Missouri’s state capital is represented in radio history by WOS, which broadcast in Jefferson City from 1922 to 1936. The station’s history lives on, in a small way, through the call letters of unrelated station KWOS, also in Jefferson City.
A 1968 graduate thesis on KWOS written by Frank Currier at the University of Missouri describes the origin of WOS in 1921:
The project got underway in the fall of 1921 when D.C. Rogers, then assistant marketing commissioner of the state and federal boards of agriculture, conceived the idea that a state-owned radio broadcasting station for the dissemination of marketing and other agricultural news would serve a considerable place in the affairs of Missouri’s farmers.
Not long thereafter, the first broadcasts were in code on 360 meters (833 kHz), using a 50-watt transmitter in the Missouri Capitol. They began in February, 1922. The Radio Service Bulletin issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce stated that WOS was licensed on February 23. The Currier thesis gives a date of March 7 for the first voice broadcasts. Governor Arthur M. Hyde issued a greeting to President Warren Harding that said, “Through our Missouri Bureau Broadcasting Station, I salute you by wireless”. The message was repeated in the “Continental Code” to protect against interference. (Columbia Missourian, March 7 & 8, 1923, quoted in the Currier thesis)
WOS maintained a schedule of brief market and weather reports during the day, with a one-hour “special radio program by telephone” three nights a week at 8 pm.
By August, the state installed a 500-watt transmitter and began broadcasting with the higher power on August 20.
Currier addresses the significance of the station’s call letters:
According to Jewell Mayes [secretary to the Missouri General Assembly], the call letters did not have any significance at the time they were assigned. However, subsequent events attached to the station and its call letters the slogan, “Watch Our State”. Mayes said the slogan was purely the growth of imaginative effort and that the matter was never considered officially nor adopted.
The early days of WOS featured programming that could be obtained without financial costs, often musical programming from inmates at the state penitentiary.
The most famous such inmate was Harry Snodgrass, who became known throughout the state as “King of the Ivories”. As a result of the popular response to Snodgrass’ broadcasts, a WOS announcer at the time negotiated a vaudeville contract for Snodgrass, secured Snodgrass’ release from prison, and became his manager.
The Currier thesis goes on to emphasize the importance of WOS in providing agricultural information to Midwestern farmers: “Station records indicate that it was not an infrequent occurrence to find stockmen and farmers around the state listening to crystal receivers provided as a public service by many radio dealers in their rural shops”. The daily 8 am reports “were said to be almost an institution with stock buyers who depended upon the information relayed to the station from Kansas City before dealing with brokers and sellers”.
In a 1923 reallocation, WOS wound up with an excellent dial position: 500 watts at 680 kHz. Currier reports that the WOS engineer and Marketing Bureau officials began making plans to boost the station’s power to 5000 watts, which would have been a high-power station at the time. But it never happened and WOS, in fact, began to face increasing uncertainty.
Especially key was the arrival of KFRU nearby at Columbia’s Stephens College on October 7, 1925. WOS made arrangements with Columbia’s other privately owned college, Christian College, to install a studio from which broadcasts began in December.
Currier refers to possible technical problems at WOS, noting a statement in the Columbia Missourian on June 8 that “‘KFRU would be technically superior to WOS'”. Currier adds that the newspaper claimed that WOS did not stay on its assigned frequency, but he “was unable to uncover the degree to which WOS was causing interference to other stations, if at all”.
After a brief period of chaos, the Federal Radio Commission was able to reestablish and strengthen radio regulation. The Kansas City Post published lists of the FRC’s multiple reallocations. The lists show that WOS was first moved to 760 kHz, then to 640 kHz, then to 710 kHz, then to 830 kHz and sharing time with Cincinnati station WSAI. WOS may not have broadcast on 760 kHz, however. The move to 830 kHz was ordered on November 17, 1927.
However, WOS did not move to 830 kHz and stayed at 710 kHz. It got away with it, according to a Kansas City Star report dated December 10:
Station WOS, Jefferson City, is not violating orders of the radio commission by remaining on 710 kilocycles, instead of changing to 830 kilocycles on December 1, it was announced today.
WOS was allowed to stay on its old frequency for a few days or a week because it was found it could not make proper time allocation on the new channel. […]
Protests have been received from the middle West because of interference of WOS with other stations, particularly WOR, Newark, the key station of the Columbia circuit.
Finally, in the November 11, 1928 reallocation of almost every station in the United States, WOS landed on 630 kHz, sharing time with KFRU.
With the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929, WOS began to feel the financial squeeze. It tried various approaches to resolving its financial difficulties.
In January 1932, Broadcasting reported that the Missouri State Marketing Bureau had leased the station to its manager, John Heiny, for two years. The lease required Federal Radio Commission approval, in what the magazine called “an unusual license transfer deal”. The Broadcasting report further explained:
Sufficient funds were not available from the state to continue the station’s services, the Commission was informed by Paul D.P. Spearman, counsel for the parties to the transfer. Accordingly, an arrangement was made with Capt. Heiny whereby the station will be conducted as before, continuing all its market and other official broadcasts without charge to the state but also selling enough of its time to sponsors of commercial programs to make it self-supporting.
But next month, Broadcasting reported:
STATION WOS, Jefferson City, Mo., will remain under state control and non-commercial with the rejection by Gov. H.S. Caulfield of the proposal that the station be leased to its announcer, John D. Heiny. The proposal to lease the station was made when it was found economies had to be effected in operation because of decreased appropriations. (February 15, 1932)
When J. Pemberton Gordon became station manager later in 1932, according to Currier, he “persuaded several Jefferson City merchants to purchase one-hour blocks of recorded music on the stations for a nominal fee of five dollars per hour. In return, the station announcer would state … that ‘the preceding musical interlude was “donated” in the public interest by …’ whatever merchant had bought the time”. Today the practice would be known as underwriting, common on public radio and television.
However, according to Gordon, Stephens College, which owned KFRU, complained about such underwriting and WOS was “forced” (Currier’s term) to stop. How or why WOS was “forced” to stop underwriting is not explained by Currier.
Financial stress continued to plague the station and, to help justify its existence, WOS began to allow the Missouri State Highway Patrol to use the station to communicate with patrol cars.
It was at this time that the station’s dependence on political support for its existence took a nasty turn. Missouri state politics were increasingly dominated by the Kansas City machine of T.J. Pendergast. Control of the station was turned over to the Highway Patrol on June 26, 1933 “for no apparent reason” according to Currier.
Even so, Currier’s thesis goes on to describe an incident that may have forced the move:
…[O]ne theory by the writer [Currier] that the shift was a political maneuver was supported by Leroy Hackman, a former engineer at WOS and [in 1968] chief engineer at KWOS. Hackman disclosed in an interview that one night during the last week in June, 1933, a Republican representative appears before the WOS microphone and delivered a prepared speech which, in essence, assailed the Pendergast “Machine” in Kansas City. To many listeners, it must have appeared a bold and surprising move for a station owned by the Democratically-controlled state government to broadcast the views of a Republican who dared openly to defy ‘Boss’ Pendergast. However, the unnamed representative had not revealed to the station manager, J. Pemberton Gordon, the text of his speech prior to airtime, and had thus violated station policy. Gordon, who was at the country club listening to the broadcast, promptly telephoned WOS and ordered the chief engineer, Fred Wickam, to ‘knock the station off the air’ by destroying all of the final tubes in the transmitter, and then to inform the representative that the station was dead. Within minutes after Gordon’s call, the station was off the air, the victim of a violent death.
A bill to transfer station ownership to the Highway Patrol, which would “avoid a recurrence of any more such anti-Pendergast broadcasts on the station”, passed the General Assembly within days and, on September 1, the Federal Radio Commission approved the transfer of control to the Highway Patrol.
This tale is consistent with one other report I have heard, from a source long forgotten. In that version, though, thugs under Pendergast’s control destroyed the WOS transmitter to take it off the air in retaliation for the broadcast.
In any event, the station’s history for the next two and a half years appears to be relatively undocumented. Currier’s thesis does not directly state when WOS left the air for good, but seems to indicate that it occurred the last week of December, 1935. An Associated Press dispatch dated March 28, 1936, published in the Kansas City Star the next day, succinctly tells the story:
Short-Wave Equipment to Replace
The state-owned radio station, WOS, which in recent years has been operated by the Missouri state highway patrol, passed out of existence today.
A short-wave station, to be known by the call letters, KIUK, will replace WOS. Work on the new station, which is now under way, is expected to be completed within a short time. Meanwhile, patrol bulletins will be teletyped to Columbia where they will be broadcast over KFRU.
The pioneering station is still commemorated in the call letters of KWOS, which was built by the Jefferson-City News-Tribune in 1937. According to Currier, newspaper publisher R.C. Goshorn began to develop plans for the station shortly after WOS left the air permanently. Interestingly enough, another broadcasting facility honors Goshorn: Jefferson City CBS affiliate KRCG-TV derives its call letters from Goshorn’s initials.
KWOS and competitor KLIK(AM) swapped frequencies on September 8, 1999; FCC records show that the call letters were swapped October 5, 1999. After its move to 1240 kHz, KLIK subsequently purchased by the Columbia-based owners of KFRU, who subsequently sold the station to Cumulus Radio. The KWOS call letters are now at 950 kHz, the former KLIK frequency.