October 1991 – January 1993
When I started with KJBR-FM 101.9 it was known as Power 102 and had a broad CHR format playing pop music mixed with some rock and oldies, while at night it had a harder edge, including some rap and heavy metal. The 100,000 watt station, which proudly boasted of its 1,100 foot broadcast tower, was the most powerful station in northeast Arkansas and was heard in parts of five states, also showing up in the ratings for Memphis, which was about 70 miles away.
The radio station essentially doesn’t exist anymore. It was credited as being the first FM station in Arkansas, hitting the air as KBTM-FM in 1947. But it eventually ended up in the hands of Clear Channel, which opted in 2010 to kill the mighty signal so that it could put a lower power station on the air at that frequency in Memphis. With its demise I put together a look at the History of the station, which has grown into a much bigger project than I first imagined. I started reaching out to my former bosses and people who worked there over the years and got so many great stories, photos and recordings that I ended up making a fairly comprehensive look at the many decades the station, through many incarnations, was on the air. It’s still a work in progress, but anyone who worked or listened to the station over the years might enjoy giving it a read. I also welcome additional material that anyone might have to add.
I began working there in October 1991 when KJBR was known as Power 102. At that time it and AM sister station KBTM were still locally owned, having been run by the Patteson family for more than three decades. I had moved to Jonesboro a year before that to attend Arkansas State University and quickly found the station was the most interesting in the area because of the broad range of new and often edgy music it played. The station went out of its way to play new songs, sometimes months before they would become hits, while also briefly airing new singled that I’d never hear again. It also had DJs who seemed to have a lot more off-the-cuff personality than other stations. It was the tail end of an era for that kind of station before the beginning of corporate consolidation and much more conservative programming choices.
Program Director Dennis Rogers hired me part-time initially, working one shift a week, Saturday mornings, midnight to 6 a.m. Within a few weeks I was working two nights on weekends and soon, when the regular overnight shift became available, was offered a full-time position working four nights a week along with a Sunday afternoon shift. I must confess that I enjoyed the name recognition that came from working at such a popular station, although Power 102 was one of the few places where I’ve used an alias on the air. Because I felt my last name Hibblen would be hard for listeners to understand as I’m essentially yelling on top of hard beats or driving rock music, I decided to use the air name Mike Thomas. I picked Thomas because it’s my brother’s name and my dad’s middle name.
Power 102 had the biggest audience of any station I had worked for at that point. Even in the middle of the night if I had any kind of contest giveaway I would be flooded with calls. There was also a steady stream of requests, many coming from college students up late or people working overnight shifts at convenience stores, hotels and the local 24 hour Kinko’s store. I often taped phoners with these folks, trying to commiserate, saying things like, “helping you make it through the overnight.”
I actually enjoyed working Midnight to 6 a.m. I’ve always been a late night person and, especially in my younger days, felt more of a creative peak at those hours. Also it was much less likely that any of my bosses would be listening at that time, so I felt more freedom to skip songs I couldn’t stand or play different edits of songs. I also had some responsibilities maintaining our music library by putting in new music every Friday morning, pulling songs that were going out of rotation and relabeling CDs as they changed categories. It gave me something to do in the middle of the night.
AUDIO: Power 102 aircheck of an overnight shift from June 1992. Includes the DJs just before and after me and some really goofy phoners with listeners. This is quite embarrassing for me to listen back to!
KJBR broadcast from an interesting old building at 603 Madison Avenue which had housed the AM station since 1942 and the FM when it was added five years later. The broadcast operations were confined to three rooms lining the back of the building. The middle room, which was elevated a couple of feet higher than the others, had been the control room at one point. On each side of it were rooms that had been studios. By the time I got there the large center room was the production studio, with the larger of the two side rooms housing both the AM and FM studios with a glass wall dividing the two. The room on the opposite side of the production room was for the large automation equipment that ran KBTM. It was a very small building for two radio stations and at times, especially during the day, could get very crowded.
The stations have fascinating histories. KBTM had originally been started in the 1920s by teenager Jay Beard as a project to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. His family eventually got it officially licensed in 1930 and broadcast it for the first couple of years from the back of the family’s music store in Paragould, which was called Beard’s Temple of Music, which is where the call letters came from. FM was later developed as a way to broadcast without the interference that AM is susceptible to and the Beard family made KBTM-FM 102 the first FM station in Arkansas, going on the air in 1947. But it would be several decades before FM would be profitable. I’ve done extensive research on the histories of the stations, interviewing my former Station Manager Guy Patteson and Program Director Dennis Rogers, as well as former owner Alan Patteson, who ran the stations for 35 years.
When I started at Power 102 in 1991 production there was very well done. The production room featured state of the art equipment, including processors and harmonizers that could greatly alter a voice, creating all kinds of incredible effects. The promos, sweepers and IDs for Power 102 sounded great, using the legendary voice of Mitch Craig for imaging. The station was willing to spend money to sound as professional as possible.
It was a stark contrast from a few years before that when KJBR was little more than a generic satellite automated AC station. But in the years just before I moved to Jonesboro, the Patteson family made vast upgrades, building a new tower and buying top-of-the-line equipment. The new tower was constructed after the FCC threatened to cut the FM station’s power because it had been transmitting from its AM station’s tower, which was rather obsolete. The station was also getting direct competition from a new station in Jonesboro called KZ-100, even though it had only a 3,000 watt signal.
With a new signal and identity, Power 102 became very aggressive in marketing itself and got the staff out on the streets every chance it got. I was among those constantly making appearances at events all over northeast Arkansas. In particular, during the Christmas season, the station took part in practically every small town parade in the region. That meant driving the station’s van, which was called the “Power 102 Street Machine,” among the floats. It would usually be two of us. Often I was with Zeke Terry or Phil Jamison, with one driving while the other threw candy or station tee shirts out to the crowds. Power 102 also worked hard to get its bumper stickers on the backs of cars. To offer an incentive, periodically a couple of us would go out in the station van and drive around looking for our stickers.
We would usually spot someone fairly quickly and flash our headlights, getting the driver to pull over. Then whoever was on the air back at the station would record the traffic stop, which was being fed live using the van’s microwave link. I remember many times getting out with a mic in my hand, congratulating the driver and letting the person take their pick of any number of prizes, usually CDs, cassettes, movie passes or Power 102 tee shirts. Plus, during promotions like the “102 Days of Summer” that we had in 1992, the winner’s name would go into a drawing for a bigger prize. Those broadcasts always sounded great because the drivers would be so excited to actually be stopped because of the bumper sticker.
The station also would DJ dances or parties, a division known as the Power 102 Party Zone. I was one of the jocks who would lug equipment to towns all over the region, playing music at high schools or country clubs. Often these were small towns that I had never even heard of. The dances could be a little annoying, but it was nice making a couple hundred dollars for just a few hours work. One thing that surprised me was it seemed the smaller the town, the more rap and harder edged music the people wanted to hear. At one of the bigger dances I did in one of Jonesboro’s high schools, it seemed like most of what they wanted me to play was country music. But I had a big selection of CDs and was usually able to come up with anything anyone wanted to hear.
For several months I also filled in as news director, which entailed reading news during Power 102’s morning show with Phil Jamison. Christie Mathews normally did that, but in the final months of 1992 she was on maternity leave, so I’d stay a couple of hours after my overnight shift and anchor short newscasts every half hour. We had a news service that would fax national news summaries every morning. I would mix those stories with a couple of local and state items that I rewrote out of the Jonesboro Sun. Part of this also included me doing a 10 minute newscast every morning on KBTM, which I think was sponsored by a local bank. It was nice having something to do on the AM station, which at that time had a schedule of news and talk shows off satellite.
The only other time I did anything on KBTM was filling in sometimes before my overnight shift running St. Louis Cardinal baseball games. That meant I sat there waiting for breaks so that I could plug in the local commercials or a station ID. KBTM was at that point the second oldest Cardinal baseball affiliate in the country. Management took a lot of pride in that.
It was an incredibly fun time to be in radio and Power 102, with the exception of the low pay, seemed to be exactly what I had long wanted in a radio job. We didn’t know how good we had it. Everything was about to change with the first steps of deregulation. Up to that point, a company was only allowed to own one AM and one FM station in each market, but after intense lobbying by the broadcast industry, changes were made by the Federal Communications Commission to allow one company to operate multiple stations. The staff would soon learn that KJBR and KBTM were being bought by Duke Broadcasting, which owned the only other 100,000-watt station in town, KFIN, a country station.
We were told in a staff meeting and then new owner Larry Duke walked in the door. One person, afternoon jock Steve Tyler, who had worked for Duke previously at KFIN, walked out on the spot, refusing to work for the guy. The rest of us stuck around, nervously wondering what would become of us. To the right is the card we immediately began reading on the air with the note from Dennis to announce it twice an hour. That night I tucked the card into my files as a memento of that sad day. Seemingly overnight the Patteson family would be gone after operating the stations for 35 years.
Duke immediately altered the format, eliminating all harder edged music and making us a bland hot adult contemporary station. Within a few weeks we also abandoned the name Power 102, which I felt was a real waste because it had been so well marketed and had its bumper stickers on cars throughout the region. During a transition period we even went about two weeks with no name at all. We would just back announce the music, but never give any kind of station name except at the top of the hour, when we would say the legal ID of KJBR, Jonesboro. We would also have to answer what had been known as the Power Line, simply as “request line, hello.” All we could tell callers was that a surprise was coming up and to keep listening. Most listeners were extremely disappointed because we had really built up a following as an edgy station and suddenly started playing a lot more Celine Dion and Michael Bolton. We even had listeners call in from Memphis, which the signal just barely reached, telling us how upset they were. At that time there was no real CHR station there, so we were the only source of harder edged pop music. We had even started showing up in the Memphis ratings, always near the bottom, but for a station in a small town about an hour away that was quite an accomplishment.
Soon we unveiled the new identity for the station. The on air announcement came after one of my morning newscasts in October 1992. Following the 6:20 update, the station aired an old Power 102 sweeper with the sounds of an explosion, suggesting it was being blown up. Then a voice came in saying “Duke Radio Broadcasting Corporation is proud to present northeast Arkansas’ premier adult contemporary radio station: 101.9 The All New Kiss-FM.” It touted that we would be playing “the best music from the ’80s and today with absolutely no hard rock or rap.” Nice, bland and safe. The announcement also said “You’ll hear air personalities that won’t talk your arm off.” That meant we would mostly be reading liner cards. The call letters were changed to KIYS, which I guess was the closest thing available that spelled Kiss.
AUDIO: KJBR’s format change announcement in October 1992, which aired after one of my newscasts. Sadly the station’s format went from being edgy and diverse to boring and predictable.
I was quite disappointed and felt that the station was losing a lot of its personality and becoming more generic. The music was more like what I had played at KDXY in Paragould. It became much more liner intensive, which sure sucked a lot of life out of the station. If I can say anything positive, it is that there wasn’t a wholesale staff changeover. Pretty much everyone who had a decent attitude about the change still had a job.
I spent a few more months at the station, but put in my notice after being accepted for an internship in Washington, DC at the C-SPAN Cable Networks. I never moved back to Jonesboro, opting after my five months in Washington to move back home to Little Rock, where I transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and began working as an anchor and reporter at news/talk station KARN. My college roommate Tim Edens had started with Kiss-FM by the time I left and would eventually pick up exactly where I left off, working during the overnights and anchoring morning newscasts.
Larry Duke didn’t hold on to the stations for long before selling them to national company Cumulus, which then sold them Clear Channel, the world’s largest owner of radio stations. The name Kiss-FM would stay, but the format went back to being a full-fledged CHR, with the same logo and programming used on other Clear Channel stations across the country with that name. It was sad to see what was once a locally owned station that was live and local 24 hours a day and very involved in its community had become little more than another generic station on the corporate roster.
In July 2004 I went back to Jonesboro for the first time in a decade. I stopped by the station, meeting up with my old Program Director Dennis Rogers and former morning man Phil Jamison. Over the years the station ended up being moved into the KFIN building. After going out to lunch with them, Dennis drove me around town, showing me how much had changed. That included driving by the old KJBR building, which by then housed a law firm. I also stopped by the office of former General Manager Guy Patteson.
In April 2007, as part of a larger effort to shed itself of smaller market stations, Clear Channel sold this and its other stations in Jonesboro to a local company called East Arkansas Broadcasters, but retained an option to take back the 101.9 frequency if the signal could be moved into the Memphis market, 70 miles away. It eventually built a transmitter in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, just outside of Memphis, which would be at a much lower power than the station had been, but would put the station into the Memphis market. In September 2010, the 100,000 watt signal broadcasting from near the Craighead/ Green County line was shut down and the new low power signal for Memphis was turned on.
It was the final nail in the coffin for what had been the first FM station in Arkansas. I know that this is a business and that a station, even at a lower power, will make much more money being part of a bigger market, but I still couldn’t help but feel sad. Part of the deal allowed East Arkansas Broadcasters to put a station on the air at 101.7 FM and continue calling it Kiss-FM, but it too is at a lower power and can not be considered any kind of continuation of the historic old station that aired for 63 years at 101.9 on the FM dial. As I mentioned above, you can read much more about it in this History that I’ve put together.