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On the Air - An exhibit of Fort Smith's Broadcast History

On the Air - An exhibit of Fort Smith's Broadcast History

Broadcast news and entertainment flows to us constantly but leaves few traces of its past. An exhibit opening at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 16 at the Fort Smith Museum of History will rely heavily on the collection and knowledge of a retired local broadcaster, Carl Riggins, who took the time throughout his career to collect and preserve the history and artifacts of many local radio and television stations. 

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When Diane White, an assistant to the general counsel of Arkansas Best Corp. who is obtaining a master's degree in museum studies, learned she was required to create an exhibit as part of her coursework, she turned to former co-worker Teena Riggins, who is retired from ABF Freight System and married to Carl. The couple was willing to exhibit some of the memorabilia in his extensive collection of microphones, photographs, broadcast equipment and radios.


White proposed the exhibit to the Fort Smith Museum of History and museum director Leisa Gramlich was thrilled to provide a gallery and offer the use of related holdings of the museum to enhance the exhibit, which will run until the end of the year. 


"Carl is passionate to preserve broadcasting history," White explained. "His enthusiasm changed this from a class requirement for me to a labor of love." She, Carl and Teena also found a wider circle of contributors and partners who were excited to join the project, helping in many ways.


The team includes UA-Fort Smith, which will include the college's broadcast history. Frequent museum volunteers Floyd and Sue Robison also asked to help with relatively recent television history, taking charge of re-creating a mock TV studio with a real anchor desk. 


"On the Air - 50 Years of Broadcasting in Fort Smith, 1922-1972" will lead visitors through a timeline that begins with early radio broadcasts and proceeds by decade through the technology that led first to a radio in every home and then, in the 1950s, to a TV in almost every living room. 


Carl spent his entire career in broadcasting in this area. Now 70, he was a boy when radio was dominant and a young man during television's rise. He started his career in radio and moved into television as its popularity grew. Carl worked at radio stations KWHN, KFSA and KTCS and television stations KLMN-TV (later KPOM-TV Channel 24) and KFSA-TV, which became KFSM-TV.  


He has invited colleagues from both media to participate, including Milt Earnhart, 94, who was Fort Smith's first TV weatherman. At the exhibit's opening reception, visitors may rub elbows with current news anchors and reporters who have been invited to attend and perhaps broadcast live from the opening. Earnhart's accounts of adventures in early Fort Smith television may be seen in a videotaped interview archived and shared with the exhibit by the Fort Smith Historical Society's Oral History Project. 


In 1953, when Earnhart first broadcast a weather report on brand-new KFSA-TV, he recalls reading from a script he put on the floor. Earnhart also gave the first "on-location" weather report here, filmed from an upstairs window from the old Southwest Times Record building as he stood on a snowy Rogers Avenue with a mic on a long cable.


With information from living participants as well as the many artifacts from the Riggins collection and the museum, White's challenge is to show media as an integral part of our area's and our country's culture. The displays are designed to bring each era into focus. The 1920s area will have a period chair and antique radio, White said. 


On through the 1930s and 1940s, radio dominated entertainment and news and each decade has its own exhibit area with sound, photographs and artifacts referring to the historical events of the decades. 


A real radio control room with broadcast equipment, turntables and a microphone will stand in the gallery's center. The exhibit acknowledges the powerful influence of popular music and rock 'n' roll on teenagers. Carl was host of KWHN's teen "1320 Club" during his career. He also has contacted disc jockeys who popularized rock, such as Bob Ketchum of 1960s "Album Review" fame and Fred Baker Jr., who is still at the board after creating KISR. A TV anchor desk and cameras also will be on display and visitors will be able to sit at it and take photos or videos. 


Fort Smith's early broadcast history is tied to its downtown, where most radio and television stations originally were. In the last 25 years, three major centers of broadcast have been razed: the Goldman Hotel was the location of the first successful radio station; the Southwest Times building housed radio and television stations and the Radio Center building at 5th and Garrison served the broadcast industry for its entire lifespan. All three buildings and the stations they housed are represented well in the exhibit. 


White expects the broadcast history exhibit to be of keen interest to museum visitors and is working hard to emphasize the connections between media and local culture and the individual memories it will spark.


"I was not smitten by history until I moved to Fort Smith" more than 30 years ago, White explained. "Fort Smith people care about their history and I was drawn into it, too, by genealogy, which is personalized history." She gives extravagant credit to the Rigginses for taking the initiative to preserve the artifacts in their collection - Carl for asking for items that would have been discarded and Teena for tolerating his "rat-holing" of his considerable amount of treasures.


"We had to come to an understanding about his collection," Teena explained with a warm and lovely smile. "NOT in the living room!" 


Carl's microphone and radio collection resided for many years at his office at First Baptist Church, where he retired as director of media ministries after 30 years. Among other things, Carl provided direction for the ACTS network, later known as Inspirational Network, when it was on television Channel 2.


Church members and colleagues presented Carl with a fully working, restored vintage microphone as a gift upon his retirement. It is the same model seen for many years in use by Larry King. 


Carl has enjoyed contacting the many retired broadcast professionals he knew during his long career and named off almost a dozen still living in the area who have pledged to add their own memorabilia to the exhibit. He is attempting to find a photograph of every on-air person from the 1920s to the 1970s.


If all of them attend the opening reception at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 16, it will become a reunion of 50 years of broadcasters who worked on the air or behind the scenes at local radio and television stations. Most will be familiar faces to exhibit visitors of different ages who will recall the daily presence in their lives of these news announcers, sportscasters, weathermen and women and hosts of local programming on both radio and television. 


Opening reception 5:30 p.m. Aug. 16. Museum admission $5 adults, $2 children. Fort Smith Museum of History, 320 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith. 479-783-7841 www.fortsmithmuseum.com

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