Before I began working for a newspaper as a high school student (a real newspaper, not a school newspaper), there was radio.
When I was age 13, a Henderson State University faculty member named Don Pennington allowed two friends (the Balay brothers) and me to have our own show on the school’s radio station, KSWH-FM. Disc jockeys had to be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission in those days. I was too young to drive so my father drove me to Little Rock early one Saturday morning to take the test for my Third Class Radiotelephone Operator License, which I carried in my billfold for years afterward.
The Arkansas Gazette published a feature story on the radio program — which included music and news from Arkadelphia’s Goza Junior High School — complete with a photo of the three of us at the KSWH controls.
The Associated Press picked up the story, and it ended up running in newspapers across the country. Thus began my love affair with radio, which continues to this day.
I started working at my hometown commercial radio stations — KVRC-AM and KDEL-FM — in high school and continued to work there through college while simultaneously holding a newspaper job.
It was common in those days for local radio stations to cover lots of local news with extended newscasts early in the morning, at noon and late in the afternoon. There also were the so-called public affairs shows (required by the FCC back then), for which various people would be interviewed at length, and live coverage of major events in town.
While there are still some Arkansas radio stations with a commitment to local news, radio reporters are becoming rare in an era when many stations obtain their programming from satellite broadcast services. Because of automation, the offices of small-town radio stations often are locked tight even in the middle of a weekday.
I worked full time in my first political campaign in the early 1980s. It was an era when a news conference in Little Rock would bring out reporters from commercial stations such as KARN-AM, KLRA-AM and KLAZ-FM along with the newspaper and television reporters. KAAY-AM also had a strong news operation in its heyday.
The epitome of the hard-charging Little Rock radio newsman was Herbie Byrd, who died last April at age 87. Byrd covered the news for Little Rock radio stations for more than four decades and was a thorn in the side of six governors — Orval Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton and Frank White. John Robert Starr, the former Arkansas Democrat managing editor, once wrote that Byrd was “the best radio newsman who ever worked in Arkansas.”
At news conferences in the governor’s conference room of the state Capitol, the first question for a governor often would come from Byrd rather than a print reporter. Now, the only radio reporters to show up at events usually are those from the state’s public radio stations.
Ben Fry, who was the general manager of Little Rock public stations KUAR-FM and KLRE-FM from 1995 until his death at age 54 last March, determined that the state would be better served if its public stations would collaborate on news stories. He applied for a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the CPB came up with $287,300 for a two-year collaboration between KUAR, KUAF-FM in Fayetteville, KASU-FM in Jonesboro and KTXK-FM in Texarkana.
What originally was known as Natural State News is now Arkansas Public Media.
Bobby Ampezzan, a Michigan native who once worked at public radio giant WNYC in New York, left a job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last spring to become the managing editor for Arkansas Public Media.
A month later, Vanessa McKuin left her job as the head of the historic preservation organization Preserve Arkansas to serve as the lead administrator and fundraiser for the project.
Both are highly talented at what they do.
“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been funding regional collaborations for several years,” McKuin says. “There’s Harvest Public Media in Kansas City, which focuses on food and fuel in the Midwest. There’s the Great Lakes collaboration in upstate New York and Ohio. There’s Inside Energy radio in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota. As far as I know, we’re the only statewide project that has been funded. Our focus is on health care, energy, education and justice. We’re still largely a rural state, and we’re out finding stories that would be missed otherwise. It has been a lot of fun.”
Content partners for the project are the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity, the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the public television network AETN and the Spanish-language newspaper El Latino.
Ampezzan covers stories out of Little Rock along with reporter Sarah Whites-Koditschek, who once worked for nationally known public broadcasting station WHYY in Philadelphia.
Jacqueline Froelich, who has been at KUAF since 1998 and whose stories often are heard on National Public Radio, works out of Fayetteville.
Reporter Ann Kenda works out of Jonesboro, having moved to Arkansas from Boston last month.
“As you can imagine, we’re doing a great deal of legislative coverage right now,” McKuin says. “Increasing the newsgathering capacity is the goal of this project along with focusing on those issues that affect people in Arkansas. I’ve always been a big fan of public radio. When I lived in New York, I would listen to the KUAR livestream because it allowed me to keep up with what was going on back in Arkansas. It’s exciting to be on the front end of something like this. These stations shared stories in the past, but it really wasn’t a coordinated effort like this is.”
One of McKuin’s primary tasks will be to find the funds needed to ensure that Arkansas Public Media lives on once the grant runs out. She says the newsgathering operation will become a multimedia effort with a constantly updated website, frequent social media posts and even video capability through the partnership with AETN.
Radio news isn’t dead just yet in Arkansas, it seems.