February – August 1989
KBBA was my first paying radio position. At least it was supposed to be. But it still ended up being a good learning experience, while exposing me to the difficult realities facing the industry. The station, broadcasting with 250 watts at AM 690, was a low-power country music station in the small town of Benton, Arkansas, just outside of Little Rock. The call letters were said to have stood for Keep Building Benton, Arkansas.
I heard about the job through Bob Gay, my high school broadcasting instructor, who thought it would be a good starting position for me. I had been volunteering at KABF a few months by then and was hoping to get a paying radio position somewhere. Apparently the station manager of KBBA had called my school looking for cheap talent and hired me along with two other students.
The station broadcast from a strip mall behind a furniture store on Military Road. When I walked in for my job interview, I was immediately struck by how old and outdated the equipment was. At a time when CDs had taken prominence, KBBA was still playing 45 rpm records. The turntables, control board and cart machines were probably several decades old.
I was surprised there wasn’t a receptionist, but rather the middle-aged DJ came out of the control room to tell me station manager John Riddle was still out on a sales call. I waited at least a half-hour before he called to say he wouldn’t be able to make it because he was busy trying to sell ads to a specific client. We talked on the phone a few minutes with him telling me what the position entailed and I started the next night.
My shift was 5 to 10 p.m., when I’d sign the station off and shut down the transmitter. I followed a tight format clock, playing a mix of current and classic country music, along with national news from ABC, state news from the Arkansas Radio Network, and I’d anchor local newscasts during my first two hours. We also carried state sportscasts from a company called the Creative Sports Network out of Conway and would sometimes air local high school championships, with Riddle doing the play-by-play. I think local sports broadcasts were some of the few times we had many listeners or any significant advertising.
The station also aired a peculiar show endemic to small town radio called Tradio, in which listeners would call in and announce things they had for sell, how much money they wanted, and would give their phone number. KBBA aired Tradio, which I also heard go by the name Trading Time on other stations, weekday mornings from 8 to 9 a.m. It was almost surreal to hear one caller after another trying to sell what was often junk. A typical example would be, “I’ve got a 10-year-old, 19-inch TV. The color doesn’t work anymore so I’ll take $5 for it,” and would then give the phone number. Or sometimes I heard people call to say they had a litter of kittens that were free to good homes. It was like classified ads on the radio and people seemed to love it. For the entire hour there would be one call after another.
When I started the station had a news director who wrote local stories and gathered sound. He also took cuts and reports from Arkansas Radio Network feeds. During the first week I was there the big local story, which was stretched over several days, was about a letter carrier being attacked by a dog. We had sound bites every day from a postal service spokeswoman detailing the injuries, updating the carrier’s condition and making calls for dogs to be secured so they couldn’t attack mailmen.
I really enjoyed doing these local newscasts, in which I would make big stacks of carts with actualities and carefully coordinate them with pages of copy. At first I’d read every single story we had, sometimes doing 15-minute newscasts. I was told to try and keep the newscasts to five minutes because they were coming after hearing state, then national casts. Also we had been running the same stories since the morning. But local news stopped after the news director left because, like me, he was not getting paid.
AUDIO: KBBA aircheck from June 23, 1989, beginning at 5 p.m. It was cluttered with a lot of features we aired on Fridays.
I was excited to get my first paycheck for a couple hundred dollars, but quickly learned how bad things were at the station when it bounced. My parents, who deposited the check in their account and had given me cash, didn’t tell me until my second check was also returned for insufficient funds. But I kept working, thinking eventually I’d get paid. I also knew I wasn’t alone. None of the other employees were getting regular pay. I would frequently come in to find program director Bill Haywood, whose airshift was 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., fuming about needing money to pay his bills. But he would get some pay here and there or would be enticed with whatever would keep him showing up for work. In particular, once he showed me a gold Gruen wristwatch he had been given, which the station had gotten free as a promotional item by the company. In fact, KBBA even plugged Gruen whenever we gave the time, saying “It’s 5:10, Gruen Precision Time.”
Another promotional item the station would get free were boxes of macaroni and, epitomizing how meager KBBA was, we would give away individual serving size boxes of macaroni as prizes for contests. Listeners would call in and win the stuff, but rarely did anyone actually come to the station to pick it up. It would just remain stacked up in an office.
I think Riddle was trying hard to sell commercials, but just couldn’t get any big accounts. He even started selling 15 second spots for a dollar apiece, or as we called it, “a dollar a holler.” Spot breaks became more and more difficult because we only had two cart machines and the 15 second spots would run out before the previous spot would cue and you could get in another cart. And all the commercials were for these tiny businesses, dry cleaning, piano tuning and the like, many of which Riddle claimed wouldn’t pay after their first month of advertising.
He cried poverty, and it was clear the station was struggling. I remember one night in particular he and his wife spent several hours working on the station’s accounting. Then, when leaving, they stood together outside the station, talking in what seemed like a very serious, depressed state for quiet a while. I knew there was no way the station would survive much longer. KBBA had been created by John Riddle’s father and had been very popular for several decades. I think he wanted to try and keep it going for the sake of family, but just wasn’t able to make a profit or even break even.
KBBA was struggling because our audience was tiny. Little Rock stations were booming in with stronger signals and much better programming. And it was the same story for all other small town stations surrounding Little Rock, especially AM stations, to which fewer and fewer people were tuning in. It was just impossible for these small stations to compete.
I would receive periodic requests, almost always from residents of a nearby nursing home. One person in particular named Berta would call almost nightly, sometimes several times in one night, always requesting the same handful of songs: Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain,” Mark Gray and Tammy Wynette with “Sometimes When We Touch,” Mark Gray’s “It Ain’t Real If It Ain’t You,” and Kenny Rogers with “Daytime Friends and Nighttime Lovers.” I even recorded her once and used it for a station promo. I asked her if she would say something good about the station and without further prompting she said, “I think KBBA is the best radio station in the world.” I’m sure she meant it and I guess I was glad someone thought so.
AUDIO: Two KBBA promos that I produced in July 1989 featuring Berta and another woman from a nearby nursing home.
About once a month John Riddle would give me a little cash, maybe a hundred dollars or so. And toward the end of my six months there, I went a couple of months without being paid anything. Eventually he gave me a hundred dollar bill, which I photocopied to mark the rare occasion. That’s it to the right. Yes, I saved that photocopy all these years. I was only being paid a tiny fraction of the minimum wage salary I was owed. But I took some solace knowing I was doing better than the two other people Riddle had hired from my radio class.
One, Paul Benton, worked 12 hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and I think hardly got a penny. The other, Gene Moran, was promised equipment so he could DJ dances, but never got a thing. Gene had a great voice, was ambitious and smart and not long after I left KBBA he was hired by KKYK-FM 104, which at the time was Little Rock’s top-rated pop station. He started part-time there, but quickly worked his way up to evening jock. We worked together again a few years after that in Jonesboro when the guy who had been KKYK’s GM was brought in to manage KJBR after it had been sold. Gene went on to pick up the radio tradition of moving all over and worked at some big stations.
After a few months of hardly getting any money, my dad, concerned that I was being ripped off, called John Riddle. I’m sure he was very diplomatic, but also very direct in asking why I wasn’t being paid. He was concerned that I, a 17-year-old, was having to drive 45 minutes on the interstate each way, including during I-30’s miserable afternoon rush. Also, I was working five nights a week while still a junior in high school. My dad, I’m sure, felt that if I was making this kind of sacrifice I needed to be fairly compensated. When I saw Riddle a few hours after my dad called, he said he understood my dad’s concerns and would try to pay me more regularly. But he also reiterated the station’s dire financial situation.
Realizing that KBBA wasn’t going to work out, I started sending tapes and resumes to other stations. One of those was the other radio operation in Benton, which was an AM-FM combo. KAKI-FM 107.1 was a low-power rock and AC station that leaned heavily on oldies, while KGKO-AM 850 was automated adult standards. I met with the program director who said he needed another part-timer on the FM station and offered to let me have an on air audition.
On June 26, 1989, I sat in with one of its DJs who showed me how to operate their equipment. Then I did an hour on the air, mostly just introducing or back announcing a few songs and taking one commercial break. They had decent equipment and a full CD library. Everything seemed to go well and I was optimistic I’d get the job, but didn’t hear back from the PD.
AUDIO: On the air for an hour playing rock and oldies on KAKI-FM 107.1 in Benton, June 21, 1989 at about 9 p.m.
I learned two weeks later that the entire air staff, including the PD, had been let go. The company had just learned a request for a power increase had been approved by the FCC and decided to let go of the air staff and automate so that it could raise money to upgrade the signal. Within a couple of years it raised its power, moving to 106.7 FM and became a full-fledged Little Rock station. The family that owned it almost immediately sold the FM signal.
From there I applied to and had a job interview at KLRA in England, Arkansas, which was an AM/FM simulcast. I was offered the job, so I gave KBBA what I felt was a very generous one-week notice that I was leaving. John Riddle said he would try to get together some of the money I was owed before leaving, but it seemed he spent the remaining week trying to avoid me. On my final day he wasn’t there when I arrived. I called his home, but only got his answering machine. I left a message but didn’t get a call back. I wasn’t really surprised.
I was never especially angry with him because it seemed like he was working hard to try and get advertising for the station, but just couldn’t make a go of it. I was, however, bothered by how he misled the staff, especially high school kids. Still, I know that was his way of simply trying to keep the station on the air. But KBBA’s era had passed. By this time few people even in Benton were tuning in because the stronger stations from Little Rock were so much better. Also, by this time not many people were willing to listen to music on an AM station.
I know I had to start somewhere, and looking back, I would say this was starting at rock bottom. But listening to an old aircheck, I realize how bad I was. I’m glad I didn’t start at a bigger station because KBBA gave me room to make mistakes, learn and get better. It also made me appreciate later jobs where at least I always got paid.
Within a year or so of my leaving, KBBA went off the air. It would remain dark for a couple of years until I saw one day in the trade paper Radio & Records that it had been sold for a mere $7,500. It would eventually come back on the air with different call letters and has gone through several incarnations since.