Steve Stephens: An Arkansas Voice That Refuses to Fade

Steve Stephens: An Arkansas Voice That Refuses to Fade
Steve Stephens, shown in 1959 (inset) and 2016.

Born in Newport in 1930, he was told by fellow Korean War Marines that he had a voice for radio. Three battle stars later, back at home working for his parents’ furniture and appliance store, he applied for a job at local radio station KNBY, but his Southern accent was considered too strong.

After retraining his voice by reading newspapers and billboards aloud, he landed the job and turned his KNBY program into a launching pad for early rockabilly stars Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Newport High School classmate Sonny Burgess. When Burgess and his band, the Pacers, performed at a Little Rock TV station, the budding radio announcer barged into the manager’s office and quickly had a TV job.

He hosted a hugely popular teenage dance show, and after a decade in broadcasting ventured into PR and advertising, working for U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan and for Jackson T. Stephens of Little Rock investment bank Stephens Inc. Last month he was inducted into the Gold Circle by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Who was this son of Newport merchants who became a broadcasting pioneer known as “the Voice of the White River Valley”? His name? Steve Stephens.

If the structure of that mini-bio sounds familiar, you’ve no doubt heard Stephens’ “Biography Arkansas” series on KUAR public radio or read his “Notable Arkansans” column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Both are collaborations with longtime producer Clyde Snider.

Stephens, 88, sat down over Starbucks coffee this month in the Heights, recounting some 65 years in Arkansas media and recalling the dance party program that made him famous, “Steve’s Show.”

“I pushed the door open to KTHV Manager Jack Bomar’s office and in my infinite suaveness I asked, ‘You guys don’t need any announcers, do you?’ He said he’d had to fire someone for being drunk all the time. I told him, ‘Well, you know, I don’t drink ALL the time.’”

His mother drove him to Little Rock for his audition, shopping at the Blass department store while he tried out. “The studio had a mock kitchen, and I was to go on and sell appliances. So I breezed out there, ‘Look, this oven can roast the biggest turkey, and the controls are out of the children’s reach,’ and so on. They didn’t realize I’d been selling appliances for years at my father’s store.”

Stephens said the sum of his experiences “led to me being ready for that challenge.” KTHV had existed for less than two years when Bomar suggested “Steve’s Show” in 1957. The job was “spinning records and interviewing kids,” Stephens recalled. “I said I can do that; a caveman can do that.”

After weeks of promotion, Stephens was shocked when no dancers showed up for the debut. “So I gave a little tour of the studio to viewers, pointing out the control booth and the camera operator, etc.” Teen boys, it turned out, had been daunted by the show’s coat-and-tie requirement. “The engineer told me that kids were outside pressing up against the windows, and I told him to let them in, even without coats and ties.”

Busloads of dancers were soon arriving for the Monday-Saturday show, which ran from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Afterward, Stephens had to dash to another studio to do the weather. The Little Rock Fire Department intervened to limit crowds, but when the show implemented tickets, they were quickly counterfeited.

“It was an Ozzie and Harriet, Mayberry kind of time,” he said. “There weren’t many guns and there were no drugs. The kids might slip out to smoke cigarettes.” The dancers, now in their 60s and 70s, still send their love to Stephens, and he still calls them “wonderful kids.”

He left TV and joined McClellan basically for the money. But he found Washington too sedate, and ventured into advertising in 1968. In that line, he hired Larry Stone and Millie Ward long before they were partners in marketing and then in marriage. “Larry and I both love Steve,” Ward said. “Larry often quotes him when he talks to young people about personal brands. Steve was the one who told him, ‘Larry, just remember, your audience is always watching.’”

Stephens, who lives in downtown Little Rock, retired from Stephens Inc. in 1998, but lends his voice to projects he cares about, for example the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, where he is a founding board member.

The Gold Circle honor was a “late-in life gift,” he said. “I hope I’m not sounding immodest, but it was a validation of what I’ve tried to do, hopefully.”