The Fort Smith Museum of History’s broadcasting exhibit is a different kind of exhibit for the Fort Smith area. One part nostalgia, one part recognition, and one part technological -- its ten unique displays focus on numerous themes throughout the decades.
In an ambitious effort to appeal to several Fort Smith audiences, exhibit planners have designed a show that moves you from Garrison Avenue’s 1920’s and 30’s through World War II and on through the 50’s and early 1960’s of KWHN’s teen “1320 Club”. A radio control room greets you as you walk into Boyd Gallery, and a mock television studio setting awaits you in the far corner.
The exhibit will run through May 31, 2013 in the museum’s Boyd Gallery.
The exhibit’s title – “On the Air – 50 Years of Broadcasting in Fort Smith, 1922-1972” – is an accurate but incomplete description of the displays that await you. Expect to experience the Roaring 20’s lifestyle of the River Valley, alright. Revel in moving World War II speeches and 1960’s teen chart topping music, for sure. Marvel at the antique radios and microphones. However, also expect to learn more about the media that has defined our lives for decades, and beyond that, expect to see the decades, well past 1972, that the earlier years spawned.
As one might expect, such a mix of experiences reflects a creative crew of volunteers working alongside museum staff for months on end. The eclectic result can be directly attributed to dedicated collectors of broadcasting memorabilia who have a common desire to preserve broadcasting history, matched with historians and students from divergent backgrounds.
A well-known local announcer, sales executive, and production manager since 1960, Carl Riggins was Director of Media Ministries for First Baptist Church for 30 years, among other things providing direction for the ACTS network, later known as Inspirational Network, when it was on television Channel 2. He has served many roles in the radio and television mass media, hosting KWHN’s popular 1320 Club for several years in the early 1960’s. Riggins’ well established presence in Fort Smith broadcasting laid the foundation for collecting media memorabilia, an avocation he takes seriously. When University of Oklahoma online Museum Studies graduate student and longtime Arkansas Best Corporation employee Diane White asked Carl and his wife, Teena, if they would be interested in putting Carl’s microphone, antique radio, and memorabilia collection on temporary display at the Museum of History as part of an OU class project, there was no hesitation. Teena Riggins retired from Arkansas Best Corporation in 2009 after more than 35 years with the company.
There was also no hesitation when White approached Fort Smith Museum of History Director Leisa Gramlich about the project. From there, the project has grown into a community event. “Bringing these collections to the public’s attention is an extremely satisfying endeavor. Collectors and media personalities throughout the community have contributed to the project,” White said. “The broadcasting industry began downtown and the Garrison Avenue-aspect of the exhibit’s interpretation has attracted Fort Smith historians to the project.”
Carl Riggins, who seems to have spent most of his life in one form of broadcasting or another, pointed out Fort Smith’s part in the broadcasting industry when he mentioned that “the Fort Smith area has had a rich history of both radio and television. Besides having the first television station in Arkansas, Fort Smith was a leader in many areas of radio broadcasting starting in 1922.” He knows the media story well, having worked for the radio stations of KWHN, KFSA, and KTCS, and television stations KLMN-TV (later KPOM TV Channel 24) and KFSA TV (KFSM). His work through KFSM included the production of First Baptist Church programming.
Riggins’ natural ability to discuss decades of broadcasters, stations, and events has provided a well-interpreted backdrop for the telling of Fort Smith’s broadcasting story. As he explained it, “it has been my desire to preserve this history for future generations by honoring those who have served and showing how technology has changed and advanced through the years.”