Riding Radio's Wave, Losing Local Voices

Sid King founded KGFL-AM and KHPQ-FM in Clinton. His daughter, Ali King Sugg, started KSUG-FM  in Heber Springs.
Sid King founded KGFL-AM and KHPQ-FM in Clinton. His daughter, Ali King Sugg, started KSUG-FM in Heber Springs. (Jason Burt)

Tommy Smith, who tickled, informed and outraged thousands of Arkansans over 45 years of broadcasting, got his first radio job in 1974 by marrying the station owner’s daughter.

“Broadway Joe” Booker, a fixture at Little Rock’s KIPR-FM since 1988, was an injured college basketball player who found his voice when the PA announcer at Arkansas State University’s arena lost his.

“He got laryngitis before a game and I filled in, and I was on my way,’’ Booker said.

Smith, who started at tiny KEWP-AM on Main Street in Little Rock a decade before finding fame at rock station Magic 105, had a lot of programming freedom as the boss’ son-in-law. Sometimes he’d play the Carpenters and Black Sabbath back to back.

Sid King worked a year for his brother-in-law’s cinema chain in Clinton, getting to know the town and its advertisers and working on Federal Communications Commission applications, before starting KHPQ-FM and KGFL-AM.

Two daughters followed him into the radio business; one of them, Ali King Sugg, founded her own station in Heber Springs, KSUG.

King, Smith and Booker, like many radio veterans of their generation, followed their bliss into radio or stumbled into it, an increasingly rare route in an industry that technology and corporate consolidation have utterly transformed over the past 30 years.

“You’ve got to make money, and it’s more crucial now than ever,” King said. “If you make money, you can hire people and do things. If you can’t, you’re just surviving. So essentially, radio stations today can’t do the great things they once did because they’re just fighting to survive.”

Remote Voices

Local listeners these days, he said, often hear voices and programs beamed not from the studio down the road with the big tower in back, but rather from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The industry, he said, is under siege in a listening landscape with far more streaming, voice-tracking and syndicated programming.

IHeartMedia, formerly Clear Channel, emerged from bankruptcy in 2019 with a plan to cut jobs, and it did so the next year by eliminating an estimated 1,000 positions nationwide from its 12,500-worker payroll at more than 850 stations. The cuts came with a new commitment to national programming and artificial intelligence, the company said. In June 2020, Cumulus Media announced it was cutting about 3% of its staff, or 100 workers.

Locally produced news, beyond weather and sports, has dwindled to almost nothing except on public stations like KUAR-FM in Little Rock and independent stations owned by Black and Latino entrepreneurs (see sidebar at bottom of article).  

The Arkansas Radio Network, which supplied news for flagship talk station KARN-FM and 18 affiliates, shut down in March after a storied 55-year history. ARN was owned by Cumulus Media of Atlanta, which also owns KARN and Booker’s own Power 92.

(From top left, clockwise) Jim Elder at KARN, Bob Robbins at KAAY-AM, George J. Jennings at KAAY and Elijah Mondy Jr. at KJIW-FM.
(From top left, clockwise) Jim Elder at KARN, Bob Robbins at KAAY-AM, George J. Jennings at KAAY and Elijah Mondy Jr. at KJIW-FM. (Provided, Cody Lynn Berry, CALS and KJIW)

The network had its start in 1967 as the Delta Farm Network, which Arkansas broadcasting entrepreneur Ted Snider rebranded as ARN in the early 1970s after he bought AM and FM radio stations from KARK, the Little Rock television outlet, offering reports from durable stars like sportscaster Jim Elder and farm reporter John Philpot. By the end of the 1980s, the Arkansas Radio Network was heard on 70 stations.

“Everybody’s business plan has changed since the 1990s,” said Booker, who became Power 92’s program director in 1991. “You just have to adjust to the changes. We’ve been blessed to be owned by Citadel and now Cumulus, and both believed in live talent in the Little Rock market. That’s our big difference.”

Professor’s Perspective

Richard Robinson

Professor Richard Robinson of the University of Tennessee at Martin was an Arkansas radio man about to start his teaching career at Henderson State in Arkadelphia when a tsunami called the Telecommunications Act of 1996 capsized the radio industry.

“Every small town used to have a radio station, typically locally owned,” said Robinson, who grew up in Conway inspired by local station KCON and Little Rock’s Top 40 powerhouse of the 1960s and ’70s, 50,000-watt KAAY-AM.

“When the 1996 act took effect it allowed giant chains to grow, like iHeart, Cumulus and Citadel, which is now basically part of iHeart. At one time I think ClearChannel [iHeart’s forerunner] had more than 1,100 radio stations.”

Chain ownership allowed staff consolidation, too, Robinson said. “If you’ve got, say, three stations, you don’t really need separate sales staffs. And with automation coming in, you don’t have to have as much air talent or production people.”

Debt pressure on the big chains also led to layoffs, said Trey Stafford, who has been running radio stations in northeast Arkansas since age 23.

“Our industry sold the idea of consolidation to the FCC and Congress based on gaining the ability to be more efficient, spreading costs over more than one station,” said Stafford, president and general manager of Jonesboro Radio Group since 1984. “It should have worked, but the end result 26 years later is that all that money used to acquire all these stations left these companies drowning in debt. So for the past 10 or 12 years it has been a constant story of cuts. Cut people, cut services, cut expenses. One loser is the listener, who gets more syndicated and voice-tracked programming, rather than local voices.

“As an industry, we’ve cut off our nose to spite our face,” said Stafford, who counts himself lucky because when he and his partners moved to sell their three stations in 2002, the buyer was Ed Christian of Saga Communications of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. “He wanted to add our stations to his portfolio, but he wanted us to stay on and run it as if we still owned it,” Stafford said.

“That was 20 years ago, and I’m still here today. Ed Christian died just a few days ago [Aug. 19], and he always said that if you superserve your community, everything like revenue would fall into place,” Stafford said. “He demanded that his managers stay true, and he demanded local air talent. On our three stations, we have eight on-air employees in the building every day doing live shows. Others, too, have stayed true to their roots.”

King, too, has folded his stations into the fabric of Clinton, a town of about 2,600 and the seat of Van Buren County. His stations are on Main Street on the courthouse square.

Warren Johnson, who saved his birthday money after turning 7 to buy a small transistor radio, was a KGFL listener from the start. “Through the years, Sid King [and his stations] have been a source of news, weather, school closings, and when disaster strikes, emergency information,” Johnson wrote on social media. “KGFL has earned a permanent place in Van Buren County history.”

Booker, the KIPR program director, said that even within a big chain, it’s possible to adapt, stay local and find new revenue. “You can fight change or figure out how to make it work, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” Booker said. “We generate revenue from live talent, and now we have nontraditional revenue from expanding brands into social media and marketing that way.

“We do live endorsements talking about services and products, and that’s not new, but it’s growing,” Booker added. “I have probably 12 to 15 endorsers to talk about. In urban radio, people come to us for information, education and entertainment. Those are the pillars.”

Arkansas radio greats, standing left to right, are the late Bob Robbins, Craig O’Neill, “Broadway Joe” Booker and Tommy Smith. Kneeling is Danny-Joe Crofford, another radio personality who helped organize an event honoring the four at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater in March.
Arkansas radio greats, standing left to right, are the late Bob Robbins, Craig O’Neill, “Broadway Joe” Booker and Tommy Smith. Kneeling is Danny-Joe Crofford, another radio personality who helped organize an event honoring the four at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater in March. (Nelson Chenault/CALS)

The Central Arkansas Library System honored Booker, Smith, KTHV-TV’s Craig O’Neill and Arkansas country radio icon Bob Robbins in March in an event hosted by Danny-Joe Crofford. Robbins died at 78 in May after a 55-year career at KAAY, KSSN and KMJX. 

KUAR-FM News Director Michael Hibblen covered that event and was scheduled to cover last Saturday’s CALS tribute to longtime KABF Program Director John Cain.

Cain, 85, has hosted KUAR’s “52nd Street Jazz” for more than three decades and has been on the air in some form for 56 years. Hibblen, a three-decade veteran on the air, is a particular critic of chain consolidation. “It’s really a shame what’s happened to radio,” he said. “Along with all the debt that came with buying every signal available, traditional music radio has been diminished as more people listen to satellite radio, streaming and their own personal devices.”

Neal Gladner, director of sales and marketing at U.S. Stations in Hot Springs and a former president of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association, said some innovations have impressed him, including voice-tracking technology so sophisticated listeners cannot tell the broadcast isn’t local. “We’ve all had to cut costs to keep radio profitable,” he said. “But radio still has advertising advantages,” including greater credibility with audiences than some media and the ability to target listeners.

“Radio survives and thrives because it’s still so effective when it’s done right,” Gladner said. “I may be talking to just 7,000 people, but if I’m doing it right, I’m talking to 7,000 people one at a time.”

Minority Radio Bucking the Trend

Elijah Mondy Jr. sees minority ownership in broadcasting as a mission that complements the Black gospel format at KJIW-FM, his radio station in Helena.

John Cain

“We are a commercial gospel station, and it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me,” said Mondy, a Chicago native who was an NBC engineer for decades before becoming a Mississippi Delta broadcaster. He and his wife, Belinda, have run the station for some 30 years, assisted by some of their nine children.

“We play gospel music, we do local news and sports, as well as a lot of weather,” Mondy said. “When you’re a Black media owner, you focus on all that the people need to know, and that includes health and services, local politics and all kinds of other things.”

Edward Vega, owner of the Spanish Radio Network of Springdale, agreed with Mondy, and offered an anecdote to illustrate the personal approach at KSEC-FM and KLTK-AM/FM in northwest Arkansas, KOLL-FM in Little Rock and KBHS-AM/FM in Hot Springs.

“A husband can call in and say, ‘Hey, I want to dedicate this song to my wife,’ and his wife is going to be listening in some other part of the area, her co-workers and relatives and friends are also listening, and it is sort of like another form of social media for our community,” said Vega, who became the first Hispanic to own a radio station license in Arkansas when he certified KSEC in 2005.

“We’ve grown from paying for time to owning four radio stations in the state, and we’re the only independent radio company that owns FM signals in the two major markets of Arkansas.”

With more than 20 employees, Vega has one of the larger minority-owned businesses in Arkansas, and his and Mondy’s stations represent a thriving branch of local radio that’s defying years of homogenization and consolidation. Public radio outlets like KUAR in Little Rock, KUAF in Fayetteville and KASU in Jonesboro are also bucking the trend.

“I wanted to become a radio station owner because I saw how powerful a station can be as a conduit for getting people information,” Mondy said, noting that the Federal Communications Commission had cleared his plans for a new tower closer to Memphis and a power increase to 50,000 watts that will put a million potential listeners in his broadcast area. “Minority ownership in radio and TV is dismal.”

FCC data from 2019 shows that only 2% of commercial stations were Black-owned, and that Black AM ownership was 3.3%. Black people comprise more than 14% of the U.S. population. 

All racial minorities owned 7% of FM stations and 13% of commercial AM stations.

The Central Arkansas Library System was scheduled to pay tribute to community radio last Saturday evening with a celebration for legendary Program Director John Cain of KABF-FM, 88.3 in Little Rock. The 85-year-old broadcaster and preservationist was saluted for a half-century of radio and community involvement, with proceeds benefiting KABF, known as “the Voice of the People,” and the library system.