Steve Stephens, Distinctive Voice of Arkansas, Dies at 90

Steve Stephens, Distinctive Voice of Arkansas, Dies at 90
Steve Stephens, shown in 1959 (inset) and 2016.

Stephen Owen Stephens, whose fluid baritone made him a broadcast hall of famer and Arkansas' version of Dick Clark with his 1950s dance program "Steve's Show" on KTHV, actually had to work hard on that fabled voice, he said in 2018.

Stephens, whose broadcasting work led to a diverse career among the state's leaders in politics, business and civic affairs, died Jan. 29 of complications from cancer, according to Channel 11. He was 90 and lived in Little Rock.

"My friends in the Marines said I had a radio voice, but my Southern accent was considered terrible," Stephens told Arkansas Business in 2018, after being inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Gold Circle in 2018.

That accent meant he was turned away the first time he applied for a job at KNBY, his hometown radio station in Newport. But the Korean War combat veteran, just 21 or 22 at the time, refused to go down that easily. "I read newspapers aloud, billboards aloud, just about anything aloud, working to get rid of that accent, or at least tone it down. I learned to say ‘get' instead of ‘git,' and actually listened to the sound of my voice."

It worked, and within a few years Stephens was "The Voice of the White River Valley," on a path to narrating nearly 70 years' worth of TV commercials, film documentaries and video tributes.

His work spanned radio, TV, film, politics and travel, including stints in press relations for U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan, decades of advertising work and civic leadership in Little Rock, and a long association with Jackson T. Stephens (no relation) and Stephens Inc.

Deep into his 80s, he and longtime producer Clyde Snider still worked on "Biography Arkansas," a series on KUAR public radio featuring noteworthy and sometimes overlooked people in state history. They also collaborated on "Notable Arkansans," a column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Stephens' early KNBY program became his launching pad and a platform for rising stars like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty. Even Stephens' old Newport High School classmate, Sonny Burgess, who got onto the Sun Studio label with his band, the Pacers.

When the Pacers played live at KTHV's Little Rock studios in the mid-50s, Stephens tagged along from Newport and barged into the station manager's office and quickly had a TV job.

"His name was Jack Bomar, and in my infinite suaveness I asked, ‘You guys don't need any announcers, do you?'"

"‘You know, as a matter of fact we do,' Bomar replied," Stephens recalled. "He said he'd just had to fire a guy for being drunk all the time." Stephens thought for a second. "You know," he replied. "I don't drink ALL the time." Bomar laughed, and Stephens became a KTHV pioneer.

He'd go on to do the weather for Channel 11, then and now a CBS affiliate, and led viewers on the first filmed tour of the Governor's Mansion, with First Lady Alta Faubus. He was the first Little Rock radar watcher to catch Santa's blip on Christmas Eve.

But "Steve's Show" really made him famous.

"It began a wonderful adventure; my philosophy is that we're the sum product of our previous experiences, and all I'd ever done before led up to me being ready for that challenge," Stephens recalled, saying the kids loved dancing to rock ‘n' roll, and "I loved working with them."

KTHV had only been two years on the air, "and there was no format. If we did something that worked, we'd do it again. If something failed, we wouldn't repeat it. There never was a script, and we flew by the seat of our pants, but somehow it worked."

The show lasted through the late 50s and into the mid 1960s, until Stepehens left TV work in 1965 "basically for the money," he told Arkansas Business. Another lure was the prestige of being press secretary in Washington. He taught McClellan the ways of television, though the senator was a hard learner, prone to speaking beyond time limits.

"I needed a way to help him keep time for 30-second TV spots," Stephens said. "I told him to go on camera while I'd lie on the floor with a bamboo cane. At 15 seconds, I'd tap him one, at 30 seconds, I'll tap you twice. I ended up having to hit him pretty sharp."

After returning to Arkansas, Stephens spent a decade building his own advertising and travel businesses. Two of his favorite young hires were Larry Stone and Millie Ward, now CEO and president, respectively, of Stone Ward in Little Rock. 

But Stephens sold his businesses and became a licensed investment banker, attracting the attention of Jack Stephens, who headed the nation's largest investment bank off Wall Street. The broadcaster and the financier grew close, and Steve Stephens became Jack Stephens' personal director of communications, and later assistant to the chairman of the board of Stephens Inc.

He became president of Stephens Entertainment Inc., a subsidiary, and managed investments for entertainment industry figures, including actor Burt Reynolds and industry executives in Hollywood. He started the Little Rock Motion Picture and Television Commission, chaired the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission and helped found the Mayor's Commission on Tourism.

Stephens was an avid traveler, accomplished tennis player and expert amateur photographer, as well as being a history buff. 

"I've always tried to make friends before I've needed them," Stephens liked to say.

A member of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, he created and endowed the "Golden Mike" award at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's School of Mass Communication.

He worked for countless charities like the March of Dimes, and was a founding member of the Arkansas Cancer Research Foundation Board, which later became the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Research Institute. He also produced early fund-raising galas for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and was in its Chancellor's Circle.

Stephens was a 33rd-degree Mason, and his name graces the Korean War Memorial in Little Rock's MacArthur Park.

Born April 22, 1930, Stephens was the only son of Owen and Allie Stephens, who had a furniture and appliance store in the Jackson County seat. His father taught him salesmanship, he said, and his mother, he said, was the greatest influence on his life.

As a teenager he enlisted and found himself in the 1st Marine Division in Korea, where he earned three battle stars. In 2007, he returned with other Marines to receive South Korea's Presidential Peace Medal from Roh Moo-hyun, then president of the Republic of Korea.

Preceded in death by son Stanton Owen Stephens, he is survived by son Steele Stephens, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A celebration will be planned later at Pleasant Valley Country Club, the family said, after COVID-19 restrictions ease. A private burial was set for Walnut Grove Cemetery in Newport.

"I've looked at all my life and career as an education," Stephens said. "An education about Arkansas, and about the world. I'm grateful of all the relationships that I've had, and to have had people who believed in me."

More On This Story