As one of the first female DJs and also one of the first African-American DJs in the States Martha Jean ‘The Queen’ Steinberg was hugely influential, progressive, inspirational and not one to shy away from a challenge.
Born Martha Jean Jones in Memphis, Tennessee in 1930 she married Luther Steinberg, qualified as a nurse and had three children before entering a talent contest in 1954 hosted by local radio station WDIA. She came second but was still offered a spot on the weekend show and from there progressed to become host of the prime time weekday evening show. Her sultry vocals became popular with the listeners and her unique role as a female DJ cemented her popularity.
WDIA was the first African-American radio station in the US and its importance in terms of how it influenced the self-image of the Southern black American population is difficult to overstate. In 1954, the same year Steinberg started on air, WDIA were given license to increase the power of their signal enabling them to be heard down in the Mississippi Delta which potentially connected them with some 10% of the USA’s African-American population.
Prior to this African-Americans had little choice but to listen to anodyne white-bread radio where the announcers where encouraged to be as bland as possible. It was the introduction in the late 1950s of R&B plus African-American DJs such as Steinberg and her colleagues on WDIA that pioneered the concept of the DJ as a personality and not simply an adjunct to the music. From here on in music radio changed beyond all recognition and Steinberg’s part in this was later recognised when she was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
In 1963 Steinberg moved north to Detroit where she joined WCHB-AM and from there moved to major local broadcaster WJLB where she stayed for the remainder of the 1960s into the following decade. Around this time, perhaps reflecting her increasing maturity as an individual and also the ongoing tensions in race relations at the time she changed her broadcasting style to become more serious. During the 1967 Detroit riots Steinberg stayed on air for a full 48 hours urging calm and shortly after hosted a phone-in show involving the local police aimed at bridging the gap between the authorities and the local black American population.
In 1972 Steinberg found her calling and opened a church called the House of Love on Detroit’s west side. Over the next three decades she developed the church and continued her broadcasting career. In 1982 having been marginalised by WJLB she went on to start her own Detroit-based radio station – WQBH – focusing on gospel music and inspirational talk. Steinberg maintained the station’s name was short for Bringing the Queen Back Home.
The Queen continued to broadcast on WQBH until two weeks before she passed away in January 2000. In her obituary the Detroit Free Press pointed out that her favourite word was Love.