For Christmas this year I gave some out-of-town friends a copy of Berkley Hudson’s both delightful and thought provoking book, “O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.” I recall talking to Berkley as he was working on it and had high expectations. He exceeded them.
One of the more than 200 photographs in the book particularly caught my eye. It was a photo of my grandfather, T.C. Billups, beside a biplane. Berkley had little information on the image other than names of those photographed, that the airplane belonged to the Crystal Oil Company, and the image was from a 1920s or 1930s glass plate negative. I recognized the scene, the story behind it and even have a Christmas card related to it.
In December 1929, an unusual Christmas card was sent out from Columbus and Meridian. It said:
This is Station XMAS at the North Pole Broadcasting a Program of Yuletide Greetings by Remote Control Through Station WCOC “Down in the Old Magnolia State”
We are broadcasting on the holiday wavelength of nineteen hundred and twenty-nine meters extending our hearty good wishes for Christmas and the New Year
This is Santa Clause Announcing
Please Stand By
WCOC radio station in Columbus was one of the first in Mississippi and was the state’s second commercial station. The station went on the air on Feb. 26, 1927. Its call letters were first WMBX but soon changed to WCOC. Hubert Holmes Jr., who was partners with his father H.B. Holmes in the Crystal Oil Company-owned the station. The station manager and chief announcer was T.C. Billups.
Mississippi’s first commercial radio station was KFNG in Coldwater, which began broadcasting in 1922 but did not receive a commercial license until 1924.
An application for a commercial radio license for the Crystal Oil Company was filed on Feb. 4, 1927, with the Federal Radio Commission. The forerunner of the FCC was created in 1926. Eugene O. Sykes of Aberdeen, a cousin of Billups, was an original member of that commission and later served as the first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The station was located in the Crystal Oil Company building at Fifth Street and Ninth Avenue South in Columbus. There was no other commercial radio station within a 100-mile radius of Columbus. Its original power of only 100 watts was increased to 250 watts in August 1927. Because there were so few radio stations at that time, its signal was received from New York to Oregon, and it had listeners in more than 30 states. The station was to operate 72 hours a week.
The station became known as the “station down in the old Magnolia State.” A 1928 Commercial Dispatch newspaper article stated that the radio industry was basically a public service as stations “are expensive” and “net few results to their owners.”
In addition to Holmes and Billups, the original staff was made up of director Mrs. Marietta Bishop, assistant announcer J.C. Moody and operator and engineer J.K. Moore. The station was “on the air daily from 5 to 6 p.m. and each Tuesday and Friday night from 8 to 10.
WCOC had a wide range of programs that included “daily market reports and late news flashes.” One of its first special programs was the broadcast of a revival in March 1927. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported Dr. Alonzo Monk, a Methodist revivalist from Dallas, Texas, would be preaching, and a quartet would be performing on the air. On March 13, 1928, Graddock Goins, publicity director of the Mississippi Board of Development addressed the importance of making an industrial and agricultural survey for the Manufacturers’ Record.
One of the interesting accomplishments of the station was a claim that in November 1927 it carried the first football game “broadcast direct from the field” in Mississippi. It was a game between the Columbus Lee High Generals and the Philadelphia Tornados, played at Mississippi A&M College. In April 1928, Ole Miss and Alabama played a baseball game in Columbus, which was broadcast over WCOC.
In 1929 the station was being referred to in national newspaper articles as the largest and oldest commercial radio station operating in Mississippi. Its studio was described as a “special studio with velvet drapes, built on top of the Crystal Oil Company building.”
The station staff included T.C. Billups as announcer and station manager and John Rogers and Laws Meador as operators, with Meador as chief engineer. The weekly payroll for the three employees was $200.
In October 1929, the station moved to Meridian and increased its power to 1,000 watts. While serving as station manager and chief announcer in Meridian, Billups was traveling back and forth to Columbus where his family farm was located, and he had been elected to the Columbus City Council.
In 1930 Billups left the station and returned full time to Columbus as circulation manager for The Commercial Dispatch. There he gave future Oscar winning Disney animation effects director Josh Meador his first job. It was as a Commercial Dispatch newspaper carrier boy. The boys delivering papers were called “little merchants.” A circa 1928 photo of The Dispatch’s little merchants appears in Berkley’s book. Josh Meador’s brother, Laws, had been the chief engineer at WCOC radio station.
T.C. Billups and his brother-in-law Harris Hardy were both killed in a 1947 plane crash in Arkansas.
A radio station did not return to Columbus until WCBI went on the air on Oct. 2, 1940.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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