For the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum
Tribute to Joe Phillips
Joe Phillips passed away on November 14, 1978, while on a trip with other Mississippi broadcasters attending a Communications Seminar in New York City.
He was born in Starkville, attended Starkville Public Schools and graduated from Mississippi State University. He served as a Captain in the Signal Corps of the USAF during WWII, while stationed in South America. He retired as a Colonel.
In 1948, he built and operated Radio Station WSSO in Starkville. He later built and operated WMPA—Aberdeen, MS. He also installed a background music system, a cable TV system and Home Box office service in Starkville, as well as adding WSMU-FM stereo station to WSSO, in 1968.
For 30 years he was Producer and Director of football, basketball and baseball radio broadcasts for Mississippi State University Network.
In 1965 he was elected President of the Mississippi Broadcasters Association, after serving in other offices and as a member of the Board.
Joe was an avid “Ham” operator and through his amateur broadcasts made a legion of friends all over the world.
To the loving memory of Joe Phillips, this article is dedicated.
The Grand Ole Opry started as the WSM Barn Dance in the new fifth-floor radio station studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville, Tennessee on November 28, 1925. It was not until November 5, 1948 that WSSO came into existence but the memories of the young people who hung out there remember a lot of frolicking good times similar to those of the opry. Starkville is not Nashville but we sure had our own Grand Ole WSSO Radio Station, which is evidenced by those who provided their memories given below which you must read to appreciate the worth of WSSO to our people and its economy.
The site of WSSO was on 4 acres purchased from W. P. Jackson, Frank Jackson’s father, which was originally part of the beautiful Gillespie/Jackson antebellum home estate property located on the corner of Highways 12 and 25. Frank Jackson told me his home was the city limits at one time and considered to be in the country.
Starkville’s WSSO was the 20th radio station in Mississippi to come into operation. It was a wonderful time when young people could hang around a radio station and have fun listening to their favorite songs and dancing along with meeting some wonderful people. Remember the services such as Templeton’s Trading Time, swap shop, weather bulletins, community calendar and farmers almanac, which were, aired daily by WSSO. Fire alerts were sponsored by Reynolds Insurance, which would announce the locations of every fire so volunteer firemen would know the location of the fire. The local hospital provided a list of people, which would be read as a service provided by Wier Drug Store. John Robert Arnold sponsored Lum and Abner, an American radio comedy which aired until 1954. The show was modeled on life in the small town of Waters, Arkansas near where they grew up, and was immensely popular.
Sundays were mostly religious programs. Quartets would come to the radio station which had a piano that the quartets would use and sing live. Some of the quartets were The Golden Gates, The Traveling Stars, The Mighty Travelers, and The Gospel Jubilees. The Outlaw Funeral Home sponsored a lot of these. In the 1950s, a 15 –minute program cost $15. The first church program on the radio was First Baptist followed shortly by First Presbyterian. These two churches were aired on WSSO for many years.
The radio station, WSSO, came into being when Joe Phillips formed a partnership with Grady Imes, J. P. Hartness and C. C. Hollinshead. The new Starkville radio station was a combination type operation in a new building housing studios, offices and transmitter, with the tower located on the same lot. Bob Whitely was Commercial Manager.
The official dedication of Radio Station WSSO, Starkville broadcasting on an assigned frequency of 1230 kilocycles, went on the air for the first time on November 5, 1948.
Dr. Fred T. Mitchell, President of Mississippi State College delivered the principal address. Also giving short talks were Raymon Goodman, President of the Chamber of Commerce; Robert Ogden, President of the Junior Chamber of Commerce; W. M. Scales, representing the oldest mercantile firm in the City; Henry F. Meyer, Co-Editor and publisher of the Starkville News; and Bob McRainey, General Manager of the Mid-South Network, acted as master of ceremonies.
A musical program featuring vocal selections by Mrs. J. F. Eckford, Captain H. P. Davis, Mrs. A. S. Crigler, Jr., and Jack Flowers, was also included with Mrs. Sam Few serving as accompanist. Selections on the marimba were also played by Mrs. H. P. (Ruby Nash) Davis.
Salutes from various outstanding radio stations of the State and introduction of staff members by Mr. Phillips concluded the dedication ceremonies.
Owned and operated by the Starkville Broadcasting Company, WSSO was located on Highway 12 in a five-room building housing the main studio, control room, work room, continuity room, the General Manager’s office and reception room. A Western Electric transmitter and the latest RCA equipment were installed and the 180-foot tower had coverage of 60-70 miles during the day. The station broadcast on 250 watts day and night, using a new RCA wire recorder to record announcements and programs.
Joe Phillips of Starkville, who served the station as General Manager, with a license as engineer, began his radio career as an amateur operator and received his first ”ham ticket in 1930.” A graduate of Mississippi State College with the class of 1939, he served for seven years in the armed forces as Communications Officer in the Air Corps.
Bob Whitely, Commercial Manager of WSSO came to Starkville from Radio Station WMOX, Meridian. A graduate of Dulwich College, London, England, he had served as news reporter for the South American News, public relations manager and free-lance Army newspaper correspondent in the overseas forces, free-lance writer and actor in Hollywood.
Radio Station WGGA, Gainesville, Ga., formerly employed Willard Wing, combination engineer and announcer. He attended the University of Alabama and worked with Radio Stations WJLD, Bessemer, AL and KTHS, Hot Springs, AR. Other staff members included Joe Thorpe, engineer and announcer, Charlie Aldrich, announcer, Skipper Keith, engineer, Glenn Wooten, announcer, and Miss Eva Malone, Secretary.
The Station for complete coverage of the news leased the wires of the Associated Press. The policy of the Station, according to Mr. Phillips was to provide fine music, news, sports and public service features. Complete coverage was furnished of all sporting events at Mississippi State College, Starkville High School, and the outstanding social events of the year were broadcast.
People still in Starkville who signed the guest book include Frank Jackson, Leroy Howell, Ruby Nash Davis (Mrs. Henry P. Davis), and Billy Taylor.
Out of state guests came from the following four states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas and Tennessee.
When WSSO Radio increased its wattage, Mr. Phillips made these comments.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Joe Phillips, manager of radio station WSSO. Today marks a step forward in the continuous efforts of the management of WSSO to bring you better radio. We are now operating with four times our original power..that is 1,000 watts. This expansion of our facilities will bring thousands more radios into the range of WSSO. WSSO radio will now service an area of over 5,010 square miles, with over 60,000 radio homes, and over 200,000 people, plus 6,000 Mississippi State University students with a radio in every room. That means that the message of the forward-minded businessmen of Starkville will be heard in many more homes and automobiles with a greater selling impact. We feel that for whatever your advertising budget, WSSO can direct a sales message to any specialized audience..from the housewife to the student!”
“WSSO will strive to be a better voice of our community. We will keep you better informed as to what’s going on locally as well as around the world with 32 scheduled newscasts each day. WSSO will carry a complete sports program. Now the sporting events of the Starkville Yellow Jackets and the Mississippi State University Bulldogs will be reaching many more radios due to this power increase.”
In 1968, WKOR ended WSSO’s radio monopoly in Starkville.
Norvell Williams (stepson of Joe Phillips) remembers
I started to work at WSSO in 1964 as sales manager for my step dad. After his death in 1978, I became manager and part owner. Jim Ellis came with us at that time.
In the early 50s kids would come to the station to request songs and sometimes dance. This went on until the late 60s or even the early 70s. Some announcers included Ray Mann, Jr., S. A. President at MSU in the early 50s, Lep Boyd, etc. Malcolm Barfour, from Africa, an English man who did the news and everyone loved his British accent. Malcolm according to the web is known as the “King of Trash.” He went on to become editor for the National Enquirer and later wrote for the New York Post. Tommy Wilkerson did an agricultural news program that started with, “Hi there folks, this is Tommy Wilkerson.” Senator Horace Harned did a legislative program once a week. David Simmons, the son of Clay Simmons, Associate Director of Extension Service, was also a popular announcer. One day as David was coming to work on his bike, I asked him why he was riding a bike to work and why his dad would not buy him a car to drive. He said, “I am only 14 years old.” David Cardwell, son of Dr.and Mrs. Joe T. Cardwell was a popular announcer for many years.
David Cardwell remembers
About Joe Phillips – He was widely regarded as a true broadcasting pioneer by fellow broadcasters across the nation. WSSO was among the earliest broadcast licenses issued by the FCC. In the early 70’s after the station completed its periodic license renewal application, Joe was invited to Washington, DC where FCC commissioner, Ben Waple, personally presented Joe with his renewed broadcast license. Waple knew Joe personally and on more than one occasion praised him for braving into broadcasting when it was still uncharted territory.
Joe was the only broadcaster in the Starkville/Oktibbeha county area for many years and he was quite a colorful character. He had very unique mannerisms and patterns of speech which I always enjoyed but if something went wrong, get out of the way because he would “blow and go.” Then, that hard, businessman exterior would always fade away revealing a heart of gold. As an example, I was working the sign on shift and one particular morning I was about 15 minutes late signing the station on. I figured who’s up at 5:00 anyway . . . what I didn’t know was Mr. Oakley got up every morning to milk the cows in his dairy at 4:30. He always turned his radio on when he went into the barn and knew when it was 5:00 (time to start milking) because that’s when WSSO signed on with The Star Spangled Banner. Well, that morning he was late milking because I was late signing the radio station on. After the dust settled, all was forgiven and I would have walked through fire before signing on late again.
Joe loved producing Starkville High School and Mississippi State sports. He was also a huge fan and I remember some of those big games when you could hear him cheering in the background of the play by play when something exciting happened. WSSO was a cornerstone of the community. Untold hours of radio time were given freely to school and community groups. My first “job” at WSSO was as host of a weekly half hour program produced entirely by Starkville High School. Long before “equal time” regulations went into effect, Joe Phillips and WSSO went to great lengths to make sure people on all sides of any issue had equal opportunities to air their points of view.
During my tenure at WSSO, the staff was almost totally college students. I often think back and am amazed that Joe Phillips not only managed to keep his sanity he didn’t kill any of us! Several former WSSO DJs went on to national acclaim and high profile careers. At the time I worked for WSSO, I had no idea the influence Joe Phillips would have on me personally and in my own career.
Norvell mentioned David Simmons. David showed up at the station one evening with an audition tape he had made on his own. It was amazing. He sounded like a top DJ from a top 10 market and I asked Joe to hire him right away. It was only a few weeks later that we thought we might have broken some child labor laws because we learned David was barely 14.
Now here are my memories about “Turn Table Spin.” I was in 6th grade and one of my friends was singing something while we were walking in from recess. I asked what it was (it was “Blue Moon by the Marcels) and he looked at me as if I were crazy and said “don’t you listen to ‘Turn Table Spin?’ You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Turn Table Spin.” For the next several years, I turned on the radio every night at 9 to listen to rock and roll on WSSO. There was always a studio audience of some sort and you could often hear them in the background between songs. After I was a little older, I made friends with the night DJ and started helping select songs. These DJs loved to pick new songs that would be hits. Most of those old 45 RPM records were still in the station library when I worked there. Many records had notes on them where one DJ would claim this one was going to be a hit and another would write a response if it “clicked.”
May Gwin Waggoner, daughter of Elizabeth Gwin, remembers
I have some WSSO memories. I remember one of the DJs was named John Houck. He was sure good-looking--a student at State (sometime between 1956 and 1958?). When we first moved to Starkville in 1951 we always listened to “Turntable Spin” which was on at 9 p.m. One time for my birthday my father (Howell Gwin) called in and requested “Always” to be dedicated to me. I still cry when I hear that song.
One year a practice spelling bee was broadcast. We all walked in a circle and Pappy Lawrence of the English dept. pronounced out words. I went down to inglorious defeat on the word “appetite,” which I spelled with one P. I haven’t misspelled it since!
My Dad narrated a play for Girl Scout week one time.
Joe Phillips, it seems to me, was uncommonly gracious and generous with the station. Since there was only one station in Starkville (though there was something in West Point), we heard everybody’s music ... hillbilly (remember that old word?) early in the morning when I got up at 6 a.m. to light the heaters, Blackwood Brothers gospel music on Sundays when I got to sleep till 8:00, even (when I was young) a children’s program for 15 minutes on Tuesdays. And who could ever forget Jack Cristil broadcasting the State games?
I will always remember those nights when we could go to the station and hang out and dance, and I will always be grateful to Mr. Phillips.
This is an excerpt from something I wrote several years ago, which I enlarged and translated into French for a short story, which is part of an anthology which has been accepted for publication in French:
The first time I ever heard the name Elvis was at our local radio station, whose owner let teenagers dance in the studio on weekends. At least, he let them dance there until my friend David knocked Maurice’s head through the insulated wall...but that’s another story. One Saturday night as I walked in with my steady, I heard a screech from my friend Mary (Veitch): “Have you heard Elvis? He’s the best singer in the whole world, and this is the most wonderful song in the world, and he’s from Tupelo!” (We all talked in the Southern Superlative back then.) What kind of a name is Elvis, I wondered. But when they put on “Heartbreak Hotel” it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but that beat and that voice.
Joy and Tom Greer
Man do I ever remember! Can still see the parking lot we’d pull into after a movie, Youth Center or a big ole burger and fries out on 82. We’d go in and talk with the DJ (don’t remember names) while a disk was on, filing our favorite requests. We’d talk through a little glass window he’d open. Then we’d dance in the tiny little room --oh the romance of it all! Once safely home the great music and requests played on the clock radio at bedside lulling me to sleep.
Another memory was going there during our senior year with C. A. Johnson to do a live public service bit of some kind for the schools. He corrected my pronunciation of appreciation --after we had aired!
Ken Smith (Ken Smith Ministries, Leesburg, Fla.) remembers
Well I’ll be! Glad to know some one is doing this. My ties to WSSO are really many. In high school I got to know Lep Boyd who was a dj who served I think as a manager later, he taught me how to operate the board and I would hang out there. Mr. Phillips told me if I got some sponsors I could be a DJ. A&M Dairy and “The Stag shop” part of Katz Dept store Sponsored “Ken’s Time Out Show” I had on WSSO at 9 each night. Working there got me interested in Radio and in college I got a degree in speech communications which included Radio. I worked for a college radio show and came back to Starkville to teach and coach and did play by play for SHS basketball and football and did play by play of MSU games as well. That would have been 1965-66. Loved it and appreciated Mr. Phillips giving me that interest.
Louise Carter Price remembers
One of my favorite memories of WSSO was a periodic (weekly?) program which Dr. Clyde Sheely, chemistry professor at MS State Univ., organized. As I remember he used the teen members of the Youth Council to read the scripts. We all stood around the microphone each with our sheets of paper ready to read our part on cue. One thing that was stressed was when we finished a page; we should just drop it on the floor. The microphone would miss that way the sound of papers rustling. It was a lot of fun doing the programs. I remember what a benefactor Dr. Sheely was in securing the Youth Center House and building tennis courts, etc. to add to the fun. I think he was concerned that the local teens were hanging around a local hamburger joint where we might fall in with a bad crowd. The Youth Center gave us a wonderful place to dance to free juke box music, meet with Girl Scouts and other groups, and participate in recreation summer programs such as making baskets, etc. He didn’t just talk about doing something to keep the teens out of trouble. He put a plan into action.
Jack Wallace remembers
I remember Travis Palmer so well and his very smooth voice--he was so nice, too. I remember when he got mixed up about “ Shorty Shera’s City Service Station” on the air--it was so funny! --It was all we had for radio then and we all listened to the ballgames as well.
Mary Jo Wallace
I also remember Travis Palmer on WSSO - I think he had a radio show in the late afternoon and played music by request - mostly country. He had a great sense of humor - that he shared with his audience. I would sit in our porch swing, read a book, and listen to him on the radio. (My how things have changed.)
Hubert P. Hines
I remember very well going to the radio station and sitting in with the DJs. Did not do that too much. Couldn’t recall a name for the life of me.
Jackie Mullens Reynolds
Yes, we did go by WSSO and request songs to dance by. We walked into the first room that was separated from the studio by a glass partition and door. The disc jockey would come out and take a couple of requests, play them, and we danced and sang.
Jane Morgan Loveless remembers
I remember being in Mrs. Few’s third grade class. She taught music and if you were in her class you were blessed. She had her own radio program when I was in her class and had me to sing. I still remember how excited and frightened I was as an eight-year old child going to WSSO Radio Station to sing a solo. When I became a teenager, we used to go or call there every night and request our favorite song(s) and could even have them dedicated to someone. It was a popular hangout in the 60s.
Billl Wilson remembers
As a teenager in Starkville during the 1950’s, there were not a lot of entertainment choices to choose from. WSSO filled a void by allowing us to meet at the radio station where we could observe the DJ at work and dance to the music. As I recall, there was one fairly large sized room just outside the broadcast studio where a bunch of us would just have a ball. Sometimes it got so crowded we had to take turns! Occasionally WSSO would put on a “guest DJ contest” and would allow us kids to try our hand at announcing the upcoming record music. Yep, it was all records, no tapes or digital storage devices back in those days. Joe Phillips, the owner, probably had some sleepless nights worrying about all the traffic from us kids. But as far as I know no one caused any major trouble. It probably didn’t hurt that my older sister Martha had been secretary and receptionist for WSSO for several years. Memory fails me on the names of the DJ’s, but I do seem to remember the names Travis and Jim. The station was about the only thing on highway 12 at the time, pretty much “out in the country”, and had a gravel driveway and gravel parking lot. WSSO sure helped us enjoy our “growing up” days in Starkville