Icon (Close Menu)


Recalling the Infancy of Public Radio in Arkansas

3 min read

Regina Dean easily remembers the signoff time for KLRE-FM in its early years: It was at 3 p.m., when last bell rang and school was out.

“In the 1970s, KLRE was licensed to the Little Rock School District and was on during school hours,” Dean recalled at a recent panel discussion on public media at Little Rock’s main downtown library. “We were the last capital city in the U.S. to have a National Public Radio station.”

Dean, who went on to manage KLRE and sister station KUAR, was a high school kid captivated by broadcasting. Her mother taught at Metropolitan Vo-Tech, where KLRE debuted in 1973, featuring the classical music that it still plays today as an affiliate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Now director of WUOT Public Radio in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a former NPR director, Dean relishes reminiscing about public radio’s infancy in Arkansas.

“By the mid-70s, Madison Hodges had taken over for Dr. Ruth Steele as KLRE’s director … and he said, ‘Why don’t you do some stories for us?’ So in high school, I became a charter member of Friends of KLRE. We knew there was this thing called NPR, and we wanted to have it.”

So after following Hodges’ footsteps and graduating from the University of Missouri, Dean joined forces with Hodges’ successor at KLRE, John Bortel. Through a Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation grant, they qualified for funding by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

One of Dean’s first public affairs programs was “Editors’ Roundtable,” which gave high school newspaper editors a chance to interview newsmakers. “They didn’t really understand they were on the real radio, but they were,” Dean said. Tommy Robinson, the Pulaski County sheriff and later a U.S. congressman, was quoted as saying Quorum Court members were “so slow it took them an hour and a half to watch ‘60 Minutes.’” That made the first of many headlines.

After several rounds of fundraising, in 1984 Hillary Clinton “threw the switch signaling our membership in NPR,” Dean said. “So Little Rock had joined the other 49 state capitals.”

Dean was joined on the panel by Mike Doyle, manager of KASU at Arkansas State University, and Courtney Pledger, executive director of the Arkansas Educational Television Network. They and moderator Bobby Ampezzan of Arkansas Public Media noted several milestones, including the 50th anniversary of legislation funding the CPB, the 50th year of AETN and the 60th anniversary of KASU, the state’s oldest public media outlet.

When Doyle joined KASU in the ’70s, commercial stations were playing Led Zeppelin and Elton John, but the college station was playing Mantovani and the Ray Conniff Singers. “Some people in Jonesboro have no idea that we even have NPR programming,” he said. “They think we’re still playing Mantovani.”

KASU also had classical music, Doyle said, nodding to Dean. “But we had students announcing it, so we played a lot of ‘BEE-thovin,’ ‘Choppin’ and ‘Debuzzy.’”

Ampezzan was a natural for a public media discussion. APM, where he’s managing editor, is a year-old experiment that has drawn wide praise for Sarah Whites-Koditschek’s reporting on unlicensed teachers, Jacqueline Froelich’s work on the lingering effects of Vietnam War-era Agent Orange testing in Arkansas, and Ann Kenda’s look at PTSD in first responders. Ampezzan’s own coverage of medical marijuana and APM’s work on Arkansas’ spate of executions last spring have also been noticed.

The nonprofit’s goals are to expand coverage shared by partner stations, deepen digital reporting and take Arkansas stories nationwide. NPR’s newsmagazines and “Marketplace” have aired more than two dozen APM pieces.

Send this to a friend