August 1989 – August 1990
KLRA-FM 96.5 may have been another small town country music station, but for me it was a big step up. Unlike my previous job, I was actually paid every penny I earned. It was a relatively professionally run station that gave me plenty of room to grow and learn. Also, it was nice working on the FM band at a station with considerably more listeners. I worked at KLRA through my senior year in high school, quitting when I moved away to start college.
KLRA’s call letters stood for Little Rock, Arkansas, even though it was actually located in England, Arkansas, a small town of about 3,000 people, 20 miles southeast of Little Rock. The station was born out of the death of the original KLRA-AM 1010 in Little Rock, which had been a well-known, long time country music station.
When the original station changed its call letters in the late 1980s, along with a format change to business talk, KELC-AM in England, which had just gotten approval to start an FM counterpart, very wisely snatched up the call letters to capitalize on the notoriety. Sadly, within a few years the old 1010 would completely disappear from the radio dial in Little Rock. It was bought by the company that owned WINS-AM 1010 in New York, just so it could be put off the air to avoid causing interference.
My station called itself “The All New KLRA,” and I would say almost misrepresented itself as a continuation of the original station. It did its best to pitch itself as a Little Rock station, but that was difficult because the 3,000-watt signal just barely reached Little Rock.
The station also hired KLRA’s original long-time morning man “Brother Hal” Webber, who had retired, but agreed to do the morning show if he could tape it from home. He would record about a half-hour of stories and old-style southern humor for each morning, which live co-host Vic Hart would mix together with music, weather and news. Surprisingly, it worked pretty well. Brother Hal would talk to Vic on the tape or throw it to him, and it really sounded like the two of them were in the studio together.
Because I happened to live less than a mile from Brother Hal, once a week I would stop by his house and pick up a stack of reels for that week’s programs. After the shows were aired on KLRA, the reels would be mailed to radio stations in the Arkansas towns of Paris and Dewitt, which were owned by the same company, called Diamond State Broadcasting, and also ran Brother Hal in the mornings, although the shows would be a week or two older by the time they aired in those towns. For that reason, when Brother Hal talked about recent events, he worded it carefully so that it wouldn’t be too dated when it aired on the other stations. Those stations also had the local host who would run the program go by the air name Vic, so that Brother Hal could converse using that name for his co-host.
AUDIO: An episode of KLRA’s Brother Hal Show, November 7, 1989. This is from one of the raw tapes, without the live components that would be added by Vic Hart when it was aired.
I was hired at KLRA in August 1989 by Program Director Keith Dodd. He was a radio veteran who had worked at several large stations over the years. He was quite a character, to say the least, but a shrewd, smart radio guy. I’ve got a few of his staff memos below, which very effectively convey his style of managing and programming the station. He had a great voice and did incredible commercial and promo production, especially considering the poor equipment we had to work with in our antiquated production room. His afternoon air shift was equally professional.
The station was housed in a small metal building located along a highway in England. The low-lying flatland was almost like a swamp. In fact, several months out of the year, especially at night, the station would literally become covered with thousands of frogs. They would gather on the outsides of windows so I couldn’t see out. And when I’d walk out to the transmitter building to take meter readings every couple of hours, they would cover the entire path. It was almost surreal, like an Alfred Hitchcock movie or something. With each step I’d take, swarms of frogs would jump away from me. I guess people who lived in the area didn’t give it a second thought, but for me it was kind of strange.
During a visit to Arkansas In December 2004 I drove out to England and was surprised to see that the crappy little metal building that had once housed the station was still there. I couldn’t tell what it was used for, but it didn’t seem abandoned. The relatively short broadcast tower was also still behind it.
Initially I worked several nights a week running an overnight program called “The Midnight Special,” which was geared toward truckers. But there were a number of things that didn’t make sense about this. First off, because of KLRA’s low power, it had a rather small coverage area that could only be heard for a short time by someone driving through. At that time, overnight trucker shows were usually done on powerful AM stations that could be heard throughout entire regions of the country so that truckers could listen for long stretches without changing the channel.
Another problem was the content of the show. KLRA General Manager Gene Williams hosted it, but wasn’t live. He wanted to do this show in the same half-recorded fashion as the morning show. But he didn’t record any new content for each night’s show. He just had these generic recorded intros that I would run night after night. We also included short interviews with truckers, taped by our midday DJ Brenda Clark at truck stops. But she would only tape about a dozen interviews every few weeks, so I’d be running the same interviews over and over.
I think if anyone listened to the show with any regularity, they would have realized it was canned. I was the only live part. About once or twice an hour I’d hit a cart in which Gene would introduce me saying that I had taken a request from a trucker. I would then make up the name of a driver and say he was making a long haul to some destination and then play his supposed request. I always had to make that stuff up because I never had a single trucker call, despite the request line being frequently given. About the only people who would call during the overnight were people working at England’s 24-hour convenience store. The whole concept of the show was so that Gene could be on the air, but not have to go through the hassle of actually pulling an air shift. I think it was more to feed his ego and since he was general manager, the program director couldn’t question it.
AUDIO: A segment of The Midnight Special from August 25, 1989. I was the only live element here, putting together Gene Williams recorded intros, trucker interviews and music.
Gene could be a rather trying person to work for. I eventually worked my way up to having two regular airshifts as a DJ on weekends and periodically would get calls from him on his car phone, which at that time was something mostly rich or important people had. Gene would always have some woman with him that he was trying to impress and would demand that I play whatever song she wanted to hear as the next song. And he would be a real asshole in how he did this, proving to the woman that he was clearly the boss and in command. After I’d play whatever the song was, I’d also have to say that was for whatever her name was and every time he would call it would be a different woman. The entire staff grew to dread his calls. We were also not supposed to do dedications, but he was the exception.
Despite my encounters with him, I think Gene Williams might have been what was keeping that station going. He was a bit of a huckster and knew how to market the station and how to twist arms to get what was needed. It was at a time when something like 40-percent of all radio stations were losing money, and just a few years before deregulation of the broadcast industry was started by the federal government. Gene worked hard to try and maintain the appearance on the air that it was a full-fledged Little Rock radio station. We weren’t able to get a radio station prefix for our request line, which all stations in Little Rock had, which was 433 and four numbers that were some variation of the station’s frequency. Calling KLRA from Little Rock was long distance, so since Gene lived in Sherwood, he simply got an extra phone line for his house and had all calls to it forwarded to the KLRA studios. It worked well, except for the occasional phone call that a DJ would take and end up talking to someone for a long stretch, running up a huge phone bill. Gene also had that number listed on company stationary as KLRA’s “Little Rock office.”
I really wanted to like Gene. He had a storied history, even being named country music DJ of the year in 1961 by the Grand Ole Opry. He grew up in Dyess, Arkansas, the same small town where Johnny Cash was also raised. For a time, I think in the 1960s, he hosted a country music show on a Little Rock TV station. But he was such a jerk to work with. I remember one time, during a Christmas party for the staff at his house, he looked at me at one point after several drinks and said “Michael Hibblen, you ain’t shit.” I don’t know what I did to warrant that.
The owner of the station, a dentist whose wife it seemed was mainly in charge, eventually fired Gene or forced him to resign. I don’t know what the circumstances were, although there were rumors of all kinds of impropriety. Even though I was no longer running “The Midnight Special,” I was glad that show was coming to an end. One other directive that thankfully went out the window then was calling it “The All New KLRA,” which had gotten kind of annoying because we had been calling it all new for a couple of years. But one key loss was that Brother Hal would also be leaving with Gene. The entire identity of our relatively new station had been centered on Brother Hal. Even the stationary, at the bottom, said “Home of Brother Hal.” With Gene gone, it was almost like starting from scratch. We also lost a lot of sponsors because he did much of the sales and many of these clients were buddies of his. We suddenly had a lot less commercials on the log and I think a lot less money was coming in.
Keith Dodd would become General Manager, while retaining his programming duties. He was a very conscientious programmer who worked with me and the other staffers, making suggestions for how we could improve. He also held periodic staff meetings to make sure we were all delivering a consistent image to our listeners. Shortly after becoming GM, he sent a memo to the staff in January of 1990, which I’ve included to the left. If you click on the image, you will download a PDF of the memo to read.
You can sure tell a lot about Keith’s programming philosophy and his personality from this memo. It came at a time of big changes for the station and he was asking for input from the staff on things like coming up with a new name for the station as we dropped the “All New” part. We ended up calling ourselves the rather generic, but I guess to the point Country 96.5, KLRA. To the right is another memo, this one from Lucille Harris, the wife of the station’s owner, to the staff of KLRA, and the other stations they owned, KCCL in Paris, Arkansas and KDEW in Dewit. Her memo mostly seems to be an effort to deal with persistent problems.
The photo shows me in front of KLRA’s music library, which at that point started to include a few CDs. KLRA was the last station I worked for that primarily used records, mostly single playing 45s. All of our current hits were the seven inch records that we would receive from record companies. In the photo, currents are on the top of the shelf, in the middle two boxes, in red sleeves. The other two boxes had cards we would rotate, telling us what oldies to play.
There were a couple of categories of oldies, with the one closest to the camera labeled as “red dot oldies.” Those were the power oldies that got the heaviest rotation. The shelf below it shows all our oldies that were on 45s, in yellow numbered sleeves. We also had some oldies on carts, some on full-length albums and were just starting to grow our collection of CDs. I’m kind of nostalgic for what it was like playing records on the air. Yeah, they would crackle and pop as they became worn out and scratched, but there was something really fun about cuing up records. We had two old turntables that we alternated. While one was playing we’d take the next record, put the needle into the grove, find exactly where the song began, then spin the record back a half spin. It was a process I’d do maybe a hundred times during the course of one shift. Music stations I worked for after that were all CD.
AUDIO: On the air on KLRA from December 27, 1989. It includes commercials, IDs, jingles and promos.
Before the start of the 1990 horse racing season at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, the station got an Associated Press machine so that we could get quick race results to read on the air. That was a key source of revenue, enabling us to sell sponsorships for the race reports. We were instructed to keep a close eye on the printer on race days and get race results on the air as quickly as possible, preferable at the end of the song playing. We would hit a cart with a trumpet playing the Call to the Post fanfare, say we had the results in for whatever race number it was, hit the sponsor’s commercial, then come back and announce how the top three horses had done and what the pay was.
Having the news wire also enabled us to begin doing newscasts in the mornings and afternoons. I enjoyed anchoring newscasts, which furthered my interest in news, as opposed to being a DJ. I also enjoyed reading the stories and news summaries that came over the machine. This of course was in the days before the internet, so it was very cool to be able to read the absolute latest news stories.
I made several good friends at KLRA. Ruthie May, who was nighttime DJ when I started, gave me lots of encouragement. Andra Allbright, who later did middays while also keeping paperwork flowing around the building was a good friend who sometimes came up and visited during my shifts. I also met my future college roommate Tim Edens there. A decade later he would serve as a groomsman in my wedding in February 2000 and helped with the technical work of getting this website up in 2002. Toward the summer of 1990 I was offered the evening slot at KLRA, working 6 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, which I did for several months before quitting in August to start college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.
I regretted leaving the station, but it turned out to be a good time to go. KLRA would soon become automated and the entire air staff was let go. A few years later I ran into Keith Dodd when he was working at a Radio Shack store in North Little Rock’s McCain Mall.
Eventually KLRA got a power increase, was sold to another company and became a full-fledged Little Rock station, with studios there. It in no way resembles the station where I once worked. It changed its call letters and first became an urban station called Hot 96.5, The Party Station. In 2009 it changed its format to top 40, calling itself K-HITS 96.5. Then with later ownership changes it became a talk station.
The KLRA call letters were picked up by a Spanish language television station in Little Rock. The Univision affiliate was owned by Equity Media at the time, which seemed to have made it a practice to pick up the call signs of old well-known Little Rock radio stations for its TV operations. It also used the call letters KKYK, which for decades was a huge top 40 station, and KBBL, a sports station, for other TV stations in Little Rock.