I can’t remember when I’ve had as much fun as I had last week attending the 50th anniversary party for the radio station that was such a key part of my youth — KAAY-AM, the Mighty 1090.
Thank you, Barry McCorkindale, for including me.
As I pointed out in a newspaper column earlier in the week, there’s still a Little Rock radio station with the call letters KAAY. And it’s still at 1090. But the Mighty 1090 has been gone for more than a quarter of a century, having died on April 3, 1985, when the station switched from its mix of Top 40 music, news and Razorback sports to paid religious programming.
We were in the side room of the Little Rock Oyster Bar for the anniversary party. The Oyster Bar long has been among my favorite dives, and it was probably fitting that we were in a room with cheap wood paneling from the 1970s and a sagging roof. That’s because the memories that came rushing back that night were from the 1960s and 1970s.
Bob Robbins, who went on to become one of the nation’s top country DJs at KSSN-FM, first came to Arkansas because of KAAY. Born in Florida in 1944, Bob was the youngest of 13 children. He was living in Americus, Ga., when the job offer came from the 50,000-watt Little Rock station.
“I drove through the night from Georgia, and I listened to KAAY the entire way,” he said. “I never lost the signal. Somehow, I found out where the studio was. I remember thinking, ‘My gosh, what is this place?’ Jonnie King was on the air as I pulled up.”
King would go on to a long radio career in the St. Louis market.
Sharing the stage with Robbins at the anniversary party was Sonny Martin, who handled the morning-drive shift for many years with legendary newsman George J. Jennings.
Bob and Sonny talked about heavily promoted events during KAAY’s heyday that would draw thousands of people — the cow chip throwing contest, the skunk festival, etc.
The late Pat Walsh, who was the station’s general manager in those days, was a marketing genius. He also was able to mold a group of eclectic characters into a team.
“The way we lived back then, it’s amazing that any of us got to this age,” Robbins said. “We cared for each other. We were a family. Radio has changed in so many ways. I wish I could live long enough to see radio stations be like they were back then.”
In an age of massive corporations, satellite programming and an eye only on the bottom line, it’s unlikely there will ever be anything again like the Mighty 1090.
It was an interesting mix. There was Top 40 music during the day. There was “Beaker Street” and its so-called underground music late at night. There was a solid local news operation. There were Razorback football games. There were the Marvin Vines farm reports early in the morning and during the noon hour.
Vines had started at KAAY’s predecessor, KTHS, in 1953.
“He was one of the few people and the only on-the-air person to make the change to KAAY in 1962,” wrote A.J. Lindsey, whose on-air name was Doc Holiday. “Marvin’s talent was not so much on the air as it was driving 64,000 miles a year and speaking everywhere he could.
“My memory of Marvin was his terrible coffee. He arrived at the station early — like 4 a.m. — to prepare his show. The all-night jock wasn’t interested in making coffee, so the first pot of the day was made by Marvin, and it was terrible.
“I arrived at 6 a.m. as Marvin was doing the farm reports. By then, the coffee was old. But Marvin was always in a good mood.”
Vines was killed in May 1978 in a tractor accident on his farm. Lindsey, a Little Rock native, died in May 2009.
Speaking of KTHS, the station signed on in 1924 with studios in the Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs.
“KTHS began broadcasting on Dec. 20, 1924, at 8:30 p.m. with an inaugural program originating from the ballroom,” Bud Stacey writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On Jan. 1, 1925, the Arlington opened for hotel guests. KTHS programs consisted mainly of live big band music from the ballrooms. … In August 1928, the Arlington Hotel presented KTHS to the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce as a gift; the station was shut down during the week of Aug. 13 to move its facilities to the Chamber of Commerce building at 135 Benton St.”
It was in April 1931 that Lum and Abner were invited to perform on KTHS for a flood relief benefit, helping launch what would be remarkable broadcast (and movie) careers.
An email from Scott Lauck arrived after this week’s newspaper column was published.
“My grandfather was Chet Lauck, and he played Lum,” Scott said. “He told me about those first broadcasts that he and Tuffy Goff (who played Abner) made on KTHS before the show was quickly picked up by NBC and moved to Chicago. Those were the golden years of radio, and they had so much fun doing that show for 25 years. They also made six movies for RKO.”
KTHS was granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission in 1951 to move from Hot Springs to Little Rock. A new transmitter was set up at Wrightsville.
Randy Tardy, with whom I once worked at the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, remembers that last day before KTHS became KAAY in 1962.
“I was news director for KTHV, Channel 11, whose companion radio station was KTHS,” Tardy says. “I had somehow inherited the night news reporter’s job for radio since their man was out sick or on vacation. It was Labor Day weekend 1962. I had wrapped up preparing the 10 p.m. news for the television side and put together some wire copy and local stuff for the 10 p.m. radio news on KTHS. As I entered the booth a few minutes before the top of the hour, the engineer in the control room said: ‘You know, this is the last KTHS 10 p.m. newscast. Next time around it will be the new folks.’
“I was anxious to leave Eighth and Izard, where the studios were, so that the secretary to the program director, Miss Elizabeth Timmel, and I could drive all night in my 1955 Pontiac to Kentucky Lake near Murray, Ky., to meet her mom and dad. She had prepared sandwiches for us to nibble on overnight as we made our way east on U.S. 70. Interstate 40 was a few years in the future.
“I wrapped up the final newscast, and off we went. While at Kentucky Lake with her parents, I proposed to her on their lake dock. Fortunately for me, she said ‘yes.’ So as the Mighty 1090 celebrates its 50th anniversary, Elizabeth T. Tardy and I are approaching our 50th anniversary on Oct. 12. We were married on Oct. 12, 1962, in the chapel of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. We had the weekend off but were both back at work on Monday at the television station.”
KTHS had been purchased by the LIN Broadcasting Corp. and changed its call letters to KAAY on Sept. 3, 1962 (the day after my third birthday).
“Labor Day weekend listeners were teased by a new, temporary format: that of radio announcers reading names and addresses out of the Little Rock phone book and welcoming them to The Friendly Giant over Henry Mancini’s ‘Baby Elephant Walk,’” Stacey writes.
Tardy remembers listening to that on the way back from Kentucky with his new finacee.
“The only thing that sounded the same was Marvin Vines, whose format did not change,” he says. “In fact, I think he still said KTHS rather than the new call letters. The newscasts were delivered by George J. Jennings and B. Bruce Jenkins, two pretty darned good radio newsmen.
“It was a good time to be where I was, especially watching and listening to Howard Watson and others prepare for ‘Ear on Arkansas’ as I watched Bob Hicks, Evelyn Elman and Steve Stephens do ‘Eye on Arkansas’ on KTHV.”
“Eye on Arkansas” was a true magazine-style television show.
“Ear on Arkansas” was satire and comedy, far ahead of its time.
On-air names were taken from the real names of LIN board members.
“As DJs left for other markets, their air names were dropped to the bottom of a list and the next new announcer would pick up the air name at the top of the list,” Stacey writes. “These names were trademarked by the station so that they could not be taken to competitors’ stations. In some cases, a former announcer would be hired again by KAAY while his original air name was being utilized, so he used his real name. This happened with Wayne Moss in later years since a ‘Sonny Martin’ was on the air at the time.”
The “Sonny Martin” at last week’s event is really Matt White. He runs the Pot O’ Gold Restaurant at Lindsey’s Rainbow Resort on the Little Red River near Heber Springs and has a show on KWCK-FM, 99.9, in Searcy. White was the last Sonny Martin from 1966-77.
KAAY stories often revolve around the Funmobile, the trailer used for remote broadcasts.
David B. Treadway, a familiar voice in Arkansas radio, once wrote of White: “The Funmobile was parked in a huge field some miles south of Little Rock for a big music festival headlined by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We were all doing our shows live from the event that day, and it was well after dark when Sonny showed up demanding my belt and KAAY buckle. Yes, he had been there all day.
“A fan had admired Sonny’s buckle, so naturally he had given it to her, belt and all. He was due onstage to introduce the Dirt Band in a couple of minutes, and his jeans were in danger of going south. Reluctantly, I gave him my belt and, of course, never saw it again. But that’s how we did it back in the day — everything for the station, all glory to the call letters.”
I hear there’s a book in the works on the Mighty 1090.
I hope so.
There are enough stories out there to fill several volumes.