Radiophone WOS

 and WOS Radio Reunion and Fiddling Championship

 

Table of Contents

FOUNDING OF WOS RADIO | Top

"Wireless the Wonder Worker" was the description given in 1922 to the new medium of radio by Missouri Secretary of Agriculture Jewell Mayes who believed that radio would revolutionize the lives of Missouri's farm families. The State Marketing Bureau (a branch of the State Board of Agriculture) began experimenting with wireless transmissions as early as 1921 under the progressive leadership of Colonel A. T. Nelson of Lebanon, Missouri.

Two-way wireless communication had been in existence for some time, first as wireless telegraphy and then as the so-called radiophone, which was familiar to many from service in the Great War. However, the idea of a one-way communication sent out into an area for the benefit of anyone who might care to listen was looked upon by many as nothing short of ludicrous.

Nonetheless, the Marketing Bureau continued its efforts to establish a station in the State Capitol and this was accomplished in March of 1922 with the installation of a commercially-built 500-Watt Western Electric transmitter on the roof floor. It was only the seventh set of its kind ordered in the entire United States. The government of the State of Missouri was among the pioneers of broadcast radio in America.

The operation of WOS was consistent with the primary mission of the Marketing Bureau, which was the timely dissemination of market news and agricultural information to Missouri's agricultural communities. Initially, there were few receiving sets in the state. These were often of the homemade variety and were located in banks, county offices, drugstores or other centers of community activity. The operators were instructed by the Bureau to record the market news on forms provided and then distribute the information by word-of-mouth and through the local press.

It was possible to purchase commercial receiving sets of both crystal and vacuum tube types (such as the Atwater-Kent, RCA Radiola, and the Crosley), but their cost was often prohibitive and their availability limited. Missourians were undaunted, however. By 1927 there were an estimated 70,000 receiving sets in operation on Missouri farms. There was actually little need to purchase a set since one could easily be constructed from common materials.

WOS PROGRAMS | Top

Although WOS was intended mainly for broadcasting farm market reports, programming was soon expanded to include informative agricultural addresses from the Missouri University College of Agriculture, programs from various state agencies, religious services, sports broadcasts (especially M. U. football), political speeches and all types of musical entertainment. Live music over WOS attracted special attention.

"Watch Our State" was the nightly admonition of "W-O-S" announcer J. M. Witten to listeners everywhere. With its expanded programming and a signal range which encompassed nearly the entire North American continent, people all across the nation began to listen to WOS. Its popularity rivaled such commercial "super stations" of the day as WLS-Chicago and KMBC-Kansas City.

The Marketing Bureau received thousands of letters each month from radio listeners complimenting the performances of the State Prison Band and Orchestra and their celebrated pianist Harry M. Snodgrass of St. Louis. Dubbed "the King of the Ivories," Snodgrass had been sentenced in 1923 to two years for attempted robbery. His virtuosity at the keyboard soon came to the attention of prison officials and they permitted him to perform over WOS.

Snodgrass developed an immediate following many of whom no doubt wondered how a man of such talent could have gotten into trouble. Legend has it that public outcry for his release became so intense that the state was forced to remove him from the air entirely.

Upon completing his sentence in 1925, Snodgrass and WOS announcer J. M. Witten left Jefferson City to tour the booming vaudeville circuit. In the course of their somewhat obscure career they cut at least one 78 rpm record on the Brunswick label which featured Snodgrass on piano and Witten announcing. Ironically, one of the selections on the record is "The Prisoner's Song."

OLD-TIME FIDDLING OVER WOS | Top

Given the general orientation of WOS to the rural listener it is not surprising that the first airing of old-time fiddling on June 24, 1923, was very well received. The fiddler for this historic broadcast was Louie Barton, a Jefferson City local. He was accompanied by George Schrimpf on bass and Noland Wrightman on guitar. The program also featured a square dance caller, Tony Eveler, and Bryan Williams on mandolin. The combination of Barton, Schrimpf, and Williams (on guitar) came to be called "The Old-Tyme String Trio" and was the "house" band at WOS for some time. It is worth noting that this WOS broadcast of traditional American music predates WSM's Grand Old Opry (November, 1925) by more than two years.

It wasn't long before fiddlers and old-time musicians from across the state were making the trek to Jefferson City to play on WOS. Legislators may have served as "talent agents" for WOS by encouraging musicians from their home districts to play at the Capitol. Friday night at WOS was fiddler's night and anyone who happened into the studio was welcome to play.

Kirksville journalist Captain Jack Heiny, known to the fiddlers as "Cap," was the announcer at WOS from 1925 to 1930. Heiny's voice was described as a "soft southern drawl...listened to nightly by war buddies all over the country."

Among the more than two hundred groups and individuals who played old-time music and song at WOS were several groups of rural black performers. One program listing cites "old-time colored fiddlers from Lebanon." Bill Driver, a black fiddler from Iberia, played at the Capitol. The legendary Bill Caton of Tebbetts in southern Callaway County, accompanied on guitar by Ola Gathright of Jefferson City, became a regular on WOS.

Old fiddlers contests were popular features on many radio stations in the 1920s. It is uncertain where and when the first broadcast fiddlers contest took place, but those at WOS were no doubt among the earliest. The first was held on December 31, 1925, and was broadcast live from the Capitol. The pre-contest roster boasted 82 contestants representing twenty-seven Missouri counties. The contest lasted well into the morning of New Year's Day, 1926. When contestants were not in the Dome studio they were filling the halls and rotunda of the statehouse with tunes and dances.

Judging for this and all subsequent WOS contests was by popular vote of the radio audience. A postcard was worth one point, a letter two, a telephone call three, and a telegram four. Fiddlers naturally encouraged their relatives and neighbors to cast votes for them. A tavern owner and fiddler in Northwest Missouri is alleged to have unsuccessfully offered funds to his patrons and kin to send in telegrams in his favor.

It took Marketing Bureau officials 13 days to count the more than 5,500 separate communications received. With the final tally completed, 70-year-old Kentucky-born Thomas Jasper Massie of Nevada, Missouri, was declared the winner. Daniel Boone Jones of Stephens was second, followed by Louie Barton of Jefferson City, Jess Burgess of Stoutland, and Aaron Oliver of Columbia. As prizes, winners received merchandise valued from 25 to 50 dollars.

An Interstate Old Fiddlers Contest was broadcast on WOS on April 2, 1926. The contestants consisted of two-man fiddling teams from Missouri and all states adjoining its borders. Missouri's duo, Daniel Boone Jones and Louie Barton, was selected in an invitational Missouri elimination on February 19. Tom Massie of Nevada, Missouri, was unable to attend. Fiddlers from other states were apparently chosen by their governors and included in their ranks such notables as WSM's Uncle Jimmy Thompson from Tennessee, Fiddlin' Sam Long of Oklahoma, and D. W. "Frame" Davis of Iowa.

Rules required that all music consist of old time tunes. Interestingly, the modern prohibition on "trick tunes" was apparently not in force, Thomas Fisher of Nebraska rendering "Listen to the Mockingbird" as one of his selections. Contestants were permitted only one accompanist playing either guitar, mandolin, banjo, or piano.

Telegrams and telephone calls inundated the Marketing Bureau throughout the night of April 2, 1926, as the competition continued into the wee hours. Governors of Illinois, Iowa, and Oklahoma sent messages which were read over the air in praise and support of their contestants.

To encourage listeners to cast their votes a variety of prizes were offered. All telegrams, postcards, and letters were numbered and placed in a huge box and the winners drawn by a blindfolded Governor Sam Baker. Premiums ranged from baby chicks to a house and forty-acre farm in Southeast Missouri.

The success of this promotion is evidenced in the more than 250,000 communications received. The local telegraph office estimated that messages were being taken at a rate of 115 an hour. In Miami, Oklahoma, where voting was heaviest, some 500 telegrams were filed at one time. The Northwest and Canada turned in a large number of telegrams. Poor weather conditions accounted for the small number of returns received from the Southeastern United States.

It was not until April 19, 1926 that the winner was announced. The Interstate Fiddle Champion was Daniel Boone Jones of Stephens. Jones, a merchant in Boone County, was not an old-time fiddler in the strictest sense. While a teenager he had studied for twenty months under violinist Professor Frederick Pannell at Columbia. He was equally proficient on sacred and modern pieces as he was on old time hoe-downs. Our current concern with a fiddler's pedigree and the distinction between "art" music and old-time music may have been unfamiliar to fiddlers in Jones's day.

Scholars and musicians have recognized differences between the playing styles of fiddlers in the northern and southern regions of the state. These differences were no doubt evident to those who listened to the competitions held between fiddlers from north and south of the Missouri River in 1927 and again in 1929. Notable in these competitions were Vee Latty of Callaway County, Johnny and Jack Stapleton of Camden County, Marvin Mitchell of Howard County, and Bill Huddleston of Oregon County.

In addition to these fiddling contests, an old time music contest for harmonica and accordion was held on January 25, 1928. Lee W. Hall of Warrensburg was named "State Champion Harmonicist."

DEMISE AND LEGACY OF RADIOPHONE WOS | Top

WOS continued to operate into the 1930s. Depression era belt-tightening forced the discontinuation of the Missouri Marketing Bulletin in December of 1931. The Bulletin, which carried the WOS program listings, had been distributed free of charge to Missouri residents since early 1922.

WOS ceased to exist in 1933. Reorganization of state government replaced the State Board of Agriculture and its divisions, including the State Marketing Bureau, with a new State Department of Agriculture. The WOS facilties were turned over the State Highway Patrol.

The existence of Radio Station WOS is significant to our understanding of government, commerce, and agriculture in the Missouri of the 1920s. "Watch Our State" was no empty slogan. The state had a spectacular new Capitol. Missouri was on the move into a new era of growth and prosperity. State government's innovative and visionary use of the fledgling technology of radio permitted the exportation of its message of hope and success to the rest of the continent.

WOS and the State Marketing Bureau led the nation in agricultural extension broadcasting. Even the USDA, which had initiated farm market news broadcasts, did not own a station. The tradition of serving Missouri farmers with broadcast news and information continues at the University of Missouri-Columbia to this day.

WOS Radio is among the most important themes in the history and development of traditional fiddle playing in the Midwest in this century. Before the 1920s, the development of fiddle repertoire and style was restricted and isolated within various geographic regions of the state. The broadcasts over WOS unified and in some ways may have homogenized fiddle playing in Missouri. Hundreds of impressionable young fiddlers in the 1920s undoubtedly attempted to emulate the playing of radio champions such as Daniel Boone Jones, Vee Latty, and others. These fiddlers are the master tradition bearers of today.

There is no direct link between the defunct state-owned WOS and privately-owned KWOS, which still broadcasts from its Jefferson City studios. However, the individuals who opened KWOS Radio in 1937 obviously knew of the powerful association which existed between the famous call letters and the capitol city. KWOS Radio stands as a tangible reminder of the days of "Watch Our State" Radiophone WOS.

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