Bob Robbins had a twang in his voice, in his music and in his life.
A legendary DJ who made country Arkansas’ music radio format at KSSN in the 1980s and ruled the ratings as Nashville’s new stars like George Strait and Garth Brooks ruled the charts, died May 21 at age 78.
He said in a 2017 interview that he never saw the word “retirement” in the Bible. And when he died Robbins had never known it. After 34 years at KSSN, the state’s country radio bastion for decades, he moved in 2013 to play country hits for KMJX-FM 105.1, known as the Wolf. His off-the-air name was Bob Spears.
Robbins made his Little Rock radio debut 55 years ago, 1967, on KAAY, the Top 40’s AM champion of the 1960s and 70s. After a decade, he hired on at KSSN. Over the next quarter-century he rode the “Urban Cowboy” country wave to a kind of Arkansas superstardom without ever modifying his gentle, country baritone.
A commuter who drove from his mini-ranch in Sheridan every workday to do his show in Little Rock, he had the kind of untrained voice that conveyed the things Robbins loved, like fishing, his family and the welcome rural quiet.
But once, at the height of the country discotheque craze after John Travolta’s hit “Urban Cowboy” in the 1980s, Robbins’ star power was so great that when he took his talents from an established club to open his own place, the snubbed club owner paid men to beat Robbins with a baseball bat.
The rival club owner, Robert Troutt, went to the penitentiary and then the grave. Robbins spent months recovering from a crushed jaw, and years dreading talking about the topic. “It happened and it was terrible, but it’s not something that I dwell on.” He felt bad that Troutt’s prison stint cost the Benton native his businesses, but he also considered prison fitting for the brutal attack. “I just couldn’t believe people would do something like that just for money.”
To Robbins, the episode was a horrible episode in a wonderful journey, a life of success, music, a wife and family, and grandchildren.
Not to mention meeting Elvis Presley and countless country stars, and becoming friends with George Strait. Through his long career, he saw a transformation of the radio industry from a landscape of thousands of individual station owners to a kingdom of chains owning hundreds of stations each. He went from actually spinning records on turntables to purveying digitized songs via computer. But he always wanted his voice to be local.
“You can’t feel great about every technology,” Robbins said, describing the rush to remote and canned broadcasts. “You can’t tell listeners a storm is rolling through if you’re not local. People want to know what’s happening in their world. It’s their kids waiting at the bus stop.”
That spirit guided Robbins, and helped bring him accolades like Country Music Association DJ of the year nationally, a place in the Country Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame and an enduring spot in the lives of thousands of Arkansas listeners.
“When radio is done right, listeners feel that the person on the air is their friend, someone they’d like to go have coffee or a beer with,” said Neal Gladner, director of sales and marketing at US Stations in Hot Springs, the company that owns KLAZ-FM, KLXQ-FM, KZNG and KLBL.
Gladner, who met Robbins through the industry not long after moving to Arkansas in 1984, the height of Robbins career. They never worked together, but Gladner thought Robbins deserved his status. “Bob personified that; he wasn’t an announcer, he was a trusted friend and companion in the listener’s day. I think that’s what made him so iconic.”
He was the kind of guy who sang along with every song, grateful his listeners couldn’t hear. “I’m not sure if it was singing, or butchering,” he joked.
“He was just the best at reaching listeners,” said Doug Krile, the former Little Rock TV anchor and former director of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association. “He talked, he listened, he never pushed them away. I wish I had known him better.”
Luke Story, the current Broadcasters Association director, called Robbins truly one of a kind. "Bob influenced the country music format, cared deeply about his listeners, had personal relationships with artists, generated growth in the business world, and gave generously to the community - ensuring that those who had less felt loved," Story told Arkansas Business. "Most Arkansans will remember his 'Building Up Toy Hill' Toys for Tots drive each year. ... He used his platform for the betterment of the community and to elevate the format of country music. We are very saddened to hear of his passing this weekend, and our hearts are with his family and beloved listeners at this time."
Gladner said KSSN had a real asset in Robbins at his peak.
“In a business where turnover is generally rapid, there are very few long-lasting personalities like Bob Robbins,” said Gladner of US Stations. “The Craig O’Neills, Tommy Smiths, Ray Lincolns and Broadway Joe [Booker] are very few. Of all the people who talk on the radio, these are the ones who connect so strongly with their audiences that they create real value for radio stations to keep them on.”
Born in Florida, Robbins got his start in radio as an Air Force brat, playing polka tunes on Armed Forces Radio in Morocco, where his adoptive father was stationed. His first boss told him his voice was “just too country,” but Robbins persisted. He said he never learned to speak in that flat, non-accented dialect of radioland.
“Nobody liked him,” Gladner told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “except all the listeners.”
Robbins’ health had kept him off the air in recent months. He is survived by Susan, his wife of 45 years, as well as three children and five grandchildren.
“Can a grandparent love too much?” Robbins asked rhetorically back in 2017. “Maybe it’s impossible.”