59-minutes. Fifty-nine very detailed and incredibly packed minutes of knowledge about a radio station nearing its 100th anniversary. Ozark Public Television producer Dax Bedell says that he chose to tell the story of KWTO, or ‘Keep Watching The Ozarks’ to display the rich history of the Ozarks and what the station came to represent throughout the region.
“It’s just a really unique part of Ozarks history. You know, radio, in general, was really transformative invention for this country and the world. You know, it enabled a lot of communication that hadn’t been there before for Springfield and the Ozarks.”
The station, a hallmark of Springfield, Missouri, can trace its roots back to St. Joseph. KWTO remains on the air, in a news/talk format. It’s fondly remembered for the endless hours of live music. In the 1930s and 1940s, stations like KWTO had no other choice but to broadcast live. Recordings were illegal to air as record companies and producers viewed recordings as competition.
“KWTO itself, you could say, originated in Springfield, but only because the founder, whose name was Ralph Foster, he was from St. Joseph, Missouri. And he started a radio station up there called KGBX, that was his first radio station. It was up there for a few years, and then eventually he moved it down to Springfield.”
In the early years, radio stations were less about formatting and more about what brought listeners and advertisers in. Even if you reside a short time in the Ozarks, you know that the weather is unpredictable. It was no different in the early years of KWTO, and owner Ralph Foster recognized an opportunity.
“I thought maybe the most interesting one that I didn’t know about going into this was CC Wilford, who was the weatherman here in Springfield. And who had been doing weather reports publications about the weather. He was an employee of the weather bureau, the national weather bureau.”
Bedell found Wilford to be an interesting character who would weave his weather reports in with his musings about life.
“They got him on the radio a couple of times, and the show was so popular that they just started doing it every day. And I believe it was one of the First daily weathercasts in the country. He was just a really, uh, a really interesting character.”
Bebell discovered that Wilford was a fisherman; he also wrote several books about fishing and collective fan mail. Today there are many more ways for us to access audio, such as podcasts, satellite radio, or streaming but audiences in the early years of KWTO yearned for the same aspects that millions of listeners want from a radio host regardless of the genre. A host that is personable and engaging
I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour than to watch OPTV’s and Dax Bedell’s KWTO – Legendary Live Country Music. The documentary is a snapshot of how the Ozarks traces its roots back to the 1930s and how this period shapes the area today.