The professional background of Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg was in nursing. But, she stumbled into broadcasting after she won a contest for an on-air job at WDIA. The WDIA was widely known to be a radio network with an all-Black staff though the ownership was white.
She took over the airwaves at Inkster, Michigan in the mid-1960s when the managers of WCHB-AM brought her over. Her influence in the broadcasting space kept growing when she later switched to a role as an on-air disc jockey at WJLB-FM where she played more gospel and ran social commentary, as reported by Detroit Historical.
She was on air for 48 straight hours during the 1967 civil riots in Detroit urging protestors to stay off the streets. Her show which saw her running commentary later progressed to become a regular call-in show with the city’s police commissioners called “Buzz the Fuzz.”
Media observers say she commanded the airwaves in a way that made her a larger-than-life figure in Black communities. She became a key figure who offered inspiration and influenced the African-American communities on issues that affected their daily life.
Memphis radio historian and former WDIA Engineer Louis Cantor in his book, “Wheelin’ on Beale” said Steinberg was initially gripped by fear when she walked into a room to be interviewed for her role as an on-air person. He recalled Steinberg reportedly saying her self-confidence was shaky because she felt her diction did not match up to those in the industry.
He said he admired her tenacity to fight the challenges that came up with being a Black woman in a white-dominated space. Steinberg in one of her interviews said she earned the nickname “The Queen” from her fellow DJ Robert Honeymoon Garner. She earned the nickname at WDIA while working a weekend shift on the male-dominated airwaves. She had to work twice as hard and in some instances think like a man to beat the competition.
The civic activist and trailblazing station owner was born Martha Jean Jones in 1930 in Memphis, Tennessee. She married Luther Steinberg but later divorced him. She had three children with him. She worked as a nurse to take care of her three children. In 1972, Steinberg moved into the priesthood and became an ordained minister establishing her own church.
Steinberg became the first African-American woman to own a radio station in 1997. She remained an on-air personality until her demise on January 29, 2000.
With a career spanning over four decades, Steinberg was inducted into the Black Radio Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an astute R&B DJ, civic activist and spiritual leader. Her influence was so huge that even after her death WQBH was still airing her daily recordings on the radio. The station was sold in 2004 to Salem Broadcasting and is now a conservative talk station, WDTK.