Remembering Radio Veteran Ron Breeding

Ron Breeding on the air at KUAR on October 10, 2010.

For decades Ron Breeding was an icon for radio news in Arkansas. When he was on his game, he was the best. Extremely intelligent, he was unafraid to challenge top politicians or other officials in a public setting or live on the air. The merits of his reporting were recognized by the numerous awards that he won over the years.

Ron served in many positions at different radio stations over the years, including news and program director of NPR station KUAR-FM 89.1 in Little Rock and three rounds with commercial news station KARN-AM 920. His death in 2014 brought an outpouring of grief from many in and outside the news business. I was honored to be asked to speak at his memorial service and include some of my thoughts here.

At one point after his death I came across some old cassette tapes at KUAR that Ron had clearly been saving with some of his more noteworthy broadcasts from different news operations. I thought others would enjoy hearing these, so I’ve digitized them and include many below. It’s also interesting just hearing one person in many different positions on the air.

I’ll always be grateful to Ron for hiring me at KARN in 1993, giving me my first real news position. It started a friendship that lasted more than two decades. In 2009 Ron hired me a second time, this time at KUAR, allowing me to return home to Arkansas after 12 years of working as a reporter in Miami, Florida. He wasn’t always the most likable person to work for, but I respected him.

Ron interviewing then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton at KARN in the 1980s.

One of the biggest stories Ron covered was the lead-up to Bill Clinton’s 1992 election as President of the United States. He had covered Clinton for years as governor of Arkansas, reported on much of the presidential campaign, then covered the Democratic and Republican conventions that year.

By that time Ron was news director of KARN, which still had a large news staff and was all over the place on election night as thousands of people from around the world descended on Little Rock where Clinton’s watch party and victory speech were held at the Old State House Museum. Ron oversaw KARN’s evening’s coverage, then was back in for morning drive to put it all together. These recordings come from a cassette tape  Ron recorded of the morning after the election. There are also several other legendary voices you hear on the air who have also long since died, including morning host Bob Harrison and Sports Director Jim Elder.

AUDIO: KARN on Nov. 4, 1992, the morning after Clinton’s victory, side A, beginning about 6:15 a.m.
AUDIO: KARN on Nov. 4, 1992, side B, beginning at 7 a.m.

Ron had been interested in going into broadcasting from an early age and told me the story a few times about Ray Lincoln, another Little Rock radio legend, coming to speak to one of his classes at the University of Central Arkansas. At some point Ron got up and asked what advice Lincoln would have for someone interested in going into broadcasting and was essentially told don’t do it! It’s the worst mistake you’ll ever make in your life. But Ron was undeterred and years later worked alongside Lincoln at KARN. He graduated UCA with dual majors in broadcasting and philosophy.

I don’t know the years because he didn’t include it on his later resume, but at some point Ron got hired by easy listening station KEZQ-FM 100.3, which at that time had studios at the transmitter site along U.S. 67 just outside of Jacksonville. He told me about babysitting the automation during the overnight, which involved changing large reel to reels of music every few hours. Ron said he would take short naps, but because it was a rather swampy area and snakes would occasionally get inside the station, he said he would sleep on top of a desk. He also noted funny things about the formatics, like the fact that KEZQ had a deliberate four-second pause between each element on the air. I’d grown up hearing KEZQ whenever I was in the car with my grandmother, so it was interesting learning these things later. The easy listening format was terrible, with about two-thirds of the music being instrumental covers of popular songs. But it was loved by old folks and also played in offices and stores.

Ron spent some time at the original KLAZ-FM 98.5 (the Little Rock station, not to be confused with the Hot Springs station that later adopted the call letters) and its sister station KOKY-AM 1250 while they were owned by Curtis Communications. William Morris, another news anchor, tells me he worked with Ron there in 1983, with the stations simulcasting newscasts during the mornings and afternoons and at 12 p.m. The casts included soundbites, mostly from phone interviews, though Morris says he got out and covered some events around Little Rock, mainly with people of significance like the governor. He says Ron left in 1983 for KARN and encouraged him to do the same, but Morris said he was “not wise enough to know that KLAZ was a sinking ship.”

Ron worked as an anchor and reporter for KARN and the Arkansas Radio Network, which the station operated and at that time had about 65 affiliates around the state. But in 1985 he left to work for what was known as the A-Net, a competing state network operated out of the newsroom of Little Rock TV station KATV, channel 7. His boss there however didn’t like the last name Breeding, so Ron had to go by “Ron Brady” on the air. He was anchoring on the A-Net January 28, 1986, the morning the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Below is a recording of two of those newscasts. In the first, toward the end, Ron mentions the pending launch and troubles being faced by NASA. I had to laugh hearing the extremely dated newscast sounder at the beginning, which almost sounds like the theme to Kojak. The second newscast is after the explosion, with the story dominating the cast.

AUDIO: “Ron Brady” on the A-Net Jan. 28, 1986, the morning the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

At some point Ron moved to Fort Smith to work for KTCS, though I’m not sure when. The one resume I have of his, which was from 2000 when he was hired at KUAR, only lists his major news jobs. I remember Ron telling me that during this time he interviewed controversial evangelist Tony Alamo, who decades later would be convicted on charges of bringing underage girls across state lines for sex.

AUDIO: Ron Breeding interviewing evangelist Tony Alamo in the 1980s for Fort Smith’s KTCS.

Ron at WAER in Syracuse, New York in the late 1980s.

In 1987 Ron moved from Arkansas to Syracuse, New York to work for NPR station WAER-FM 88.3 at Syracuse University. During his three years there he also took classes toward a masters degree in journalism, but never finished that degree. His sister Sherri Mattingly provided the photo to the left of Ron in the control room of the station.

The aircheck recording below was of Ron anchoring newscasts during All Things Considered. His resume says he later became Morning Edition anchor. Ron wrote that he also “made assignments to student staff and coached them on writing and anchoring skills.” As far as I know, this was his only time working outside of Arkansas.

AUDIO: Ron Breeding on the air at Syracuse NPR station WAER in 1988.

Ron returned to his home state in 1990, working for a second time at KARN and the Arkansas Radio Network, where he became news director. It was during this time that I first began hearing Ron while I was working as a DJ airing the state newscasts on a couple of small town ARN affiliates. In 1993, after returning from a five month internship in Washington, DC at the C-SPAN cable network, I sent a resume and aircheck to KARN looking for any kind of work. I was surprised to immediately get a call from Ron offering me a chance anchoring weekend newscasts and doing some reporting. It was my first time doing original reporting, going out and covering events or interviewing people by phone.

Ron Breeding in his office at KUAR on Sept. 24, 2010. Photograph by Michael Hibblen.

Ron gave me good advice as I was starting out in news, but also to a degree just tossed me out there, knowing that to an extent it’s a profession you just have to do and learn from experience. Either you can or can’t do it.

He mentored plenty of other up and coming news people, more than I think he ever realized. He sometimes told me he couldn’t remember all the people who came through KUAR as interns. Being on a college campus, we would sometimes have several people interning each semester with many then being hired as part-timers at the station. It’s real easy after a few years with so many coming and going that they become a blur. But I guarantee that they, especially those who went on to have careers in news, as well as many who learned it wasn’t the path for them, never forgot Ron. That was apparent from the reaction we had after reporting his death on KUAR’s website and the station’s Facebook page.

Ron could be blunt. He didn’t hold anybody’s hand for very long. He’d give an introduction to what was expected, show an example as he prepared a story, demonstrating in a very bare-bones way how to conduct an interview, pull the best cuts, then write the story. While there are a lot of nuances in the news business, that at its core is what being a radio reporter is all about. Getting the sound, then packaging it. Within a few days Ron would have people cranking out stories and learning, sometimes for the first time even after years of journalism classes, what it was really like and whether this was indeed the career for them.

Ron ended up being let go from KARN in 1994 after a few issues, including a DWI arrest in a station news vehicle. But he was hired back about three years later. On his 2000 resume he wrote “tried my hand at freelance work and ‘straight’ jobs such as working for an employment agency. Not for me.” During that time he also worked at a liquor store and in 1996 got a part-time job as a DJ on Little Rock hot AC station B-98.5, KURB. I talked to him a couple of times during those days and can say it was a tough period for him.

AUDIO: Ron Breeding on the air as a DJ at Little Rock’s KURB, B-98.5 in December 1996.

Ron Breeding interviewing Gov. Mike Huckabee for KUAR in the 2000s.

In 1997 Ron returned to being an anchor and reporter when KARN hired him back for his third round at the station, where he would remain three years. You can hear his typical interview style below as he questions then-Governor Mike Huckabee that March about his refusal to sign what became known as the “acts of God” bill.

The governor attracted national attention for his opposition to legislation describing natural phenomena like tornadoes and floods as acts of God. Huckabee explained his opinion saying that after decades of removing religion from public places “it seems incredible to me and terribly inconsistent that the only time we would want to codify God into public law is when we would want to attribute a deadly and destructive force to him, but we don’t want to acknowledge any of the good things that he also does.” At one point Ron interjects, saying “I’ve got to ask the devil’s advocate…” with Huckabee responding, “Go ahead, I expected that out of you Ron.”

AUDIO: Ron Breeding interviewing Gov. Mike Huckabee on March 21, 1997 about the “acts of God” bill.

In 2000, Ron was extremely excited to get hired as news and program director for NPR station KUAR at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The station was creating a local news department for the first time after years only using AP copy during newscasts. While the station had long been recognized for full-length programs and feature reports, this was new territory. KUAR Station Manger Ben Fry, who had worked with Ron at KARN when Ben was production director, told me he knew Ron was exactly who he wanted for the challenge. Ron led that expansion by hiring and training reporters and anchors. He also took great pride in the many awards the station began winning for its local news and that KUAR was sweeping contests that used to be dominated by KARN. Ron stayed with KUAR for the next 12 years.

Ron died Thursday, June 12, 2014 at his home in Little Rock. He was 54. A neighbor who had gone to check on Ron found him in bed. He had long suffered heart-related ailments and the Pulaski County Coroner determined the death was not suspicious.

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

A memorial service was held a couple of weeks later on June 28 at Moore’s Jacksonville Funeral Home Chapel. There was a great turnout with many former colleagues and friends coming to pay their respects.

As I noted earlier, I was honored to be asked by Ron’s sister, Sherri Mattingly, to speak. Also speaking was former KARN talk show host Pat Lynch and a longtime friend of Ron’s who talked about growing up with him. Then the service was opened up for anyone to address the gathering. Many did, coming to the podium to share stories and experiences they had had with Ron. It was incredible and said a lot about how many people he had touched. It was probably more than Ron ever realized. Also there was Ted Snider, who for decades had owned KARN and the Arkansas Radio Network before selling it to a large radio corporation.

Ron’s passing was reported by KUAR and many other news organizations, with quite a few people then posting comments offering their reactions. Below are links to some of those stories:

KUAR: Longtime KUAR Newsroom Leader Ron Breeding Dies At 54
KUAR’s Announcement on Facebook
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Journalist remade KUAR newsroom
Arkansas Times: The Friday night line; radio newsman Ron Breeding dies
Arkansas Business: Radio’s Ron Breeding Dies at 54