by Kyle Massey
Posted 11/6/2017 12:00 am
Updated 4 days ago
Bobby Bones doesn’t sound like a classic broadcaster. He lacks a deep voice, he talks too fast, and he’s no shock as a jock.
But he’s an easy guy to talk to, and he thinks that’s one reason millions of fans listen.
At 37, the Arkansas native was inducted last week into the National Radio Hall of Fame as its youngest member ever, joining heroes like Dick Clark, Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack.
“I definitely didn’t expect to go into the Radio Hall of Fame at 37, or ever,” said Bones, who got his radio start at KLAZ in Hot Springs, found regional fame with co-hosts Amy Brown and Lunchbox (Dan Chappell) in Austin, Texas, and blossomed into “the new voice of country” in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Amy and Lunchbox have been with me 14 years,” Bones told Arkansas Business in a freewheeling phone call last week. “I was able to hire friends who had never worked in radio, and that’s helped us succeed. We don’t sound like a regular show. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but it’s always consistently human.”
Amy talks about the travails of adopting two children from Haiti. Bobby details taking his beloved dog, Dusty, for cancer treatments. Lunchbox lives up to his nickname, describing volunteering for Meals on Wheels.
“They’re putting me in the Hall of Fame, but I definitely wouldn’t be there without having a great team,” Bones said. “I wanted a show that’s like listening in on people having a conversation, as opposed to listening to a radio broadcast. Fun topics, interesting things, sad things, we try to hit all the points you’d talk about with friends. The point always was to be human. And to be human is to be flawed.”
His 2016 memoir, “Bare Bones: I’m Not Lonely If You’re Reading This,” was a New York Times bestseller, detailing a childhood of deep poverty in rural Mountain Pine (Garland County). Dad left the family early; mom struggled with addiction and died young. So, Bobby Estell learned to turn hardship into opportunity.
“I learned at an early age how to stick up for myself and create my own opportunities,” he said. “It sucked, but without those hard times, I couldn’t have viewed later hard times with the attitude of hey, this isn’t that bad.”
These days, “The Bobby Bones Show” is America’s top syndicated country music broadcast, drawing 5 million fans on weekday mornings over Premier Networks and about 100 iHeartRadio stations, including KSSN-FM in Little Rock. Bones signed a long-term contract extension in 2014, and internet estimates put his pay at $1 million a year. “Oh, I’m lucky; I’m paid way too much,” he said.
Between Mountain Pine and nationwide stardom, Bones became a DJ at 17, a standup comic at 18 and a Henderson State University graduate at 22. He has turned his “fake” one-man band, the Raging Idiots, into an actual comedic music group that has raised some $2 million for charity and is playing two shows (one already sold out) at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville Dec. 9.
Never married, he jokes that he “spent too much time working and getting into this hall of fame” to have a family.
“I got into radio just as its digital age was starting. I was part of the digital world just by being a kid.” Fans now listen to his program on their phones, and while motorists still listen to transmitted radio, “that’s not where this industry is always going to be,” Bones said.
Likewise, he said, evolution is inevitable in country music. “Years ago, people complained that this Johnny Cash guy was playing rock ’n’ roll and calling it country. Garth Brooks told me he was accused of not being country, and now the same talk is about artists like Luke Bryan. This conversation will be going on 50 years from now as well.”
So Bones, who knew what he wanted to be by age 5, is keeping the radio conversations going, hitting the road with his comedy act and the Raging Idiots, and writing a new book about turning failure into success.
“If you don’t jump, you can’t fly, so I keep jumping and crashing, and jumping again, flying a little farther before I crash. I don’t think I’ve ever reached that turning point to being a success. I have a permanent chip on my shoulder, not to prove people wrong, but to prove that somebody from Mountain Pine, Arkansas, can make it.”