I knew by the time I was six that I wanted to be on the radio. Because of my love of music, my parents had given me a radio at an early age. I never got into toys the way a lot of my friends did because I spent most of my free time listening to that radio, which by 1977 was covered in Star Wars stickers. I was amazed and even a little dumbfounded by the technology. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to the radio, thinking there were little people inside it, talking and singing to me. But I soon learned that voices and music could be transmitted through the air and that I wanted to be part of it.
I became enamored with the DJs and thought that had to be the greatest job, being able to play music, be heard by lots of people and get paid to do it. My favorite station at the time was Little Rock’s KAAY, the Mighty 1090 on the AM dial. I was fascinated by how everything came together: high-energy, wisecracking jocks mixed with the latest hit songs and elements like station jingles, sound effects and commercials.
By the time I was six my parents had given me a record player and I started buying 45-rpm records. They had a few albums, but the smaller, faster spinning records with only one song on each side were more appealing to me. Each week I would take my one-dollar allowance and buy a new 45. As I built my collection, I started playing DJ. I would sit in my room for hours playing one 45 after another, back announcing and introducing songs. In fact, my mom told me that even before I could read or write, I would write out playlists of song titles, copying the words exactly as I saw them off the record labels.
It was while playing DJ one night that my dad came into my room and told me there was a TV show about a radio station. I remember that I was having a good time playing and didn’t want to stop, but decided to go with him and watch the show. It was WKRP In Cincinnati and would immediately become my favorite. It also greatly intensified my desire to work in radio and gave me a visual image of what a radio station looked like. I would later learn just how accurately the stereotypes had been portrayed, with Johnny Fever as the burnout DJ, Les Nessman the geeky news director and Herb Tarlek (played by Little Rock native Frank Bonner), the sleazy sales guy.
By the time I was in second grade in 1979 I was listening to Little Rock FM rock station KLPQ-FM 94.1, or as they called it, KQ94. I would stay up late on Sunday nights to listen to the novelty music of Dr. Demento, which I think was on 10 pm to midnight. The station also had what they called the Amateur Hour every Wednesday night, when they allowed listeners to come up and host an hour playing their favorite songs. I wanted to be on this show so my dad called the station, but was told they were uncomfortable having an eight-year-old on the air. They did however invite me to visit the station, so that same day we drove over to KQ94, which was located along the Arkansas River in Little Rock in the Riverdale area. After talking with the receptionist we walked upstairs to the second floor where the control room was located. I wish I could remember the name of the DJ, but he was a friendly guy. He showed me the equipment, how it worked and let me watch as he talked on the air. In fact he tried to get me to talk with him during a break, but I was too nervous. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I guess I missed a good opportunity. After spending a bit of time with him, the DJ gave me two albums, Joe Walsh and Pablo Cruise, and sent us on our way. I was euphoric after the visit. Seeing what the station looked like definitely reaffirmed my desire to work in radio.
More than 15 years later I would return to the same building, which still houses the station, even though it has changed formats and identities several times since. I was meeting a friend named Linda Glenn, who I had worked with at KARN when she was in charge of payroll. She had changed jobs and I met her for lunch there one day. It was almost eerie how well I remembered the layout, all the way down to the stairs that went from the reception area up to where the control room was located. In 2010, when I was reporting on the station canceling the long-running program Beaker Street. I again went back to that building and again felt that strange feeling of deja vu. You can read and hear that report by clicking on the link.
While attending Northeast High School in North Little Rock during my junior year in 1988, I was finally able to take a first step toward getting on the radio. I, along with two friends, took a radio broadcasting class that was offered as part of a vocational program. We would drive to the Metropolitan Vocational Center in Little Rock in the mornings, spending the first half of our days there, then come back to school taking regular classes in the afternoons.
The instructor of the class was a guy named Bob Gay, shown in the photo to the right when I visited him in 2004. He had retired from radio after a lengthy career and possessed a wealth of knowledge about the business. Bob did a great job of teaching the basics of what radio was really like and what skills were needed to succeed in a difficult industry.
The facilities at Metro featured two control rooms and two production rooms with professional equipment. Up until a few years before this time, It had been where the school district’s radio station KLRE-FM 90.5 was housed. But it had been moved over to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which eventually acquired the license. We had a low-watt AM transmitter and simulated how a commercial radio station operated, hitting the air each day at 9 a.m. and broadcasting for two hours. Rotating shifts each week, students took turns in different positions: being a DJ, writing and putting together hourly newscasts, producing commercials and writing commercial copy. It very effectively conveyed what it took for a radio station to function and taught each student the basics of each position.
Within a few months I was ready to hit the air on a real radio station and became a volunteer hosting an alternative rock show one night a week on community radio station KABF-FM 88.3. A few months after that, Bob helped me get my first paying radio job at KBBA-AM 690 in Benton, just outside of Little Rock. While I went on to take higher level radio classes at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, I still feel like I got more real practical knowledge from Bob.
A little more than a year after first hitting the air, classmate Vonn Tipton, who was a writer for our high school newspaper, wrote a short profile about me working in radio. It also ran in the weekly high school section of the state newspaper The Arkansas Democrat. I was a little over-simplistic about the work and sound a little goofy in my quotes, but it summed up my experience to that point. I also come across a little snobbish in my disdain for country music, saying “I wouldn’t listen to it in my free time.” In fact my jobs at country stations would end up being an introduction to a lot of incredible music, much of which is no longer played on most country stations. I’m glad the story included a mention of my interest in news and desire to work as an anchor. Within a few years I would stop working as a DJ and get the opportunity to focus entirely on doing news.
While in high school I also had a mentor of sorts in Sherry Westbrook, who I met through a mutual friend. Known on the air as Sherry Books, she had been the nighttime jock at Little Rock’s KZ95 (KZLR-FM 94.9), a rock station that hit the air in May 1987. I liked the station a lot because it seemed more interesting than the established rock station Magic 105. Unfortunately it wouldn’t last. After only two and a half years the station changed formats, becoming oldies as Cool 95 (KOLL). Sherry was able to stay on, becoming the midday jock. It was around that time that I met her.
Having just started in radio and working mostly at little small town stations, I looked up to her as someone who had made it and was working at a big station in a real market. Many times she would take me out to eat and we would sit and talk at length, with her telling me what radio was really like. She would also let me come up and visit her at the station, which was then housed in a strip mall on Rodney Parham Road. This was important because I was seeing what a major radio station’s equipment looked like, as opposed to the mostly dilapidated equipment I was working with at the time. She would also give me some of her airchecks, which, for those not familiar with radio lingo, are recordings of a DJ’s airshift, made from a cassette deck that only records when the studio mic is turned on. I saved two of those for more than 15 years and have dubbed them into digital files that you can listen to below.
AUDIO: An aircheck of “your nighttime rocker” Sherry Brooks on KZ95, March 10, 1988.
AUDIO: A midday aircheck of Sherry Brooks on Cool 95 in April of 1991.
Sherry would later work as Music Director and nighttime DJ at the dominant country station in Little Rock, KSSN, using her real name Sherry Westbrook. I visited her a few times then, back when the station was still housed on Cantrell Boulevard and was locally owned. Now it is yet another name on the Clear Channel roster. For a time in the mid-90’s I also used to see her periodically when we lived in the same apartment complex, but then lost touch. Looking back, I now realize how much insight she really gave me at a critical time as I was trying to get into the business. She was also incredibly supportive to someone who wanted to do the same thing she was doing.