WAOK, an Atlanta AM radio station owned by Zenas Sears, 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.
Zenas "Daddy" Sears (1914-88), a white man known for his progressive views in regard to both music and social issues, began 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 and instituted an all-R&B format, the first of its kind. 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 as Willie Lee 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 his death in 1988. Zilla Mays, who died in 1995, was a mainstay of the Sears operation, remaining at WAOK until the early 1990s and logging a total of thirty-seven years at the station. In 2001 WAOK changed from religious programming to "urban talk." Zenas Sears was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1980.