The Tigers are on the air

Visitors to the Missouri Capitol have to have special permission to get up to the Whispering Gallery, the highest place in the rotunda.   To get there, they have to use a key to get the elevator to take them to the fifth floor of what appears to be a four-story building.   They get off the elevator, turn left go through a locked door, and climb a narrow set of stairs, and go through another locked door to the gallery, which is above the large chandelier.  

What most visitors don’t learn is the story of what is behind a locked door to the RIGHT of the elevator.   That is the room where the first broadcast of a Missouri Tiger football game took place, 91 years ago today. 

When Mike Kelly and Howard Richards and the rest of the Missouri Tiger Network crew hook up the microphones for the football broadcast next Saturday, they’ll be supported by a staff of producers at the game site and here at the Learfield Sports headquarters and they’ll be telling listeners to about fifty radio stations what  is happening on the field.  In addition, they’ll be reaching Tiger fans around the world on the internet.

Their broadcast will be a far cry from the first time a Tiger game ever aired.            

We are telling the story on today’s “Across Our Wide Missouri.”   You can listen to today’s broadcast of the program by clicking on the AOWM icon elsewhere  on this web page. (Better listen today if you want to hear it. Tomorrow there will be a new story under that icon.)

We had only about 480 words to tell the story on today’s program so we had to leave out some details.  So here’s a little more of the story.

Leaders of the State Marketing Bureau, now part of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, decided that this new thing called radio would be an ideal way to distribute information to Missouri farmers about prices, crop conditions, growing hints, and other information.  The legislature provided some money in 1921 to establish a radio station to do that.  The studio was to be in a room in the lower dome of the Capitol–which at that time housed almost all of state government including the Marketing Bureau.  The United States Department of Commerce, which handed out broadcasting licenses in those early days long before there was an FCC, assigned the call letters WOS to the station.  Although an early announcer claimed the call letters stood for “Watch Our State,” the fact is that the call letters were issued alphabetically in those days and the Missouri application was processed after a New York application that became WOR, a station that is still on the air.  

By the autumn of 1922, the station operators had determined that WOS needed something more than weather and agriculture reports and lectures by professors in the University of Missouri School of

Agriculture. Area entertainers were invited to the studios.  Church services were broadcast.  Some early syndicated shows were added. And, in November of 1922, a football broadcast was done. 

Sports and radio had discovered one another very early in radio history.  Eric C. Covill has written that  WWJ in Detroit pioneered sports broadcasting in 1920 with the heavyweight fight between Jack Dempsey and Billy Miske and a few dys later, with broadcating scores of World Series games.

Another pioneering station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, is credited with the first college football game broadcast–a game between Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

WOS decided to broadcast the Missouri-Washington University game on November 18, 1922.  We aren’t sure who the first announcer was but it might have been J. M. Witten, who is listed in the Official State Manual of 1923-24 as the station announcer (there was only one) and R.J. Engler was the engineer (the only other staff member of the station).

The announcer stayed in the studio in the Capitol dome while someone was dispatched to Rollins Field in Columbia for the game–this was three years before Memorial Stadium was constructed.  The person at Rollins Field had a telephone.  When the public address announcer announced the play, the person at the game would call the announcer in Jefferson City and tell him what the play was and the announcer would then open his microphone and tell listeners of WOS what had happened in Columbia.  A Jefferson City had announced the upcoming broadcast by saying the announcer would be telling listeners about each play “within five minutes” of when it actually happened. 

It is easy in these days when we can watch football games in real time in the palms of our hands to laugh at that remark.   But in the days when radio was nothing short of magic to its first listeners, hearing play-by-play in this format was an incredible experience. 

For the first time, followers of Missouri Tiger football unable to go to the game did not have to wait until their newspaper arrived the next morning–or whenever–to learn what was happening in Columbia. 

Missouri won the game handily,thanks to a young running back named Arthur Bond who was given his first varsity start because the teams’s star running back had been hurt a week earlier against Oklahoma. 

A little more than a week later, WOS broadcast the Thanksgiving game between Missouri and Kansas, one of the most dramatic MU-KU games ever. Missouri won 9-7 on a 49-yard drop kick field goal with little time left.  For that game, WOS sent its announcer to the game and he told people what the plays were as soon as the public address announcer told them to the crowd.   

And that’s how it all began.

Art Bond captained the 1924 team that played the university’s first post-season football game.  He became a Rhodes Scholar and a famous soccer player in England before returning to Missouri.  You probably have heard of his son, Christopher.  

WOS was once one of the most popular radio stations in the United States.  In 1924, J. M. Witten was voted the second-most popular announcer in the country, finishing behind George D. Hay of WLS, the Sears-Roebuck station in Chicago (WLS stood for “World’s Largest Store.”).  Hay left Chicago soon after and went to work for the new station set up in Nashville by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, whose motto was “We Shield Millions.”   And it was on WSM that Hay created  The Grand Ole Opry.

Witten gained his fame by promoting Harry Snodgrass, the piano-playing state penitentiary inmate who was voted by another broadcasting magazine as the most popular radio entertainer in the country in 1924.  

WOS also gained national notice with its annual fiddlers contests.   We have more of the Snodgrass/Witten/WOS story at http://harrysnodgrass.learfielddemos.com/

Radio broadcasting changed in the 1930s. Those changes and the Depression led the state to end WOS in the late 1930s.  

The door to the right of the Capitol elevator opens into an empty room today, or did the last time we were able to open it and peer inside.  There is nothing in the room and nothing next to the locked door into it that lets visitors know of the magic that happened there when radio was young and when the Missouri Tigers first game was broadcast 91 years ago today.

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One thought on “The Tigers are on the air

  1. Great storytelling. Informative, entertaining, educational, and timely. Good work all around.

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