perryman and Zilla Mays. Mays started on WAOK as "The Mystery Lady" in 1954, and in 1955 (after revealing her identity) she hosted the "Dream Girl Show." Sears, with help from Mays and Perryman, started the WAOK Road Shows, traveling revues that brought R&B and gospel music to venues around the Southeast. Sears was also involved in promoting and recording the concerts of the era's top R&B artists, including a 1959 appearance by Ray Charles that was eventually released by Atlantic Records as Ray Charles in Person.
During the early 1950s, in addition to his radio work, Sears became a representative of RCA Victor's Groove Records imprint and produced for the label records by Mays, Perryman, and other R&B artists of the period. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he became involved with the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., and his social views were reflected in WAOK's programming, which included such programs as Two Worlds, a talk show that fostered dialogue between blacks and whites in and around Atlanta, and a show featuring Sears and James "Alley Pat" Patrick, a popular black disc jockey in Atlanta.
In 1968 WAOK altered its format from R&B to soul and in 1980 became a gospel station. Sears stayed on as program director until health problems forced his full retirement in 1982.
Sears also appeared in two movies, "Jamboree", a late 50's rock & roll film which featured 21 of America's top rock-and-roll deejays and "The Legend of Blood Mountain" in 1965.
Photos courtesy of the Sears family for exclusive use by the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame
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