Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg was a towering, iconic radio personality whose influence extended far beyond the medium in which she became famous. In a radio career that spanned forty-six years, she began as a pioneering R&B DJ on the legendary black station WDIA-AM in Memphis and later became both an inspirational on-air personality and radio station executive/owner in Detroit. From her earliest days, she exemplified the power of the DJ as a leader and spokesperson for a community of people. Looking back on her Memphis days, she once said, “At that particular time, you have to understand that you didn’t have any black politicians, no black judges, very few black lawyers…you didn’t have any so-called black leaders. So we were the ones who spoke out…” In later years, she used her position to help quell social unrest, wield influence among local politicians, and exert a profound impact on the personal lives of her core audience of blue-collar workers,. Known for her catchphrases (delivered in a warm Tennessee accent), her preacher-like broadcasting style, her majestic bearing, and her idiosyncratic wardrobe, including huge, extravagant hats, Steinberg was beloved by her Detroit listeners for forty years. So vital was she to the listeners of WQBH-AM—the station she owned—that they broadcast repeats of her programming for several years after her death in 2000.
Steinberg was born Martha Jean Jones in Memphis on September 9, 1930. Her parents enrolled her in a Catholic mission school, where she learned the value of hard work early, paying her way by helping nuns with kitchen work and cleaning. Later she met and married Luther Steinberg, a jazz musician/composer; they had three children before divorcing. Working as a nurse to support her family, Steinberg entered a contest for an on-air position at WDIA-AM in Memphis in 1954. She placed second, but was awarded a weekend slot anyway.
Though owned and run by whites, WDIA was—by most accounts—the first radio station in the country to have all black DJs playing all black music. WDIA—a 50,000-watt station that covered parts of five states—was the top R&B station in town “and perhaps the very soul of the town’s black community,” per Wes Smith, author of The Pied Pipers of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Radio Deejays of the 50s and 60s. The station had a profound impact on the self-image of a southern black population that until then had had no alternatives to white-dominated radio. Unlike most white DJs of the period, Steinberg and her WDIA colleagues were not shy about projecting their personalities on-air, a trend that caught on with white DJs across the country as rock ‘n’ roll radio exploded over the next several years. As author Jesse Walker recounts in Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, the DJs at WDIA and at other black stations cropping up across the South fueled the R&B revolution, “bringing a brew of blues, gospel, and swing to a radio dial dominated by pop and poppy jazz. Where older stations forswore the new wave of rhythm ‘n’ blues, rejecting the records for their gritty music and double entendre–laced lyrics, the younger jocks embraced the new sound. So did their audience—an increasing portion of which was colored pale.”
According to her Contemporary Black Biography entry, Steinberg was intimidated when she first went on air, self-conscious about not only her grammar and diction, but also her race and gender. “Being a black radio pioneer and being a woman, it was hard,” she told the Detroit News much later. “I always used to say, to be a woman in radio, you have to think like a man, act like a lady and work like a dog.” But she mastered the medium quickly, and soon was hosting WDIA’s evening prime-time R&B program, Nite Spot, in addition to a second program, Premium Stuff, favoring hot crossover groups like the Platters and the Drifters. In his 1992 book, Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA-Memphis Became the Nation’s First All-Black Radio Station and Created the Sound That Changed America, Louis Cantor wrote: “Sultry voiced is the only way to describe Martha Jean Steinberg! She exuded pure sensual excitement on the air and in person.” Recalling those years, Steinberg told Rebels on the Air author Walker: “We were shaping the minds and hearts of the people, and we did a good job. We encouraged them to go to school, to get degrees, to be educated. Told them about racial pride. We talked to young girls about not having babies. We kept our communities intact.” It was during this time that Steinberg acquired her nickname, “The Queen.”
Steinberg reportedly was whisked away from WDIA in 1963 by the owners of WCHB-AM in Inkster, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, as they traveled through Memphis en route to a convention. She adapted quickly to her new hometown, becoming an instant hit at WCHB before relocating to WJLB, one of Detroit’s first FM powerhouses, in 1966. Initially she hosted the same kind of R&B show as she did in Memphis, but her on-air persona gradually changed, becoming more serious, mixing in gospel music, current events, and inspirational talk. Her noontime show, Inspiration Time, became a must for legions of Detroit listeners. During the 1967 Detroit riots, Steinberg was on the air for forty-eight straight hours, preaching nonviolence and pleading with residents to get off the streets. In the seventies, she used her radio show to quell growing animosity between citizens and the city’s then largely white police force, regularly cohosting a call-in show with the city’s police commissioners titled Buzz the Fuzz.
In 1972 Steinberg became an ordained minister and founded a church called the Home of Love. Her radio programs began to focus even more heavily on gospel music and her own homespun brand of inspiration and self-help, aimed particularly at women. She spoke about God, civic duty, or moral issues like staying away from married men, and came up with signature catchphrases like, “Live, love, laugh, be cool, fight for happiness, pray for peace, and above all be kind”; “Go out and tell it like it is”; “I betcha!”; and her eventual sign-off, “God loves you, and I love you.” By this time she had become a Detroit icon, revered by listeners—particularly her “hard-working blue-collar workers”—and courted by politicians. However, the more she veered from secular music, the more out of place she seemed at WJLB, which wound up shifting her to early morning. In 1982 she joined with several partners to create a new gospel and talk station, WQBH (an acronym for either the Queen Broadcasts Here or Welcome Queen Back Home, depending on your source). In 1997 she bought the station outright and continued to perform on air until her death three years later.
In an extraordinary career spanning six decades, Steinberg transformed herself from a tentative, insecure R&B DJ into one of the most prominent people of any gender or race in radio, playing a key part in the evolution of both popular music and the relationship between radio personalities and their community of listeners. For these accomplishments, Steinberg was inducted into the Black Radio Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. But her greatest talent may have been her ability to touch the souls of her listeners, empowering them with her message of redemption, self-reliance, and self-respect.