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Broadcasting the Ozarks: An exhibit on Missouri's forgotten music empire

A logo for the Broadcasting the Ozarks Exhibit
State Historical Society of Missouri
Artists like Johnny Cash performed during local musical events, like the Ozark Jubilee.

Wayne Glenn is in his 70s, and he’s sometimes called “The Old Record Collector.” He started collecting records in 1969, which led to learning about the people on and behind the records, too. That led him to KWTO and, eventually, to speaking at an exhibit called Broadcasting the Ozarks: A History of RadiOzark Enterprises.

The exhibit is traveling around the Ozarks, and it explores the career of Ralph Foster, who was the long-time president and manager of KWTO.

Glenn grew up an only child, and the radio was constantly on – while they milked cows, while his mother worked in the kitchen.

“Growing up on a farm, I had to entertain myself,” Glenn said. “And one of the ways that I did that back in the 1950s and early 1960s was to imagine I was a radio announcer.”

Keep Watching the Ozarks, or KWTO Radio, was the radio voice of the Ozarks from the ‘30s to the ‘60s.

“In radio, when you’re totally live, things are gonna be extemporaneous,” Glenn said. “And you’re just going to be kind of playing as you go along. And so it was fun for me as a kid to hear those guys playing their song, doing a commercial, and then maybe making a mistake, and going right ahead.”

The station played live radio shows featuring artists from the Ozarks, and it broadcast across the country.

“Slim Wilson, Speedy Haworth, Bob White,” Glenn listed. “Even when I was a little bitty kid, Porter Wagner was in Springfield. Later, he went to Nashville.

Curiously enough, Springfield and Nashville were toe-to-toe, competing to become the music capital of the U.S. in K-W-T-O’s prime. And Foster was a big part of that because he put a stage together, on radio and TV, for musicians in the Ozarks.

Haley Frizzle-Green is an archivist at the State Historical Society of Missouri, working in Springfield. She put together the exhibit after the State Historical Society received a donation of over 400 transcription records from RadiOzark Enterprises.

The exhibit shows a timeline of Foster’s work in entertainment, filling six banners with information on his empire.

The display has audio kiosks with clips from radio shows people can listen to.

“So not only can people read and kind of view, visually, but they can also listen to voices of the past,” Frizzle-Green said.

Glenn is behind a lot of the pictures and recordings people can see and listen to at the exhibit. He collected some original pictures and copies of pictures KWTO had in their collections.

“I got my nerve up at some point and went by and met Mr. Ralph Foster,” Glenn said. “He was an old man sitting behind his desk… He was very nice, and he invited me to sit down and visit.”

One picture included in the exhibit is of Jewell Theatre in Springfield in the 1950s.

There’s a crowd of people – men in trilby hats, women in swing dresses and even a little girl hugging a doll – all lined up in front of the theater when it hosted the Ozark Jubilee. There’s a “sold out” sign on the sidewalk as people shuffle in to watch country and western artists.

Red Foley was the host of Ozark Jubilee, and he sang on the program.

The exhibit is supposed to let visitors look to the past, but they’ll also get to hear and feel the Ozark music scene of the ‘50s.

“We’re very aware of the fact that the written word has a lot of power, but so does the spoken word,” Glenn said.

The exhibit displayed in Springfield through September and is at the Center for Missouri Studies in Columbia through December 31.

Abby Lee is a student at the University of Missouri studying journalism and women’s and gender studies. She has interned with mxdwn Music and The Missouri Review.
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