KABF was the first radio station I would broadcast on, hosting a weekly alternative rock show called Radios In Motion. The 100,000 watt station had a signal that covered much of Arkansas and featured more than 100 volunteer program hosts like myself, offering a wide range of music and talk not heard on other radio stations in the state. It offered the incredible freedom of essentially being able to play anything you want on the air.
The photo to the right features me (sitting in front of the control board) along with longtime co-hosts Louisa Rook and Thad Gilbert. It was taken by Arkansas Gazette photographer Ellen Black in August 1990 as the newspaper was preparing a story about the station.
What I appreciated most about KABF was having the creative freedom to air whatever I wanted. Every commercial station I've worked for has had a tight format in which I was told what music to play and pretty much what to say. KABF spoiled me with a level of freedom I would never find again.
I was extremely passionate about the music I was playing and was grateful that my show developed regular listeners who seemed to get just as much out of it as I did. I also met a lot of people through the program, making some really good friends, with some joining me on the air, bringing a lot more life to the show than the nights I was there by myself.
At that time the station was operated by the now-defunct community activist group ACORN, which was started in Little Rock in 1970. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now would eventually spread throughout the United States, with more than 1200 chapters nationwide. KABF and Dallas radio station KNON were started to provide a broadcast voice for its causes, which mostly consisted of social issues like helping low to moderate-income families get affordable housing, better wages and convincing corporations to invest in inner cities. But ACORN shut down in the aftermath of a controversy involving hidden camera videos recorded in 2009 by a conservative political activist, which suggested low level employees were willing to help a couple hide a prostitution business and avoid taxes. ACORN had apparently been politically targeted because of its work for Barack Obama's presidential campaign registering people to vote. The videos caused a scandal that led to the elimination of funding and major contracts, with the organization filing for chapter 7 liquidation in November 2010. Despite a rough period for KABF immediately after that, I'm glad to see it has managed to continue on its own.
When I began volunteering there in 1988, KABF's broadcast schedule was an eclectic mix of programs. In the early mornings it aired black gospel, with jazz beginning in the midmorning. Mid-days usually featured some kind of news or public affairs, with soul and reggae in the early afternoon, followed by the incredibly popular blues programs in the late afternoon. Early evenings featured country or bluegrass, with various forms of rock and alternative airing most nights until the early morning. It also offered Native American, Spanish language and other diverse shows on weekends. The only salaried employees at KABF were a handful of staff members who worked in the office and hosted some of the shows. The rest of the people on the air were a broad mix of volunteers like me. We had everyone from lawyers and newspaper reporters to waitresses, plumbers and janitors.
I was 17 when I finally got the nerve to contact the station and try to get my own show. KABF had been on the air four years by then and I had been listening for the last two. I particularly liked a show called Radios In Motion, which was hosted by a guy named Chris Berry. My then girlfriend Louisa Rook told me about his show, which played the same kind of music we were in to. The only problem was that it aired Wednesday mornings from 1 to 3 am. I usually would set my alarm clock and wake up at 1, start a tape recording, go back to sleep, then listen to it later. I also called the station and talked with Chris a few times. But he eventually got tired of doing the overnight show while maintaining a regular job and called it quits.
I had been taking a high school radio class a few months by that point and wanted to pick up where Chris left off. I called Program Director Doug Clifford, who told me he might have an open slot soon and to call back in about a month. I did and he invited me up to the station to meet with him. When I got to 1501 Arch Street in Little Rock, I was surprised to find not a modern radio station in an office building, but an old, rather dilapidated house. On the bottom floor were offices for ACORN and other community groups, with the station upstairs. KABF was made up of a control room, production room and two large office rooms, one of which was always locked and only used for storage at that point.
I talked with Doug a bit and I guess convinced him that I was serious and responsible enough to host a program, so he offered to let me try out doing one for a few weeks. Fortunately that trial period worked into me doing the show for many years and eventually being moved into better time slots.
Since Chris Berry had played the same kind of music I was interested in, I wanted my program to be a continuation of what he had done. I called him at home asking if he would mind if I used the same name that he had used for my show. The name Radios In Motion actually came from a song of that name by the English band XTC which opened the show each week. Chris had no problem with it and was very encouraging. I even had a lot of fun with him when I invited him to join Louisa and I for one show the following summer.
I was terrified my first night on the air. Even though I was going on at 1 am, I was still a nervous wreck. I had pretty much chosen what songs I was going to play beforehand and got to the station a half-hour early to make sure I wasn't rushed. But I couldn't stop pacing around, with the host before me Ellen Hammond at one point yelling "sit down!" It would take doing the show many times before I started getting comfortable behind a mic.
AUDIO: Sounding pretty dorky hosting Radios In Motion for only the third time on KABF. This is a scoped aircheck from December 14, 1988, 1 to 2 am, runs 4:15. Download as MP3.
I had what developed into an ever-evolving mix of co-hosts who would join me in the studio most weeks. I always enjoyed having others with me because it was easier to talk and have discussions on the air when I had other people to interact with. Louisa joined me most weeks during the first year. I would soon meet others who would also start joining me regularly.
Early on I was playing alternative music from groups like Camper Van Beethoven, the Smiths, XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, the Reivers, R.E.M. and the Replacements. Some of the bands had become somewhat mainstream or were at least being shown on MTV during its Sunday night alternative program 120 Minutes, but were not getting airplay on other Little Rock radio stations.
After a lot of work calling record labels, KABF had eventually by that time begun receiving new record releases. The only problem was most of these albums, especially if they were popular, would disappear from the studio. Some program hosts were stealing the records. It was frustrating as hell because there were times I would be looking forward to playing something only to come up for my show and find it gone. It was obviously just as frustrating for Doug, the program director. Sometimes jocks would make comments like, "I hope the album will be here next week." Noting that didn't sound good for the station, Doug instructed us not to talk about stolen records on the air. In a memo to the staff he wrote, "for those of you who are still taking records, ROT IN HELL! Most of you have good yuppie jobs and can afford to buy these records. You are denying listeners in Arkansas (and other states we sometimes reach) and the recording artists this music." For the most part I, like other hosts, would have to rely on my own music collection and if there just happened to be something I'd like to play at the station then great. I spent a lot of money and effort in building my own collection.
I continued broadcasting on KABF even after I started working at commercial stations. Sometimes I would come over to do my show after finishing an air shift elsewhere. KABF had a rule against volunteers working at other stations, and I brought this up when I started getting paying radio jobs, but management told me it wasn't a problem since the stations I was working for were actually just outside of Little Rock.
KABF, like most non-commercial stations, got most of its funding from donations by listeners. Several times a year the station would hold pledge drives, or what many called beg-a-thons, in which we would ask for listeners to call in and make donations. My first pledge drive came a month or two after starting, with me pulling in about $200 dollars. I wasn't especially pleased because I thought that was less than what the station expected to be raised per hour, but when I dropped by a day or two later I was congratulated for doing pretty well. Apparently that was quite good for that time slot. Perhaps sensing there was an audience for my show, by the spring of 1989 the station moved it to Sunday mornings, 1 to 4 am, when that slot came open.
It may not sound like a great time slot, but it actually worked well because it was heard by people coming in from their Saturday nights. It also followed the popular show Nothin' But A House Party, whose hosts seemed happy to have a reliable program on after theirs. That was also a problem at KABF, hosts not showing up to do their shows. It wasn't unusual to hear people say on the air that no one was there yet to start the next program, so they would usually fill with a few more songs and most of the time people would eventually arrive. But sometimes they wouldn't show and the people stuck at the station would have the dilemma of deciding what to do. If it wasn't too late, you could make calls and try to find someone willing to come up and take over. Other times people would just continue doing their shows for another couple of hours, or, especially if it was late at night, they would just have to shut down the station, lock up and leave. I think most of the gospel hosts who came in early in the morning had keys to the building and could sign the station back on.
But I was happy with the 1 to 4 am time slot and seemed to have a good core group of regular listeners, with many calling in each week. I enjoyed talking with them so much that I started a listener call in segment. Each week at 2 am I would take random calls on the air and talk about whatever was going on. Sometimes this was incredibly entertaining, while other times painfully dull, uncomfortable or strange. What really surprised me was that I seemed to develop a very loyal group of listeners in the nearby town of Cabot. At least half my callers each week were students from Cabot High School. Three of these people even got together and made a $100 donation to KABF during a pledge drive so that they could get one of the pledge drive premiums, which was to join the show of your choice for one hour. Thad Gilbert, Jimmy Russell and Jody Tygert stayed for the entire program and because it went so well I invited them to come up to my show any time they wanted. Most weeks they were there or would at least call in. Thad went on to become one of my best friends and would continue to join me off and on until the end of the show in 1995. In fact, he brought a woman he would later marry up to KABF on their first date.
One band I played regularly in those days was Camper Van Beethover. Shortly after the group's second major label album "Key Lime Pie" in 1989, KABF was able to interview the band before a show in Little Rock. Music Director Clyde Phillips recorded the interview onboard the band's bus, which we aired on my program. It was an interesting interview, with David Lowery and Greg Lisher talking about the band's progression, the differences working with a major label like Virgin Records as opposed to smaller labels that had released their early albums and the recent departure of violinist Jonathan Segel after some heated tensions.
Listening back to this interview all these years later is interesting because it was a rather pivotal time for the band. Seven months later they would break up, with David Lowery going on to form Cracker, which had a string of alternative hits in the early to mid-1990s. Some of the other members intensified their work with Monks of Doom, which had been a side project. Jonathan Segel fronted a couple of bands and put out a few solo albums. Eventually Camper Van Beethoven would reunite in 1999 and continues to have a following of loyal fans who I thought might enjoy hearing this vintage interview.
AUDIO: David Lowery and Greg Lisher of Camper Van Beethoven being interviewed by Clyde Phillips on KABF, September 6, 1989. Download as MP3.
I tried to be as creative as I could with the show. One week, when I was going to air a concert in the final hour from the Indigo Girls live in Athens, Georgia, I decided we would spend the two hours before the concert driving to Athens. So we had the sound of the interior of a car in the background every time we would talk and also played a lot of songs about being on the road. We even had a couple of segments I had taped with co-workers from KLRA, pretending to be convenience store workers or cops. It worked out pretty well, especially because Thad, Jimmy and Jody played along so well. Then at the third hour we arrived in Athens and went to the concert. It was one of my few attempts at theater of the mind radio, using sound effects like an old radio drama.
In April of 1990 KABF got national attention when it was profiled on the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. As Brokaw put it in his introduction, "this is a station with a sound quite unlike any other." That's not entirely true, however. There were other public radio stations around the country with blocks of eclectic programming similar to what KABF was doing, although perhaps what seemed interesting to NBC were the unique characters that made up the station. A producer said they were inspired to do the profile after reading an Arkansas Times article (which you can read on the link as a PDF) which had come out in February 1989. Reading it and viewing the report, you can find connections. All these years later it's incredible seeing KABF captured in that moment in time.
The network sent reporter Bob Dotson to Little Rock, who spent a week at the station filming hours of footage. I wasn't included in the report, but saw some of the reporting being done by Dotson and his crew. The piece is centered around Flap Jones, host of "Not Necessarily Nashville," who would be at the station with her young daughters. It also features the late Mr. Lee, who hosted the extremely popular "Traffic Jam" blues show. Station Manager and jazz host John Cain is shown getting a blast of feedback as the reporter says "few of them had experience in radio before." The report also shows Randy Wright and Mark Oswald, hosts of "Nothin' But A House Party," which proceeded my show on Saturday nights.
Being in such an environment really gave me a sense of being part of something really special. And having the creative freedom to practically do whatever I wanted on the air made the possibilities seem unlimited. 1990 was the year I graduated from high school, but KABF had put me in with a totally different circle of people and way of thinking. It was vital as I was beginning my radio career and entering adulthood.
As I was preparing to start college in August 1990, I met another listener who heard me mention on the air that I was about to start school at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Sean Corrigan came out to a fundraising concert KABF put on in a downtown parking garage and said that he had been attending ASU with mixed thoughts. We became good friends at school and he would eventually start joining me regularly on the air. Because of his sharp wit, he added a lot more personality to the show. I'm rather dry with a pretty straight radio persona, but I can play well off the personalities of others, which is why I always appreciated having others with me during the show.
Going to school two hours away from Little Rock cut in to how often I could host Radios In Motion. I was also working for commercial radio stations in Jonesboro during this time, which made it even harder to get home. During much of this period Louisa Rook did the show, with me coming back to do it about once a month.
When I transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1993, I resumed the show with a new zeal. I had just finished an internship at the C-SPAN cable network in Washington, DC and while living there became a big listener of legendary alternative rock station 99.1 WHFS. You can hear an aircheck of that station, which I recorded in 1993, and read more about it on my C-SPAN page. WHFS was the first commercial alternative station I had ever heard and it was a huge influence. Hearing the style and attitude of this station gave me new ideas for how I could do my own show. Sadly, many years after I left Washington, new corporate owners for WHFS changed the format after several decades of being progressive or alternative rock. The call letters (which stood for High Fidelity Stereo) were eventually picked up by another station, but it is certainly not the same.
Back on KABF, there were a few changes for my show. First off, because I started working as a news anchor and reporter for Little Rock news station KARN, I adopted an alias to try and avoid any potential conflicts. On KABF I started calling myself Fudd. I got the nickname when I was in Washington because a C-SPAN executive noticed I wore an Elmer Fudd wristwatch. Also, I got what I think was the best time slot I ever had on KABF, Friday nights, 10 pm to 1 am.
AUDIO: Sean Corrigan and I were pretty wound up doing Radios in Motion on KABF during this evening, May 20, 1994, 10 pm to 1 am. Download as MP3.
We seemed to have the largest audience the show ever had at that point, judging from responses during pledge drives. At that time on Friday nights was as people were wrapping up whatever they had done to kick off the weekend. At that point it was mostly Sean and I, with Thad joining every couple of weeks. It was around this time that Sean became known as Shecky. One week when I was stumbling to say who was in the studio with me, Sean as a joke called himself Shecky. To me that sounded kind of goofy, like Fudd, so it stuck, although I think he got kind of tired of it after a while. Sometimes we would be hanging out at Vino's in Little Rock, when someone would come in, see Sean and call out, "Hey Shecky." That's when the name started getting on his nerves. But for some reason it seemed to work with his personality.
In the spring of 1994 I also started hosting a short-lived second show on KABF, Thursday mornings, Midnight to 3 am. That show was almost entirely spoken word, poetry and experimental jazz. I had always played some spoken word stuff mixed with alternative music on Radios In Motion, but thought it would be interesting to have several hours in the middle of the night to devote exclusively to airing stuff like that. It took a bit of convincing of KABF management that there was enough material to sustain a show like that. I would open each week by playing a nationally syndicated half-hour public radio program called Word Jazz with Ken Nordine. I then played lots of Laurie Anderson, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and others. I also interviewed the legendary poet Allen Ginsberg when he came through Arkansas in November 1994 and set up phone interviews with Meryn Cadell and Maggie Estep, who had put out CDs that had some great spoken word stuff. I also started recording weekly open mic poetry readings that my friend Alice Ayers hosted at a gallery she had at the time on Main Street in North Little Rock. But doing two shows a week, along with my regular job at KARN and going to UALR quickly became too much and I had to drop the second show.
Toward the end of 1994, the time slot for Radios In Motion would again be moved, this time up two hours to 8 to 10 pm. Even though it was earlier, we actually had fewer listeners at this time. I think 10 pm to 1 am was the perfect slot. In the earlier position on a Friday night people were still out doing things. It really didn't seem to be a good time for many people to listen to the radio.
The number of callers dropped off sharply and the show just seemed to lose excitement. In early 1995 I gave up the program because it didn't seem to be happening anymore. Alternative rock had grown so much by this time that Little Rock got its first commercial alternative station. KDRE-FM 101.1 hit the air in August 1994. It was only local during morning drive, the rest of the time simulcasting WDRE from New York. In fact the automation system was so poor that often, instead of hearing local breaks, KDRE would air the New York commercials, traffic and weather reports. It was weird to be driving around Little Rock hearing about how the New Jersey Turnpike was doing.
The key thing was that there was a 24 hour source for alternative music in Little Rock. I, like lots of others, started listening to it a lot and fewer people were going to KABF for that kind of music, but I guess that's evolution. I was sad to leave the station which had been very good to me. I miss it sometimes because of the incredible freedom to air whatever I wanted. As the format became more mainstream and went through the grunge years, I lost interest in much of that style of music.
KABF moved to another house a few years after I left, but I got to see it in 2004. I stopped by during a visit to Arkansas to see my old pal Flap Jones while she did her Friday night show Not Necessarily Nashville. The photo to the left is from that evening.
Five years after that, when I moved back to Arkansas in 2009, Flap asked if I wanted to fill in for her one week while she was going to be out of town. I jumped at the chance to once again, even if for only one night, be on the air at KABF. A week before I was to sit in I joined her at the station so that she could show me the equipment. We had fun talking on the air about old times. Then the following week it was great being able to play some of my favorite alternative country, which is about the only new music I enjoy listening to these days.
It felt very nostalgic being able to once again say those call letters and be on the air at KABF. It had been so important in my life. I'm really glad that it's still around. Typically community radio stations like KABF don't last more than a few years, but it has lasted more than a quarter of a century and hopefully will continue filling a void in Little Rock radio.
AUDIO: Sitting in with Flap Jones as she hosted Not Necessarily Nashville on KABF, August 28, 2009, from 5:30- 7 pm. Download as MP3.
AUDIO: Filling in the following week playing some of my alt-country favorites on Not Necessarily Nashville, Sept. 4, 2009. Download as MP3.