ACORN, Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, Audio 101, Best of Bluegrass Gospel, Big Grif, Clyde Phillips, Deb Moser, E. Rodney Jones, Ernie Dumas, Flap Jones, Gospel Angel, ho-hum, Janice Brewer, Jay King, Jewelene Bonner, Jimmy Thackery, Jody 'The Hug Man' Luv, John Cain, Juanita's, KABF, Katy Elliot, Little Rock Free Press, Mulehead, NBC, Oleo Magneto, Pat Wood House, Poeboy Society, Queer Frontier, Randall Lyon, Red Neckerson, Scott Holladay, Sister Chris Eatmon, Sticky Fingerz, Tommy Smith
KABF (88.3 FM) will celebrate two decades on the airwaves Aug. 31.
As the self-proclaimed “voice of the people,” Little Rock’s nonprofit, non-commercial, community-supported radio station thrives on its symbiotic relationship, according to “Sunglasses After Dark” host Oleo Magneto.
“We can only do as much and last as long as the community will allow,” the 20-year volunteer says. “It’s remarkable that an urban population as small as here can support a community radio station for 20 years. I think it’s a good thing KABF has lasted 20 years. It says something good about Little Rock that it’s been able to sustain it.”
To commemorate the occasion, a 20th anniversary logo design contest ending Aug. 19 will provide limited edition T-shirts from the winning entry that features the station’s call letters and a reference to the anniversary. Listeners are invited to attend a picnic cookout Aug. 28 from noon to 4 p.m. at the station’s headquarters at 2101 S. Main Street in Little Rock.
General station director John Cain expects officials from the city of Little Rock, the Annie Casey Foundation and the Central Arkansas Library to join the celebration. Cain, who first volunteered at KABF 20 years ago, says the public can search for sound bites from some of their favorite shows over the previous two decades. Unfortunately, one sound bite visitors will not find belonged to a former President.
“Bill Clinton made a spot for KABF while he was governor,” says Pat Wood House, president of the station’s board of directors. “Some dutz recorded over it.”
Later that evening, a commemorative ensemble will perform “America’s music” including jazz, blues, etc. at Juanita’s. Additional plans include an Aug. 29 Gospel celebration at the Greater Rose of Sharon church at 28th Street and Martin Luther King Drive with Pastor Arthur Blood, as well as a Rock event and a Bluegrass event.
Some program announcers plan to continue the festivities. Nineteen-year volunteer Robert “Big Grif” Griffin promises to bring in “jazz cats from New York” to honor the event before December. Seventeen-year volunteer Pat “Flap” Jones (on the cover) will feature the Birtschi Brothers, Runaway Planet and Salty Dog on Friday, Aug. 17 at Sticky Fingerz.
In the beginning …
The story of KABF begins with a seven-year ACORN campaign to put the station on the airwaves. ACORN created the Arkansas Broadcasting Foundation in 1978 to provide a voice to the state’s voiceless. The Federal Communications Commission opened new frequencies, setting aside some for non-profits serving low-to-moderate income people.
The FCC winnowed the applications for the signal to KABF and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which also sought the 88.3 frequency. When KABF paid UALR’s legal fees, the university cut a deal with Hendrix College to share a different signal, House says. Though KABF reached out to the academic community in hopes of providing students a hands-on opportunity to apprentice on the air, the plan bore no fruit.
“The academic world was a very cautious group,” she says. “We were too liberal politically.”
Meanwhile, volunteers kept to a shoestring budget while building a control room in the original station at 1501 Arch St. in Little Rock, and a tower on Crystal Mountain on land owned by Delta Timber and Murphy Oil located five miles west of Rodney Parham and Interstate 430.
When KABF hit the airwaves Aug. 31, 1984 – the final day before the FCC would have yanked the license for nonperformance – its 10,000 watt signal primarily covered central Arkansas and reached into communities including Russellville and Pine Bluff. KABF cranked up to 100,000 watts in 1987, becoming a class C station and topping the technical rank authorized by the FCC for FM radio stations.
“It was one of the least expensive 100,000 watt stations ever built,” says Scott Holladay, KABF’s first station manager from January 1983 to September 1987. “We used volunteers for construction. We had a used transmitter and a used high-efficiency antennae with a gain of 12, which meant we could have a fairly small transmitter and still send a 100,000 watt signal.”
While the station’s primary coverage area includes Benton, Conway, Hot Springs, Jacksonville, Little Rock, Maumelle, North Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Scott and Sherwood, its secondary coverage blankets the majority of the state and reaches into Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
“We’ve been heard as far away as Boca Raton, Fla., in 1992,” Cain says. “With a FM station that has a primary signal of 70 miles, we do pretty good. The station is unique itself because you have to drive 500 miles to find another one like it.”
The station’s scrapbook bears witness to the signal’s reach. A letter from Ernest R. Cooper of Provincetown, Mass., explains that he heard KABF on the tip of Cape Cod on May 30, 1989 through his MR-78 MacIntosh FM tuner and nine-element rooftop rotary beam antenna. The signal also provides 20-year volunteer Red Neckerson with some of his fondest memories of the station.
“I was in Shreveport, La., driving at 11 p.m. and picked up KABF with Big Daddy singing the song ‘The Ballad of Sheila’ on ‘Sunglasses After Dark,’” he says. “Just being able to pick that up that far away and what was being played, I had to pull the car over.”
But even a signal is useless without a transmitter. According to Cain, a fire in 1999 knocked KABF off the air for 77 days when it destroyed the transmitter and the station’s second-hand equipment. Luckily, KABF had insurance and also borrowed funds to purchase new equipment. Griffin remembers the fire.
“What worried me, it was something that could have put us out of business and it scared me,” he says. “It made me realize you don’t take things for granted.”
Volunteering for Duty
KABF relies on volunteers to make its shows go 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Between 50 and 60 volunteers provide 90 percent of the station’s programming using their own play lists rather than following a specific format.
“The people here are here because they want to be here,” says retiree Isaac D. Mullen, who’s been with KABF for nearly 20 years. “Nobody’s here for the money. That’s the important factor. Nobody’s here for the money, because there is no money. When you work at something and you’re not getting paid, it’s obvious you want to be here.”
The volunteer disc jockeys’ lack of experience provided an initial obstacle for the station to overcome. According to Cain, 99 percent of the people starting had no experience. Magneto recalled those early days.
“I got involved before the station went on the air, probably the first meeting after the station got its license,” he says. “I remember we didn’t really expect it to last. Grif had real radio experience and taught me how to work the board. We didn’t have any idea what we were doing. All the DJs were completely lost.”
In addition to Griffin’s help, Cain returned from Alabama (where he helped establish the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame as a member of the National Black Cultural Society) just in time to help organize the station before it went on air. Texarkana native E. Rodney Jones provided some insight from his days working at Chicago’s WVON, the AM station that broke records for Muddy Waters and other blues giants.
“We had a lot of people come and go. John and I got to see a lot of personalities come through,” Griffin says. “Though volunteers, you’d have thought they were being paid. Cats like E. Rodney Jones – B.B. King would ask for him to bring him on. I thought is was so unique and cool that these cats would even spend their time at the station, but they did.”
Other volunteers from the early years included columnist Ernie Dumas, a district judge and “a ton of trained executives,” House says. While most volunteers respected the station, a few caused headaches.
“We had little problems that would arise,” Holladay says. “Some volunteers partied at the station at night when the staff wasn’t around. We had to clamp down on some of them.”
Mullen currently hosts Tuesday’s “Blues Traffic Jam” from 3-to-5 p.m., but he started working at KABF on the morning Gospel show. Imagine his surprise at being unable to get into the studio as a result of some volunteers’ pranks.
“I got locked out of the studio and had to get the police to let me in,” Mullen says. “We had a rock show and they had a wild party one night. I came in the next morning and couldn’t get in.”
Occasionally, the Gospel hosts could get in the station, but could not turn on the lights.
“My most fondest memory at KABF was the morning when I felt my way along the wall, up the steps in the old Arch Street building, to find the studio as dark as midnight without a star in the sky,” volunteer announcer Chris Eatmon says. “After making my way back out of the building and to my car, I later found out, by first-hand experience, that someone had removed the electric light meter from the building.”
Problems with the power caused Jones to alter her script at a station benefit at Juanita’s featuring Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
“That very day, our lights got cut off and we were no longer transmitting,” she says. “I started it by telling everybody, ‘We really need this benefit bad, y’all.’”
In addition to power problems, volunteers sometimes spent time confronting natural pests at the Arch Street studio.
“I remember one night,” 16-year volunteer Jay King says. “We depended on turn tables. I looked up and saw a mouse on the console. It went across the turntable; the needle went scratch. I had to explain on the radio, ‘It wasn’t me folks, it was the mouse.’”
Eighteen-year volunteer Janice Brewer will never forget the mouse.
“He was at the control board almost as much as I was!” she says.
A move to headquarters above ACORN took care of the rodent problem. It also provided more space than the cramped 9-by-14 control room with a 7-foot ceiling sitting on top of a hot building with no air conditioning and outdated equipment.
“I appreciate where we’re at now opposed to where we started,” says 11-year volunteer Deb Moser. “We’re in the lap of luxury now.”
King says he believes the computerization of the production room will increase KABF’s listener appeal, with a more obvious difference once the computerized studio is in place. While he says the change will remove some of the “home-made edge” from the shows, he does not think it will spoil the shows.
Regular listeners will soon have the opportunity to go to the station’s Web site to find schedules and play lists to shows. Seventeen-year volunteer Clyde Phillips says he hopes to also provide a brief description of each show and the background of each announcer. Audience feedback provides announcers the satisfaction of knowing someone loves what they are hearing on the air.
“Some shows nobody calls,” King says. “But almost every show I get people asking me to repeat the name of the artist and spell it, then ask ‘Where can I get that?’ Most of it is hard to find. Some of it you can get at Barnes & Noble or Best Buy, but sometimes you have to get online to find it.”
Current volunteers juggle their time at KABF with working at many professions including government employees, lawyers, school administrators and industrial workers. King owns Arkansas Glassworks, which produces stained glass for churches around the state.
“If you’re somebody who wants to get into radio, you’re not going to get hired at most radio stations,” King says. “At KABF you have to be willing to work for nothing. Not everybody has the time to volunteer. It’s a great way to get into radio for the first time. They have to have a real interest in the music.”
Unlike commercial radio DJs, KABF announcers seem more comfortable out of the limelight, e.g. Neckerson prefers the anonymity his radio personality provides, but has been known to accept a beer when someone discovers his true identity.
Disdaining the competition among radio personalities, KABF announcers do not actively seek fame. Instead, they discuss the opportunities provided by having an outlet to share music that listeners would not hear on commercial radio.
“In the back of my mind I keep saying I hope people realize I’m here to turn them on but not to be famous,” Griffin says. “If they appreciate it, that’s fine. But I’m not here for the notoriety.”
For people avoiding the limelight, it may seem odd that the station garnered national attention when NBC’s television crew profiled KABF in a special on public radio stations – not bad for a station unknown to some central Arkansans.
“It’s amazing,” Phillips says. “I still get people who haven’t heard of the station after 20 years.”
According to Cain, NBC brought its crew from Atlanta in 1990 and stayed for four-to-five days covering the station’s development. The crew spent time at Jones’ house with her children, and interviewed Mullen and Cain among others.
“They saw the shift in paradigm from commercial to independent radio,” Cain says. “To me, that said there is a change in the radio world as we know it. When that profiling from NBC aired, people found out, ‘There’s a Renaissance in Little Rock going on.’”
King notes that formats at KABF overlap as listeners may hear alternative music one minute and Jazz the next. The format changes throughout the day, and sometimes within the same program.
“People are trained to listen to one type of music exclusively,” he says. “Very few people who put KABF on leave it on all night long. There are people who love the diversity and listen all the time, but most listen to specific programs at specific times.”
The combination of volunteer announcers and alternative music formats caused some to predict KABF’s demise in its early days, but time proved otherwise.
“They said we’d never make it,” Griffin says. “People said it wouldn’t happen, but we’ve been here 20 years so it’s a good thing it didn’t happen.”
Gospel music begins KABF’s daily operations, and comprises 28 hours of the station’s weekly programming. A diehard following tunes to “Gospel in My Soul” from 6-to-9 a.m. Monday through Friday, 4-to-7 a.m. Saturday and 5-to-8:30 a.m. Sunday.
“Your normal gospel stations are AM stations and don’t reach out like KABF can,” Gospel music director Jody “The Hug Man” Luv says. “A lot of areas don’t have gospel, but people can listen to KABF all over the state. The good part about that is when I get people calling from Little Rock and North Little Rock. That’s a blessing because they have a choice and still listen to us. A lot of people don’t have a choice, but they listen to KABF because they appreciate what we do.”
Jewelene Bonner, the “original Gospel Angel,” hosted KABF’s first gospel broadcast. Bonner opened her program every Sunday morning with Tessy Smith’s “Just Another Day that the Lord has Kept Me.” Knee surgery slowed her for awhile, but Bonner continued hosting the last hour of “Gospel in My Soul” on the third Sunday of each month until she left the station for health reasons in 1995.
“Gospel listeners throughout the state of Arkansas knew the ‘Gospel Angel’ because she was one of the first black female Gospel announcers on the air during those early days at KABF,” says Eatmon, who goes by the moniker Gospel Angel No. 2 and Minister of Good News. “Most commercial stations allotted 15-minute slots to Gospel singers, but some nationally known artists performed live in the studio at KABF for an hour or more.”
Sister Eatmon co-hosted with Bonner during her final years at the station, keeping in touch until Bonner died in 1997. They received permission to extend the name of their program to “Sun Rise Gospel in My Soul,” which Eatmon continues to host every Thursday.
“My goal is to encourage, empower and enlighten the understanding and will-power of our listeners,” Eatmon says. “In other words, spiritual unfoldment for better living is my over-all goal, not only for our listeners but also for my life as well. Since ‘Gospel in My Soul’ begins each day at KABF, and the people who choose to listen tell us that they look forward to listening to the Gospel format, I believe it brings ‘unity’ to the community. I believe it brings joy and peace to those who hear and obey the Spirit of Truth found in life of the Word.”
Luv hosts the Tuesday edition of “Gospel in My Soul” and attends events around the state as an announcer. Luv says he receives satisfaction from meeting and greeting the different people he has met over the five years of his Tuesday show.
“It’s just good being able to spread the word with 100,000 watts over the state of Arkansas and being able to help local artists get their music out,” he says. “There are different cultures listening. They call in and let you know how they’re enjoying the show. It’s a great feeling. Though most of our music features black artists, we have a variety of listeners tuning in to listen to us.”
To Preserve and Perpetuate …
KABF also provides a haven for listeners interested in American roots music, providing 28 hours of Jazz programming and 20 hours of the blues each week. As music director for the Jazz, blues and R&B formats, Griffin says announcers have the opportunity to audition music. The station has provided national Jazz and blues reports since 1998, reporting to Jazz Week on a weekly basis and Living Blues on a monthly basis.
“It increases our music input from the record companies,” Griffin says. “If you’re reporting to a chart, they’re covering the country. It definitely is an asset to the station because we get things you wouldn’t normally get.”
Cain started “Jazz Venue,” airing Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. The 38-year radio veteran worked in public radio in the 1960s, but left in the 1980s because of the needs and opportunities in public radio. While he shared the Free Press’ Best DJ recognition in 1997 with Magic 105’s Tommy Smith, Cain has seemingly outlasted even “The Outlaw.”
“The purpose of (‘Jazz Venue’) is to preserve Jazz and perpetuate the culture, establish venues, connect the dots between musical families … those things that make America what it is,” Cain says. “When this station came on, there was no Jazz or blues on the radio in Little Rock.”
Griffin hosts “The Quiet Storm” from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Sundays. His show aims to increase the Jazz audience by playing music they will not hear in the weekly Top 40.
“Being a 100,000 watt station, we’re covering towns that haven’t heard this music, and didn’t know what Jazz was,” Griffin says. “People in Mountain View didn’t even know what Jazz was. They’d heard the blues because of bluegrass folks, but Jazz was foreign to them. And they like it!”
Of course, most listeners will attest to the fact that nobody in central Arkansas plays the blues like KABF. Instead of Kenny Wayne Shepard, listeners are more likely to hear Son Seals. Between the Mondo Blues, SmokeStack Blues and the Blues Traffic Jam, listeners get everything but the commercial blues heard on other stations.
“It’s unique in itself in being able to drive home in drive-time Friday and being able to listen to the blues,” Griffin says.
Moser, who hosts the “Blues House Party” and alternates on Friday’s “Blues Traffic Jam” from 3-to-4:30 p.m., claims the station provides a sanctuary from her day job with the federal government. She admits she initially felt nervous about speaking on the air. While reading copy about an upcoming show, she kept saying to herself, “Don’t say bass,” which of course she did.
“I just had the image of this guy strumming this fish,” Moser says.
When her job took her to Memphis, Moser accepted with the stipulation that she could return to KABF each weekend to play the blues on her show.
“I think that Little Rock is awfully lucky to have KABF with the diverse programming we have,” she says. “I just love being part of it. It strikes that rebel chord in me. We’re not like everybody else. Sometimes I think we should move along further and progress a little more, but then I wonder if we’d lose the charm and uniqueness we have.”
Covering the Classics
Listeners yearning for the radio of yesteryear need not change the radio dial. Neckerson’s “Radio Roundup” airs Thursdays from 6-to-8 p.m., featuring radio legends including Hank Williams, Jimmy Rogers and Ernest Tubbs, as well as Arkansans who made records that never got popular, like Skeetz McDonald from Dumas and Sleepy LaBeef from Smackover. The show claims an audience ranging from 18-to-130 years old.
“My favorite show is Red Neckerson’s show, because it’s totally unique,” Magneto says. “There used to be a lot of shows like that in Arkansas when I was a child. Red has a well-concealed subversive edge.”
Neckerson, who has been with KABF “since day one,” says the show plays every country song, good, bad or otherwise, from 1920 to 1970. He started the show in 1988, using music from his 35-year-old vinyl collection.
“I play the old anti-war songs and the pro-war songs,” Neckerson says. “Every song deserves to be played once on the radio. It’s one of the last shows like it in the country.”
KABF relied on bluegrass and gospel followings in the early years for support, and continues to devote 10 hours a week to bluegrass. Brewer hosted the Ozark Mountain Hop, a three-hour bluegrass/bluegrass gospel show, on Tuesday evenings for 14 years. While she fondly remembers the “Appreciation Party” when she left the Ozark Mountain Hop, Brewer also received a thrill doing live interviews with bluegrass stars. She now works part-time at KABF hosting the “Best of Bluegrass Gospel” on the fourth Sunday of each month from 2-to-4 p.m.
“My goal is to share the bluegrass gospel music, and especially the message it gives, to as many people as possible,” Brewer says. “I feel that it reaches a lot of people who are disabled and cannot get out to attend church. I get frequent feedback about this.”
KABF also plays four hours of progressive country each week. Bluegrass and Country musical director “Flap” Jones covers “the best of the rest of country” with her program “Not Necessarily Nashville.” The show airs Friday nights from 5-to-7 p.m., and features artists including Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Roger Wallace, Nancy Griffith, Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
“It’s a country program, but not commercial because commercial country radio leaves so much good country out,” Jones says. “I’m always putting down commercial radio, but if they were doing what I’m doing, I couldn’t do it.”
Jones started a Web site for the program at countrytoo.com, which contains tidbits of information on news and releases, as well as play lists for listeners to look at it to find the artist and albums. Artists and promoters peruse it then send her more music than she would ever purchase, she says.
Diverse and Experimental
As if the previous shows do not provide enough evidence, KABF provides a home for the eclectic music fan. Listeners tuning in Saturdays can enjoy Middle Eastern music followed by Native American Indian music, leading up to a “Collage” at noon with co-hosts Phillips and Dale K. Smith, who alternate weekends.
“My version of ‘Collage,’ it’s just a variety of genres of music,” Phillips says. “For example, in one set you might hear the Beta Band followed by Alison Krauss followed by McCoy Tyner, Porcupine Tree and someone like Rachid Taha, an Algerian artist.”
As with all of KABF’s announcers, the co-hosts of “Collage” have the freedom of playing more or less what they want with no restrictions, what Phillips describes as a “free-form” format. Perhaps no show tests the boundaries as much as Magneto’s “Sunglasses After Dark,” airing Thursdays from 8-to-10 p.m.
“It’s one of the most eclectic shows I’ve ever heard,” Neckerson says. “I had my bachelor party on that show. Oleo had named me Toubaldolang. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that it’s the only bachelor party to ever be on Arkansas radio.”
Magneto claims his show has no goal, format or point. In addition to the bachelor party, “Sunglasses After Dark” has featured Randall Lyon’s Band of One playing live, spontaneous, improvised music for two hours. The three or four shows featuring Lyon can be found as bootlegs in Memphis.
“It’s intended to carry as much a sense of improvisation that you can carry into a radio station playing pre-recorded music. I try not to think about it too much. The less thought that’s gone into the show, the more successful it’s been,” Magneto says. “When you can get something unscripted and things get loose, I like that kind of thing. Every so often, I get phone calls from people who get it. I’ve had truck drivers stop and call me because of something they heard on my show.”
Magneto inspired at least one announcer to volunteer at KABF. King came to Little Rock from Austin, Texas, home of a music scene that most places envy. Yet according to King, Austin does not have a radio station like KABF, nor a show like “Sunglasses After Dark.”
“(The show) is so damn weird,” he says. “It’s the first thing I heard on KABF. As soon as I heard it, I thought this town has something going for it. The style changes from song to song. (Magneto) loves all kinds of music, and it works – people love it! I decided I wanted a program. If he can play that kind of stuff, then I want to play my stuff.”
King began hosting a three-hour program mix between alternative and world music on Monday and Wednesday nights. Following the end of “The Caribbean Experience” in 2000, Cain convinced King to exclusively play world music. His show “World Tour” airs Sunday from noon to 2 p.m., featuring the music of Oumou Sangare, Tarika, Bebel Giberto, and Tana Tani among others.
“I love music from the Middle East and North Africa, well, all African music, Eastern Europe. I just put it all together,” says King, who also serves as KABF’s world music director. “I also think it’s important to talk about the cultures and the origins of music.”
A new feature started in mid-July showcases four-to-five minute long, locally produced news features from Inter World Radio. King mixes the features in with music from the same country, allowing listeners to hear the voices of both musicians and reporters. The focus on voices may not be surprising to those who have heard his other show, “Audio 101,” which airs Tuesdays from 10 p.m. to midnight. The show celebrates its first birthday this month.
“It’s something totally different,” King says. “About a year ago, I decided to do a program devoted to the spoken word. It’s wide open as to what gets played.”
“Audio 101” features radio documentaries, monologues, performance art, poetry and audio drama. Local artists have contributed a portion of creative audio to the show, with “Poets in the Street” providing slam poetry and Red Octopus providing the soap opera, “As Farewells Go By.”
“That’s about the extent of my local stuff,” King says. “If anybody wants to submit anything and it’s air-able and it’s good, then I’ll put it on.”
King occasionally airs shows within the format of his new show. “Hitchhiking Off the Map,” a one-hour program of people talking about life experiences, airs on the third Tuesday of each month, while Joe Frank airs on Tuesdays near the full moon. King uses archived programs found at JoeFrank.com.
“Joe Frank is this maniac in California who has for years put out a radio program, part monologue, part drama, part interview,” King says. “Recurring characters call and talk about everything under the sun. People don’t know how to take Joe Frank. That’s why I put him on the full moon.”
And They Rock (Unlike Commercial Radio)
KABF also programs 24 hours of alternative rock each week, with plans to increase the time slot each night from ending at midnight to ending at 2 a.m., King says. When Phillips started in 1984, he played alternative ‘80s rock interjected with reggae on “Little Rock and Reggae” with co-host Terry Wright. When Black Flag came to Little Rock in 1986, the duo hoped to interview front man Henry Rollins in the studio, but ended up interviewing Greg Ginn, the band’s bass player and one of the founding members of alternative punk label SST Records.
“Terry and I didn’t know what to expect with Greg. We had preconceived notions of him as an anarchist punk rocker,” Phillips says. “He blew those notions away. He was totally 180 degrees opposite in that he was very forthcoming, down to earth, very easy to speak with. He almost came across as a corporate type although we knew better. We were totally taken back by his demeanor and then after the interview, we attended the show. And that’s when he put on his game face … strapped on that bass and it’s like ‘Let’s Rock!’”
Though KABF devotes less time to rock and country than commercial radio stations, Jones says the station covers more ground. KABF listeners enjoy the diversity and have been know to complain about announcers who played the same songs found on commercial stations.
“We did have some dissatisfaction (in the early years) because some people on the air sounded too much like commercial radio to suit (listeners),” Holladay says. “We got (the volunteers) to understand it was to be an alternative radio station.”
Besides individual programming choices and the lack of loud, obnoxious commercials, KABF treats listeners with something other than the same tired 50 computer-selected songs played at the same time every day, occasionally interrupted by a canned DJs voice to provide a false perception of real-time.
Of course, the “live” element of KABF’s shows occasionally leads to bloopers such as Neckerson’s first show, which broadcast the first 45 minutes off the air. Unaware that the show had returned to the airwaves, some words that would not meet the FCC’s obscenity standards bounced across the airwaves. Occasionally, objectionable language surprises announcers listening to a new song.
“There were occasions when we didn’t have the opportunity to screen an album or a 45 single. Every so often we’d be caught with our pants down due to objectionable lyrics in the song, much to our chagrin,” Phillips says. “To me that was part of the charm of community radio in that we weren’t under the constraints often associated with commercial radio. That gave us the freedom to express ourselves more. That’s what’s given KABF identity over the years, and separates it from commercial radio and other independents – we have more freedom.”
With changes in FCC law allowing ownership of more than one station, conglomerates have filled the radio landscape. Griffin says he believes the changes have stolen radio’s personality.
“Now people are depending on public radio to carry on the tradition,” he says. “Public radio is starting to come back as a real asset.”
Cain claims to devote all of his energies to public radio, and derives satisfaction from KABF’s mission to serve the low-to-moderate income audience abandoned by commercial radio. His goal is to collaborate with and create partners who preserve music, theatre, visual arts, rhetoric and writing.
“You get local individuals concerned about culture,” Cain says. “It’s not in commercial radio. There’s no place for America’s original music – blues, Jazz, old country, bluegrass. Every volunteer looks at this to say, ‘It’s here, alive and well, still perpetuating and inspiring people wanting to be musicians, writers wanting to write, poets speaking the word.’ I worked in commercial radio for 17 years, then left because they didn’t want Jazz and blues. I can’t call it radio because it leaves out so much of what we are as Americans.”
Magneto is not as kind concerning the subject.
“I hate commercial radio,” he says. “If there was a point to my show, it’s so I could show people a viable alternative. The more time passes, the more consolidated, the worse it gets. Those guys are contemptuous of their audience. People listening to my show have an active interest in the media. A lot of the commercial media just treats you like you’re an airhead. It’s just insulting. It’s so slippery, so slick, so controlled. It’s just not very interesting to me. And they don’t care that it’s bad. They know it’s bad; they don’t care. It’s just about getting paid.”
Unlike commercial radio, KABF seeks to unite rather than divide Arkansans.
“I think it brings some of the cultures closer together,” Neckerson says. “Music is a common denominator everyone can relate to and put their personal bigotries aside.”
An Organizing Tool
Though KABF announcers do not get paid, they arguably make a larger impact on their community by bringing social, political and cultural information to a section of the population often overlooked in commercial radio. Through their shows, KABF provides listeners the opportunity to recognize and participate in activities and organizations to improve their communities.
“KABF does things corporate radio doesn’t do,” Cain says. “People wanting real change and media knowledge can come to the station to access it and learn it. They can reach people who think like they do and need what they need. The station is within itself a community because that is how the station is used to disseminate information to those people who need their kind of insight. So it’s kind of an organizing tool.”
The station broadcasts public service announcements free of charge for civic and community organizations across the state, and produces call-in talk shows that provide central Arkansans the opportunity to hear and share opinions with communities across the state. Programs produced in Spanish appeared on KABF long before Arkansas’ Spanish-speaking population grew, House says.
“The talk formats of local issues are produced by local volunteers,” Cain says. “It’s what gives (the station) identity because it’s produced by local people … and it advocates change. We’re not here to train individuals to become DJs. Our position is to give orientation to people so they can use this to network. We don’t train DJs; we have program hosts here. They may call themselves DJs, but they’re far beyond that here.”
While noting the lack of opportunities normally presented to non-politicians or workers attempting to get their viewpoints heard, House says she believes the station provides the means to get those views expressed on the air.
“They talk about the issues. The kind of music they play expresses a viewpoint,” she says. “I think it’s important that people have a voice. I think (KABF)’s proof-positive that it works.” While the shows do not necessarily generate a lot of ratings, Magneto notes that ratings are not the point.
“The people that listen to the station are more interesting and involved, a little more active,” he says. “They respond to calls for community involvement. They speak out and speak up. A lot of the programming encourages that. The whole idea for media is people having an outlet. Other than print media, there’s nothing.”
King brags on KABF’s developing news staff, which focuses on community news and issues that fail to generate much media coverage, e.g. alternative energy and quality of life issues. Originating through the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice, the half-hour news program can be heard in its entirety on Fridays at noon. Announcers will occasionally use smaller segments at the top of the hour, King says.
Katy Elliott has worked at KABF for nearly a year putting together the news program in hopes of making public affairs more relevant to the community. The station offers community organizations and programs access to recorders to tape conversations for the air.
“The idea is friends sitting around talking about issues – farming and gardening, prison issues – so people realize what’s going on is public affairs. We are the public,” Elliott says. “A lot of people realize the media is monopolized and we try to open it up a little.”
Besides the novelty of hearing conversations about issues rather than a report framing the issue from a particular stakeholder’s viewpoint, Elliott notes KABF can cover issues deemed too radical by commercial radio; e.g. the medical marijuana issue.
“We give the people involved in the groups the opportunity to talk for themselves,” she says. “We even let a group produce their own news shows. A lot of people just need a little help figuring out how it works.”
Elliott says KABF will record viewpoints from any agency or group of citizens that calls the station or emails firstname.lastname@example.org. All opinions are welcome, she says, adding that the station will air all sides of any issue. In this manner, the station not only helps the community but becomes an active participant in the community.
Community Guidance and Support
KABF answers to a board of directors, led by House since the station’s inception. The stability of the board and its relative anonymity has helped KABF weather problems over the years.
“We try to use common sense as any business or corporation would do,” she says. “There’re disadvantages to this kind of governing body. If they were given a lot of time and effort, they could do more. They can be as big as they can. The guidelines are very flexible.”
Consisting of individuals who make important decisions in their organizations, the board always includes a labor representative to explain the union positions as well as explaining KABF’s position to the unions. A Sept. 24, 1983, letter from the KABF scrapbook notes that the station has had support and participation of unions from the start.
“The press and media often seem to focus on the negative aspects of unions,” it states. “At KABF, unions will be able to tell their side of the story. Union members and staff can produce their own programs, with help from the KABF staff, or you can just keep us posted about news from your local.”
Though board members come from a variety of religious backgrounds, House says the topic does not affect decisions regarding the station. For example, though one member worked in public relations for the Catholic Diocese during the early years, it did not keep the station from airing an alternative lifestyle show.
“The station manager announces at one board meeting that a new show, ‘The Queer Frontier,’ was going to air on Sundays. Back in the 1980s, this was a new idea,” House says. “It was a very helpful kind of program telling about meetings, places to go for help. It was a needed service. Nobody on the board got all worked up. What’s on the air depends on the station manager.”
While stations affiliated with KABF over the years have had problems with their board of directors, including a Florida group that turned their station into an elite operatic station, KABF’s board does not attempt to control the musical format, House says.
“Nobody on the board has been on the air. Nobody is scrambling for any recognition,” she says. “Nobody has an agenda. They don’t care what they’re playing on the station. … Nobody has an axe to grind or anything to gain.”
House and a Spanish American board member represent the only Caucasians on the board. In the case of an individual attempting to make race an issue during a board meeting, she has turned the issue over to the board and it has handled things.
“They represent a wide spectrum of people,” House says. “Most have been on there a long time. Some real good things are set in place. We have grievance procedures. Even though the DJs are not paid, we’re responsible for them. We follow the procedures religiously.”
Not only does the community guide KABF’s operations, it also provides monetary support. According to the KABF Web site, listeners provide 65 percent of the station’s yearly operating budget. Since the Arkansas Broadcasting Foundation is a non-profit corporation registered by the federal IRS as a 501(c)(3), all contributions are tax deductible. Businesses support the station by sponsoring programs or segments within a program, thus providing the second largest source of funding. The station is allowed to thank the underwriter and mention their business interest.
“It has been to me a blessing to get the support financially that we have gotten over the past 20 years,” Griffin says. “It was overwhelming to know and meet the people willing to support this station. From businesses to the public, it’s been overwhelming. It shows us we’re doing something right. I can’t emphasize enough the support we’ve gotten. I’m just surprised.”
Each show costs the station $80 an hour, according to Pledge Drive Coordinator and Administrator Tennille Burks. Quarterly pledge drives and benefits help cover the shows and administrative costs. The next drive occurs Aug 21 to Sept. 4, Burks says.
“I set an overall goal of $20,000 for each pledge drive,” she says. “I have to divide by the number of shows and the times of the shows, e.g. late night shows may not do as well as daytime, so I don’t ask them to bring in all the money. Each show has individual goals of $100 to $500 with two weeks to raise it.”
The on-air drives usually attract pledges between $5 and $25 from approximately 650 listeners, though Burks has received a pledge for $2,500. House says the money is immediately deposited into a local bank, then sent to an auditor who supplies a record of the transaction and also writes checks for the station.
“One homeless guy walked in and gave me $1,” Burks says. “A pledge is showing appreciation. Some people have the money to give. Some people don’t, but they feel that they’re helping us out.”
When a payment arrives, Burks responds with letters, business cards and premiums including music from artists featured on the shows as well as KABF T-shirts. While more than half of the listeners are reliable and immediately pay, Burks sends reminder cards to those who need it. The CDs and T-shirts entice pledgers to pay as soon as possible, she says.
“I respond to the listeners. Everybody knows me because I’m the smile behind the phone,” Burks says. “I remember all my pledgers. I have a tendency to recognize them by their names. A lot of people don’t even have to give me their addresses anymore.”
Even if someone contracts with the station to produce a demographic, Cain says they still conduct pledge drives. He proudly notes that most pledges come from the checkbooks of working people.
“Each one of those checks is 10 votes,” Cain says. “If someone in a family pledges to us, it’s like the whole family pledges. Tracking our pledges and getting independent market surveys gives us a more accurate estimate of who our audience is. We estimate that we have over 250,000 listeners weekly because of the uniqueness of the programs and the coverage area of the signal.”
Helping Local Musicians
KABF supports Arkansas’ local bands and independent artists unable to convince commercial radio stations to play their music. Magneto believes this support has led to the local music scene becoming an “amazing scene” in the last 10 years, especially since the station promotes local concerts.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental,” he says. “You can’t hear Ho Hum or Mulehead or Poeboy Society on Magic 105. Knowing there’s a central place, it gives you a base. People way out in the woods, recording in a garage, they send me a tape and I played the whole thing. Ho Hum came in and asked us to play their tape, and I played it right in front of them. You can’t get that anywhere else around here.”
Unlike commercial DJs, KABF announcers do not worry about executives in other parts of the country chastising them for playing songs from artists that the announcer enjoys.
“We show folks that there’s musicians out there working and doing what they’re supposed to do, and they never give up the culture,” Griffin says. “And that’s in all the genres we play.”
Local musicians can send their CDs to the station at 2101 S. Main St., Little Rock, AR 72206, in care of the program announcer that best fits their genre. People needing to contact the station can phone 372-6119, fax 376-3952, or email email@example.com. One announcer even provides his personal phone number for those willing to talk.
“Listeners can always feel free to call me at 501-541-0510,” the “Hug Man” says. “Tell them KABF and Jody Luv loves them. Now gimme a hug.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 1-31, 2004 issue of the Little Rock Free Press.
Word Count: 7,548 words