25 July 2006

Pine Bluff, Struttin' Our Stuff!

I didn't want it to end like this. Honest.

According to information gleaned from the Arkansas and Mississippi boards on Radio-Info.com, Pine Bluff, Arkansas is pretty much completely "dark."

Pine Bluff - a hub city of southeast Arkansas of about 60,000 -- now has just one (1) commercial radio station on the air. KCAT-AM 1340, a standalone operation (now, as then), is the last one left. It's a satellite black gospel station, to boot. Not much there anymore, although in its day KCAT was an urban contemporary monster. There are two other, low power, FM stations - both noncommercial; one affiliated with the local university. For this purpose, I don't count 'em. Besides, neither existed until well into the 1990s.

I have about as much affection for Pine Bluff as I do such beautiful, loveable and adorable creatures as my ex-wife, or Bolivar Shagnasty's ex-wife The Red-Headed T(BLEEP)t. I lived in Pine Bluff from December 1987, when I graduated college, through the end of January 1990, when I went from the frying pan into .... another one (Troy, Alabama). Pine Bluff, whether I like it or not, is where I began my adult radio career. Two years of my life which even today feel like 20.

Bluntly, I'm not fond of Pine Bluff. It's a smelly, decrepit, dirty, filthy city. And those are its good points.

But wait a KOTN-pickin' minute. This is supposed to be about RADIO. Pine Bluff had some good things about it once upon a time. For starters, there was KOTN. "Radio Cotton", "1490, Where The Action Is", "Information Radio" ... in the '60s and '70s, KOTN was regarded as one of the best small-market top-40 radio stations in America. The late Buddy Deane, Baltimore dance party icon (and the man upon whom the 1988 movie Hairspray was based), retired to his native Arkansas and bought KOTN in the early '60s. Under his leadership KOTN often outpromoted the giant 50,000-watt rock 'n' roll flamethrower out of Little Rock, KAAY.

KOTN was something Pine Bluffians of both black and white persuasions looked at with pride. It was a beacon of community service. And it wasn't the only one. Another station, KCLA -- (K)eep (C)overing (L)arge (A)udiences -- often made KOTN earn each ratings point it got. Except some time in the '60s and late '70s when it dabbled into top-40 itself, KCLA made its greatest acclaim as a country station. C&W legend Jim Ed Brown started his career with a radio show on KCLA, sometimes performing live at the 1400 spot on Pine Bluff's radio dial.

Other stations also operated in the city: KPBA 1590, KABS 1270, KADL-FM 94.9 .... Pine Bluff was a market unto itself with a full menu of radio stations covering most every basic format. KOTN-FM 92.3 (later KFXE, and now KIPR) came on the air in the late '50s, and was one of the first - if not THE first - FMs in Arkansas to broadcast in stereo.

The rise of FM radio and the increased accessibility of FMs in Little Rock contributed to the downfall of Pine Bluff's radio landscape. Buddy Deane sold KOTN and then-KFXE in 1982; the buyer begrudgingly took the AM because Deane refused to split 'em. Cornerstone Broadcasting was interested in only the FM, because the FCC was beginning its slippery slope of deregulation.
Meanwhile, KCLA -- by now calling itself "Hit Kickin' Country" -- launched an FM sister, KZYP 99.3, in 1984. "ZYP-99" was automated top-40.

The year 1987 was the turning point. The beginning of the end for Pine Bluff radio. That Spring, the FCC repealed the "city of license rule" mandating all radio operations take place in or near its home city.

That's all it took. Quicker than you can say "Woooo Pig Sooey!", both of Pine Bluff's full power FM signals pulled out and moved into Little Rock, 40 miles to the north, leaving behind two AM stations: KOTN 1490 and KABS 1270. KABS went dark just months into 1987. KOTN survived, but was a fading flower -- an adult contemporary station with satellite talk overnight. A fading flower whose glory days were long behind her.

And it was in that environment that a young and green Talmadge Gleck went to work for KCLA and KZYP at their palatial studios at the dead end of Apple Street.

KCLA and KZYP - at the time the only FM signal still originating in Pine Bluff - was struggling to keep its head above water. What didn't help was that AM country was wilting in the face of two FM country signals; one from Little Rock and the other from Hot Springs. Plus, YOU try it in a city that by then was fast closing in on 75% black!! The worst thing was the illustrious "woman in the carpeted office." I'm convinced Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada was modeled after KCLA/KZYP's station manager in the late '80s!

I couldn't hack it but one year under those conditions, so I bolted. Bolted to a new station ... someone had bought 1270 (the old KABS above) and was putting it back on the air with a news/talk format. Long story, but after not being paid for two months, I left when KOTN came calling. KOTN was my last stop in my radio tour of Jefferson County, Arkansas. KOTN was beginning to come unraveled by 1989. I was led to believe only a covenant by Buddy Deane mandating live/local staffing kept Cornerstone Broadcasting from taking KOTN entirely satellite!
January 31, 1990 was my last day doing middays at 1490 AM.

After I left, Pine Bluff radio got worse. I think the covenant was for ten years; 1992 was about the time Cornerstone donated(!) KOTN to the local university. For a couple of years, KOTN was actually a Public Radio station, even carrying some PRI and NPR programs!! KOTN was the seed from which they launched their own FM station. At that point, 1490 reentered the commercial side, just in time for COMM '96 -- the act of Congress which allowed all the massive "clusters" of stations one sees today.

A company out of Dumas, Ark., Delta Radio, bought KOTN, KCLA, KZYP and put another FM on the air in the city, KPBQ 101.1 ..... by the late '90s, Pine Bluff would have one major cluster (one of the owners of Delta Radio, it turned out, was Buddy Deane's daughter Dawn, one of my old co-workers back at KOTN). And for a time, radio fortunes in that city turned back upward.

[it's here that I'll remark that I find it highly curious that Clear Channel didn't go near Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Hmmmmm....]

But here's where things got ugly. Along about 2001 or 2002, Delta Radio received an offer it couldn't refuse. A company out of Texas, MRS Ventures, bought them, and assumed control of the cluster. MRS also controlled a group of stations in Texas, and another in Greenville, Mississippi.

MRS ran their radio stations with a reckless abandon and a flagrant disregard for FCC mandates and contractual obligations with program suppliers. Satellite formats were aired without paying for them, sending affidavits or letting them know at all! No Public File. EAS tests weren't being done. Stations were running unattended, dead air for days on end, often with studio buildings UNLOCKED (!!!!!!!!).

By the time 2006 rolled around, when Seraphim and I drove through Pine Bluff, here was the situation as it looked:
KCAT 1340 = independently owned; satellite black gospel, probably unatttended.
KCLA 1400 = running maybe 10 watts, if that much, and airing distorted bleedover from KZYP.
KOTN 1490 = ditto! Same distorted bleedover from KZYP. Could not be picked up at all in west Pine Bluff.
KZYP 99.3 = only station actually broadcasting audible content. Black talk program from New York. Probably not obtained legally.
KPBQ 101.1 = not very powerful, and also airing dead air with barely-audible distorted bleedover from KZYP.

And now the news that KZYP has been off the air for two weeks. Phew! The FCC has already descended upon Greenville, Miss., and Pine Bluff is next. It's only a matter of time now before the first two years of my adult radio career, jammed willy-nilly into KOTN's building on Commerce Road, are padlocked and permanently shut down for good.

KOTN and KCLA both were stations with proud histories. Now look at 'em.

I don't care where they are -- they didn't deserve a fate like this.

Clear Channel, Cumulus, etc., are wrong -- radio stations aren't just brands in a market portfolio. Radio stations, while businesses requiring a profit to succeed, are LIVING, BREATHING CREATURES. Radio stations have SOULS, goddammit.

I don't like Pine Bluff. But I wouldn't wish this ending on my worst civic enemy.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Sad" Gleck


televisiongirl said...

You have some interesting opinions. I was reading your posting about radio media in Pine Bluff Arkansas and I was wondering what you or anyone would think about an area like that having a television network that focuses on the positive. The media there is limited, period. Especially in comparison to other areas of the country or even other areas of the south. Would it be nice to have a station that put a lot of emphasis on highlighting local sports, the history of the area, things that would make people proud to be from Pine Bluff of Arkansas period?

Talmadge G. said...

Very good question. As for a positive spin on Arkansas ... that one would be much more of a cakewalk. To my observation while living in Ark. (1982-1990), most of the state's people, i.e. natives, take a high level of pride in being from Arkansas.

Arkansas just has a lot of baggage ... then again, so does Mississippi, my native Alabama, or Kentucky, West Virginia ... even good ol' Jawja where I hang my hat now. It's part of being in this quadrant of the U.S.

I learned to appreciate Arkansas several years after leaving. It's a place onto itself, almost like a whole different country. What impresses me the most about her people is that folks for the most part WALK the TALK. Arkansas' big ace-in-the-hole is its natural beauty. Driving through the Ozarks earlier this year, I was astonished at how Ark. has limited developement. It's still very rustic and beautiful. MISSOURI, on the other hand, was developed up to its molars, especially along the lake shores.

But PINE BLUFF? I don't know. The city seems to have allowed itself to squander most all of its selling points. Every city has shortcomings, I understand. But apart from the history (especially the railroad heritage - I find that fascinating), the "swinging Sunbeam girl" billboard at Harding and Main, and UAPB athletics ... honestly, and soberly, I cannot think of a great deal of positive things about PB. And God knows I've tried.

What will it take? The advertising base has dried up, rendering any desire of somebody to buy KOTN, et al, undesirable. The city also brought it on itself. How sad. Very sad.

Thanks for your response, Televisiongirl.

Okay, I'm babbling here.

mark said...

Does anyone remember a radio show hosted by a SALLY SUNBEAM in the late 50's, early 60's.

She was my Aunt, and I am trying to determine radio station and any info for her children who live near Star City.

Mark Kenward