KARN – Little Rock, Arkansas

May 1993 – January 1997

Recording a CBS news feed in 1994 while working as morning producer. Photograph: Jim Elder.

I worked as an anchor, reporter and producer for KARN, Little Rock’s top news station. It was also the flagship for the Arkansas Radio Network, which in those days was heard on 65 affiliates across the state. Here I learned how to report news and cover stories in the field. It also opened the door for me to begin filing for CBS News, which KARN was affiliated with at that time. In my final year there I became Promotions Director, which included me reporting live from somewhere every half-hour during morning drive.

When I started with KARN in 1993, it had long established itself as an influential and well-respected station, which at that time was still locally owned by Ted Snider. It also had a large staff of reporters who were often hustling from one story to the next. It was my first news station and proved to be a great training ground at a time when Arkansas was under a national media spotlight with investigations of President Clinton’s former business dealings in the state when he was governor.

I had just ended a five month internship at the C-SPAN cable network in Washington, which solidified my desire to work in news. Up until then my news experience had been limited to putting together short newscasts for music stations using wire copy and re-writing stories from newspapers.

I owe a great deal of gratitude to Ron Breeding, who was News Director at the time and said he saw enough potential to give me a part-time position anchoring Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday on the station and state network. It helped that two of my previous stations, KBBA and KDXY, had been ARN affiliates, so I knew what it was like to be on the other end of the satellite putting the newscasts on the air. At that time I would anchor three newscasts an hour, two on the Arkansas Radio Network and one at the bottom of the hour on KARN. For the most part I was alone in the newsroom on weekends, so if any kind of news was developing, I’d have to follow it as best I could over the phone or sometimes got help from ARN affiliates.

Right after I started at KARN in May 1993, a huge story broke about the gruesome killings of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly Jr. and Jason Baldwin, would soon be arrested and charged with committing the murders. The trials for the West Memphis Three were held in Jonesboro and covered by reporter Wayne Hoffman with ARN affiliate KBTM. Below are a couple of newscasts from a Sunday morning on the sentences for two of the men being handed down. But the defendants built a large group of supporters, thanks in part to a series of HBO documentaries that raised a lot of questions about how their cases were handled. DNA evidence would later be tested and fail to place the defendants at the crime scene. With it appearing more likely that the defendants would get a new trial, the state offered the men a so-called Alford plea, which allowed them to plead guilty to lessor charges, while still maintaining their innocence, and be released from prison.

AUDIO: An Arkansas Radio Network newscast from 8:55 a.m., March 20, 1994, featuring a report from KBTM on the sentencing for two of the West Memphis Three, convicted of killing three eight-year-olds.
AUDIO: A KARN newscast a half-hour later at 9:30 a.m., March 20, 1994, during the station’s Sunday Digest program with Paul Rice.

My KARN business card from 1993.

I’ll confess that I cringe when listening back to old tapes of myself from those days. Despite working in radio several years by then, my voice still sounded rather undeveloped. It was at KARN that I first got real hostility from people who didn’t like how I sounded. I’m the first to admit I have an extremely different sounding voice and typically when people hear it either they like it or they don’t. It’s not a very neutral voice. Especially critical was General Manager Neal Gladner, who made it clear, never directly to me, but to my supervisors that he didn’t like how I sounded and wanted to limit the amount of time I was on the air. It was pretty frustrating, but I tried to overcome the limitations of my voice through the quality of my reporting. Thanks to the direction I received from Breeding and others I slowly got better as a reporter, learning how to better describe scenes and to use production skills I had developed as a DJ to make the best possible use of available sound for a story.

Longtime Sports Director Jim Elder (right) talking with ARN Operations Manager and Sunday Digest host Paul Rice in February 1994.

I got a lot of great opportunities just by being available whenever someone was out sick or things got busy and they needed another hand to pitch in. Having my only regularly scheduled hours initially being on the weekend was somewhat limiting. It was when I filled in during the week, when the station was fully staffed, that I really learned how a newsroom operates. KARN had a lot of talented people, many of them having been there for decades and who really knew what they were doing. It may be a cliche, but in many ways the staff was like a family. I’ve added another page to my web site here of KARN Extras, featuring photos, MP3 files and more of many of these folks. To the left here is longtime Sports Director Jim Elder, talking with ARN Operations Manger Paul Rice, who I worked with on the air each Sunday morning.

I slowly started getting story assignments, learning what it was like to go out and report from the field. Up until that point the closest sort of reporting I had done was to cover speakers at Rotary Club meetings in Jonesboro as part of a class at Arkansas State University. One of the first really big stories I covered for KARN was the execution of a convicted murderer. Over the next several years I covered every execution in Arkansas, including several multiple executions, in which two or three inmates would be put to death on the same evening. It was while covering these that I started filing regularly for CBS, which KARN was then affiliated with.

AUDIO: My first report to lead a national newscast for CBS Radio News, May 14, 1994, on a double execution in Arkansas. It was the first multiple execution in the U.S. since the death penalty had been relegalized in 1976.

Cummins Prison in August 1994. Photograph by Michael Hibblen.

There was quite a fascination from many about the executions, especially internationally from countries that don’t have the death penalty. While covering one triple execution in January 1997, I went live from the prison for about 10 minutes on the BBC program Up All Night, explaining the state’s rational that it made sense to execute those convicted of the same crime on the same evening. Prison officials said it made financial sense because of the additional manpower needed on a night when an execution was being carried out. It was also easier on the families of victims, they said, to have people involved in a murder executed the same night, rather than being stretched out. The BBC host was especially interested in the procedure of how the three inmates were put to death at one hour intervals.

The Arkansas death chamber was at Cummins Prison, while death row at that time was at Tucker Prison. They were the state’s two maximum security prisons. In the days before a scheduled execution, an inmate would have to be transported over to Cummins, where a worker was assigned to monitor the inmates in their final days, keeping a log of everything the inmate said and did. I interviewed one inmate, Si-Fu Frankie Parker about two weeks before he was executed in August 1996. You can read more on that and hear a half-hour program I put together with comments from he and then-Governor Mike Huckabee on my KUAR page.

It was always a little surreal being buzzed through the gates of Cummins Prison. The media is kept during executions in a large room within the prison, where a formal announcement would be made after the inmate was pronounced dead. Because the prison population was always on lock-down during executions, I never got to see much of it during those times. But I did go back during a regular day in 1994 to get a tour of the prison from then spokesman Alan Ables and the warden. That was interesting, just walking among all the inmates. I took several photos, one of which is the image above. Cummins had a pretty notorious history. Wikipedia has a fascinating report on Tom Murton, the prison official who, in the late 1960’s, detailed torture and unlawful burials at the facility. It was an old style prison farm, built in 1902, which still has inmates go out to work the crops, with nearby guards on horses carrying large rifles.

AUDIO: A report for CBS Radio News on a triple execution carried out in Arkansas, January 9, 1997. This was the last execution I covered in Arkansas before moving to Richmond, Virginia a few days later.

Interviewing Oliver North outside a fund raiser in Little Rock in April 1994.

That’s not an especially noteworthy interview to the left. I was doing a quick interview with Iran-Contra figure Oliver North, who had just arrived to speak at a Republican Party fund raiser in Little Rock in April 1994. But it was the first photo of me working as a reporter, out in the field interviewing someone. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten who took the photo. It was either an AP or Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photographer who later gave me the negative. I recall asking North for his reaction to the death of former President Richard Nixon, who he had been involved with. I also asked if he was being paid for the speech, which I guess he didn’t really like, only telling me “millions.” Later that year he lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.

About a year after starting with KARN, the position of morning producer came open and I was offered the job by then News Director Vern Beachy. I would come in during the week at 4 am to catch CBS feeds, re-write copy, make beat calls to police agencies and, if there was something happening, I would go to the scene and report live by cell phone.

After work each morning I would go to class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, unless there was a story I really wanted to cover. One of my big regrets of that time was not finishing my degree. I felt like I was learning so much more when I was actually working, out covering stories and learning how to report. As a result, my grades suffered. I did great in most broadcast and English classes, but struggled in those that didn’t hold my interest. I would eventually move away to work in bigger markets, but finally returned to UALR after moving back to Arkansas in 2009.

AUDIO: A 1995 report on parents of disabled children protesting the conditions of Little Rock school buses by blocking the exit of a district bus lot. This won a 1st place award from the Arkansas Associated Press for Best Use of Sound.
AUDIO: A live report on a fire at Little Rock’s historic Central High School in 1994, which damaged part of an auditorium. This would win a 2nd place award from the Arkansas Associated Press for Best Spot News.

Worn while covering a visit by the President in Little Rock, January 8, 1994.

Being that Arkansas was the home state of President Bill Clinton, I covered many of his visits home. During several, I was part of the White House press pool, which was quite a fascinating experience. I would be in a van with other reporters several cars behind the Presidential limousine as his motorcade traveled around. Most times President Clinton wasn’t in Arkansas for public appearances, but to spend time with family, so there weren’t many events, mostly just following him around and reporting on whatever he was doing. Seeing the reaction of locals when police would block the streets for the motorcade was interesting. One time in particular I remember a guy who obviously wasn’t a fan standing outside his car proudly holding his middle finger up. But most of the time people would be respectful. I covered the funeral for President Clinton’s mother Virginia Kelly in January 1994. After the service in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the motorcade made the 90 minute drive down to the town of Hope where she would be buried. During the ride people lined the highway, many holding signs.

By chance, for a year, I lived about a block away from the home of Dorothy Rodham, the mother of First Lady Hilary Clinton. This was where the Clintons would often stay during their visits to Little Rock. The security presence was a little bit of an inconvenience when they were staying there, but the parking lot of my rather rundown apartment building was where the press pool would assemble at the start of each day. That proved to be very convenient.

INVESTIGATIONS OF PRESIDENT CLINTON

I covered the many investigations, with ardent opponents of President Clinton chasing down every rumor or suggestion of impropriety by him or anyone he ever had anything to do with. Despite the eventual convictions of former business associates for assorted violations, President Clinton would never be ensnared with any kind of criminal wrongdoing in Arkansas. It took his lie about a consensual sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky to finally get the smoking gun Republicans had been seeking, leading to his impeachment trial.

My reporting on the investigations started with the 1994 appointment of special prosecutor Robert Fiske to look into the Arkansas land development deal called Whitewater. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bill and Hillary Clinton had been partners in the failed venture, along with James and Susan McDougal. However, because of changes in the Independent Counsels law in regard to impartiality, Fiske would soon be replaced with Kenneth Starr.

That’s me attempting to question Ken Starr as he arrived in Little Rock to take over the investigation in August 1994. Photograph: Associated Press.

I was part of a media mob that greeted Starr in August 1994 when arrived for the first time at the west Little Rock building that housed the independent counsel’s office. He was cordial enough but didn’t say much as we continued chasing him inside and down a hallway until he got to the door of the office and walked inside. In later years the press would rarely be that close to Starr. In the late 1990s as the Lewinski scandal was building, I noticed the press would only have shots of Starr taken from the street as we would walk out of his home to his car, occasionally yelling answers be to reporters questions.

Soon after Starr arrived in Arkansas in 1994 he would bring charges against the President’s former business partners, James and Susan McDougal, then Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker and others. I frequently talked with the three as the drama was playing out.

James McDougal, who had lost his wealth and his marriage, was defiant at an early press conference I attended, daring the independent counsel to bring him to trial. Also, with each development, we at KARN would call him at home, getting dramatically combative comments that always made for great sound bites. Later, after it was reported one day that McDougal was going to be cooperating in the investigation, we didn’t get an answer on his phone. So I was sent down to Arkadelphia, a town in southwest Arkansas where he lived in a mobile home parked in front of a friend’s home. I didn’t have an address, but News Director Ron Breeding told to just ask around. Sure enough, at the first gas station I stopped in, they knew exactly we he lived and gave me directions.

McDougal was always an interesting and friendly enough guy. He invited me in, offered me a Coke, sat down with me on the couch and gave me a brief, but great interview. He was still defiant, but apparently concern for his frail health and a possible jail sentence coaxed him to be a little more open with investigators. He still ended up in jail after being found guilty of business misdeeds and would die behind bars in 1998. Early on his ex-wife Susan McDougal had voluntarily met with Kenneth Starr’s investigators. I was among reporters who spoke with her after that first meeting, in which she said it was a good and productive meeting and that she was trying to be as cooperative as possible. But obviously she wasn’t telling investigators what they wanted to hear and would eventually be jailed for not giving more specific details. While locked up she was able to listen to a radio and apparently often listened to KARN. She would frequently call whenever she had something to say or when Pat Lynch, the mid-morning talk show host at the time would mention her.

I also frequently spoke one-on-one with Governor Jim Guy Tucker as the investigation progressed. He would come by the station once to a week to tape his weekly radio address, which was similar to the weekly presidential radio address and would air on Saturday mornings on the Arkansas Radio Network. Tucker was often reluctant to discuss the investigation and would sometimes, especially after I would ask him a hard question, refuse to say anything. He would just shake his head, refusing to utter a word into the microphone.

I felt bad for those being investigated because it seemed to me that even though it was apparent that some had broken the law, if they had never been associated with Bill Clinton, I’d doubt they ever would have been prosecuted. And Arkansans began to resent the scrutiny and attention from the Republican-led investigations. It felt to many like an assault on the state. There were people who hated the President so much that they went to great lengths to try and destroy him by going after everyone who had any kind of connection to him.

The McDougals and Tucker ended up being brought to trial and convicted of fraud charges. They were among 15 people eventually convicted in the investigation. I covered many of the trials and hearings in 1995 and 1996, not for KARN, but for National Public Radio, which I had come in contact with through my work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock station KUAR. The network needed a stringer reporter to cover the events and I was happy to have the work.

The front page of the Washington Post, August 20, 1996, with me visible to the right covering Governor Jim Guy Tucker.

The image to here is from the front page of the Washington Post from August 20, 1996. Tucker was speaking to reporters outside the federal courthouse after being sentenced to four years of probation. That’s my scowling face just over his right shoulder as I worked to angle my mic, the hammer-head one without a mic flag in the center, for the best possible sound. I had the scowling expression because I was wearing headphones and was concentrating on listening to the quality of the sound.

Another story that had political undertones was the arrest and trial of Kevin Elders, the 20-something son of controversial Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. The appointee of President Clinton had caused a stir through her suggestion that masturbation should be taught in school as part of sex education. In the trial it was learned that Little Rock police, aware that her son abused alcohol and cocaine, began watching him carefully.

In July 1993, the month that Joycelyn Elders was formally nominated as Surgeon General, police paid a friend of Kevin’s $155 to get him to pressure the young man into scoring some cocaine. At the trial Kevin testified that he didn’t want to do it, but that Calvin Walraven called him repeatedly over several days, saying he was having a hard time finding cocaine and literally pleaded for help in getting some. Kevin eventually sold him one-eighth of an ounce of cocaine.

It would be five months before police issued an arrest warrant, ironically just weeks after Joycelyn Elders suggested that the crime rate would be lowered if soft drugs were legalized. I covered the trial, which lasted only a few days. On the stand, Kevin admitted being a drug user, but insisted the only time he sold was after being pressured by his friend, turned police informant Calvin Walraven. He was found guilty. One week later Walraven shot and killed himself in a Hot Springs motel room.

AUDIO: A report for CBS Radio News, July 18, 1994, on the conviction of Kevin Elders, the son of then-U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, on charges of selling $275 worth of cocaine to a police informant.

As she left court after the conviction, a distraught Joycelyn Elders refused to say anything to reporters, until asked how she was holding up, to which she responded, “I’m tough as an alligator.” A judge sentenced Kevin to 10 years in prison, although he actually ended up serving three months in a boot camp program, where he received treatment for his addiction. Years later Joycelyn Elders pointed out that Little Rock police had been watching her son for three months, and called it a politically motivated sting operation.

Meanwhile, with the conviction of Governor Tucker, he had promised to resign from office. Lieutenant Governor Mike Huckabee was to be sworn in July 15, 1996. I wasn’t scheduled to work that day, but had stopped by KARN to pick up my paycheck. As soon as I stepped into the newsroom I was told there was a crisis at the state capitol. With dignitaries and guests there for the inauguration, Tucker had changed his mind at the last minute, saying he would not resign while appealing his conviction. I was sent to the capitol where a bipartisan group of lawmakers was preparing a formal impeachment to remove Governor Tucker from office. I would end up broadcasting much of the events that afternoon live over my cell phone as the state waited to see how this drama would play out. At one point Huckabee was holding an impromptu press conference outside his office discussing plans for the impeachment. KARN was airing the press conference live by me holding my cell phone in front of Huckabee.

At one point I could hear talking on my phone and pulled it back to my head in time to hear news director Vern Beachy saying on the air that Governor Tucker’s spokeswoman had called the station and said he would resign effective at 6 PM, about 20 minutes from then.

They then returned to the press conference where Huckabee was continuing to discuss the impeachment. Realizing that I was the first person there to know this information I waited a few seconds for Huckabee to finish one thought, then interrupted him saying that Governor Tucker would be resigning. At this time there was apparently a letter making its way through the crowd that was to give Huckabee that information, but I was able to let the Huckabee know first.

My General Manager Neal Gladner was so impressed that he offered unusual praise of me in a company memo and hosted a party the next night in the newsroom with cake and champagne. I was surprised because it seemed Gladner never thought much of me. But after years of trying to become a full-time employee, he would offer me the position of Promotions Director, which included becoming part of KARN’s morning show.

AUDIO: Mike Huckabee political advisor Rex Nelson, during an appearance on KARN’s Sunday Digest program, discussing the forced resignation of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and my role in breaking the news to Huckabee during a press conference.
AUDIO: Lead story for CBS, July 15, 1996, on Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigning rather than be impeached after his Whitewater-related conviction and Mike Huckabee being sworn in as governor.

Starting in September 1996, I would find somewhere to be live, reporting hard and soft news stories or getting opinions on hot issues. Starting at 6:50 am I would broadcast live 90-second reports every half hour. I was given incredible freedom in finding interesting things to report on, although it was quite a challenge finding something to talk about everyday and people willing to join me at the crack of dawn.

My KARN business card in 1996.

The reports were sponsored by First Commercial Bank, with me broadcasting from a van called “The KARN-First Commercial News Cruiser.” The name didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Also, I was a little annoyed to learn that the bank had paid $30,000 to sponsor the reports for a year, while Station Manager Neal Gladner refused to pay me a salary of more than $16,000. But I had fun with the reports and tried to find timely and interesting topics. I previewed Arkansas Razorback games at War Memorial Stadium, visited the Riddle Elephant Farm in north Arkansas, discussed the future of Amtrak with Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, talked with both sides of a proposed gambling amendment, covered many angles of President Clinton’s ’96 election watch party, gave several updates as Little Rock’s River Market was being developed, provided tips on picking a good Christmas tree, practically anything I could think of. I coordinated KARN’s annual holiday drive to collect toys and supplies in front of our building, which were given to the needy. I also continued anchoring newscasts on Sunday morning.

It was a rewarding position, but after more than three years at KARN, I was yearning for something different. Also, I was having a hard time getting by on what I felt was a pretty pitiful salary. I had been communicating for more than a year by that time with the news director of WRVA in Richmond, Virginia. I really liked Richmond, as well as the fact that it was fairly close to Washington and New York, two cities I particularly enjoyed visiting. With what seemed like a good prospect for a job there, I put in my two-weeks notice at KARN. My final story was on a triple execution at Cummins Prison, which I knew would give me one last bit of freelance money to help cover the move.

I’m incredibly grateful for my time at KARN, which taught me so much. It was a very professional operation, where I had to learn to meet its high standards. I’m especially appreciative of the many people who helped me there: News Directors Ron Breeding, Vern Beachy and Chuck Martin, along with Program Directors Tracy Allen, Dale Forbis, Bob Shomper and Greg Foster. It was also through the station, then a CBS affiliate, that I started reporting for the network. The feedback I got from editors at CBS, making suggestions or correcting grammatical mistakes that I should have learned to avoid long before that point were invaluable.

Former KARN talk show host Pat Lynch, station owner Ted Snider and me after Ron Breeding’s memorial service on June 28, 2014.

KARN would end up being the last locally-owned commercial radio station I would work for, which in later years I really came to appreciate. There’s a big difference when a station is owned by a community leader like Ted Snider, who has to stand behind the station and take pride in what is essentially his product. That kind of commitment from the top to have quality, locally-oriented programming is drastically different from the mind set that has evolved in today’s world of corporate radio.

Large companies don’t have as much invested in communities where their properties are located and don’t see it as a public service the way a local owner does. It’s strictly about profits and reducing expenses by having the fewest number of employees possible. Snider would eventually sell KARN and the Arkansas Radio Network to Citadel Broadcasting, which later merged with Cumulus. While it was a sad occasion, I was happy to see Ted Snider on June 28, 2014 at a memorial service for former News Director Ron Breeding. I always had tremendous respect for Mr. Snider.