News From The Woods - August 18, 2012

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published August 18, 2012


"Road Trip !!!"

Two days ago my son Robert and I went on a road trip to Ft. Smith. The occasion was the opening of a Fort Smith Museum of History Exhibit which will run through December 31st. This exhibit, called "50 Years of Broadcasting in Fort Smith 1922-1972" is a volunteer-developed project headed by Museum Executive Director Leisa Gramlich. A room in the Museum has been filled with memorabilia and equipment from radio and television stations, past and present. A large portion of the gear was donated by veteran Ft. Smith broadcaster Carl Riggins.

I knew Carl back in the early 70's, when I began my own broadcasting career, starting at KFPW in 1970, then moving over to KWHN and KMAG for the bulk of my career in that city. My last radio job was the graveyard shift at KISR before pulling up stakes in 1976 and moving back home to Mountain Home to start up my studio business. In 6 short years I established myself as the highest rated radio personality in my time slot; was instrumental in creating a new form of radio genre, known as AOR, or "Album Oriented Rock" with my nightly "Album Review" program; became the first successful rock concert promoter in the city; got the bug as an apprentice audio recording engineer at Ben Jack's Recording Studio; and played in two of the most popular rock and roll groups in Western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma ("Rock Bottom" and "Whizz").

I learned of the exhibit almost by happenstance, when I saw a post on Facebook about a "new exhibit about broadcasting" which intrigued me. One thing led to another and I tracked down Lynn Wasson, editor at Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, who had recently done a story about me in the Christmas issue of the glossy mag. She pointed me towards Dianne White, who was required as a part of her master's degree program to create an exhibit as part of her coursework. One of Dianne's friends was Teena Riggins, Carl's wife, who was enthusiastic in her support of such a project. I suspect it was partially motivated by the fact that she was losing much of her home space to Carl's growing collection of broadcast gear, microphones, and other vintage broadcasting memorabilia. In any event, Carl jumped on the bandwagon - being intensely interested in preserving broadcast history - and donated much of the vintage gear presented in the exhibit.

Somewhere along this quest I got the Carl's telephone number, and decided to give him a call out of the blue. Surprisingly he remembered me in a flash and said "I can't believe you're calling me after all these years, just when I was trying to find out how to contact you about this project". We talked on the phone for at least thirty minutes, dropping names and telling stories. Both of us were alumni of KWHN radio station. His heyday in the 50's was as the host of KWHN's "1320 Club", which I inherited upon getting hired there in 1971. He told me he had several KWHN artifacts in his personal collection which would be seen at the exhibit. This whetted my appetite and my nostalgia alarm started going off, and I inquired about the opening day ceremonies. He asked if there would be any way for me to attend and I happily said "Sure! I'll be there!".

In preparation for the trip I made a CD-ROM of some of my air checks from my days at KWHN. And air check is an audio tape made by DJ's to use to get work at other stations. The shelf life of a disk jockey is pretty short so it's always good to have a current air check tape handy in case you happen to find yourself looking for another job in another city. I saved many reels of my air check tapes and at some point years ago decided to convert them over to cassettes. Then later I converted THOSE tapes onto audio CD's and added to the studio and career archives. The idea was to present the Museum with almost three hours of broadcast air checks which they could play over a speaker in the exhibit room, further enhancing the nostalgia experience of visitors to the museum exhibit. Then I printed out a few pictures of me in front of the broadcast consoles just in case they might want to add them to the exhibit. I also loaded a few of the air check tapes into my palm pilot for the trip down.

Robert and I left home early Thursday morning for western Arkansas. It was a cool morning so we had the top down on the Sebring. By the time we arrived in Fayetteville it was almost 11 O'Clock and getting pretty hot. Because the A/C was out in my car we had no choice but to brave the elements. I pulled over just as we entered I-540 and instructed my son to take the driver's seat. He was a bit reluctant, but I told him that since he just got his learner's permit he needed to learn how to drive in all types of situations and that some high-speed driving on the Superslab would be good for him. He cautiously fastened his seat belt, adjusted the mirrors as semi's flashed by at 70 MPG, took a big gulp while putting on his turn signal, and shot out into the stream of traffic. He has already exhibited good driving skills so I didn't worry. The rule is: The driver gets to choose the music, and he loves modern country, so I dug out my ear buds, connected up the Palm Pilot, and settled back down into memory lane listening to early broadcasts I did in Ft. Smith in the 70's, just to set the mood.

We arrived in Ft. Smith just in time to have lunch with James Inman, and old friend and associate from the old days. James was the Sales Manager of KWHN when I was there. He and I did many radio remote broadcasts together, which were always fun and exciting as we did broadcasts from client's locations (store fronts, shopping malls, etc.). One day James went into the General Manager's office and told him of a scheme to take an old bread truck that he found a deal on and converting it into a mobile studio. Our current remotes consisted of a little box that connected up to a telephone line and took the signal from a microphone or small mixer and sent it down the wire to the station, where the DJ on board duty would switch us on the air for a few moments each hour, making periodic live announcements and offer special promotions to the radio audience. It wasn't anything special, but James was a great salesman and between the two of us (his brains and my big mouth) we started doing more and more live remotes. Our GM, Glenn O'Neal, was intrigued. We called him "G.O." James said "Just think G.O……. We could do a live remote from the Goodyear Store and not have to keep going back and forth to the studio. Bob could sit out here with me and actually play some records for the kids, and we could paint out logo on the truck so everyone would see it as they drive by!"

Well it turned out to be a little more complicated than that. At first we still used the telephone line system but eventually the remotes got popular enough that we could afford a MARTI unit. This was a wireless transmitter with a broadcast element mounted on a very tall pole attached to the truck body. A receiving antenna was located on a tower at the radio station. The DJ on board duty still had to switch us in and out, but that was just for network newscasts and commercial packs. Most of the time we were literally broadcasting live, music and all, from that truck.

The truck itself was a thing of beauty to my eyes. It was a step up panel truck. A large square hole was cut out of the side and a window inserted where the fans and visitors could actually see me sitting there spinning records and such. We had a curtain that we kept closed until the moment of broadcast. That way I could set up all my records and prepare myself for the broadcast. There was a small window air conditioner mounted under the rear glass of the truck so no matter how hot it was outside, I was cool as a cucumber inside. A small portable mobile DJ console was fitted in the center of the window. There was a small Sparta broadcast mixer and two turntables. There were only 5 knobs on the mixer. One each for the turntables, two microphone volume knobs, and a spare for a cart machine containing commercials and whatever I had with me in the way of promos. My microphone was mounted on a gooseneck mic holder right over the mixer. The other control was connected to a microphone connector located outside on the truck, where James would connect up his microphone with an extra long cable which would easily reach inside a store. He would do his breaks with the owner of the store and interview them or talk about this hour's "special".

The entire truck was painted fire engine red and covered in the station logos and slogans like "#1 in Western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma", "Arkansas Top Advertiser", and "The Mighty KWHN - 5000 watts and KMAG-FM broadcasting at 99.1 MC". There was even the lettering "Mobile Unit No.1" on the front, hinting that we might even get a second unit! On the back of the van was a ladder leading up to the roof, where four huge loudspeakers were mounted, so everyone within half a mile could hear our broadcasts. The MARTI antenna was housed in a special fitting mounted on the side of the truck. It was telescoped down and fixed to the roof during transit to and from broadcast locations.

James and I did many, many remotes with that truck. It always attracted attention wherever it was set up, and people would just pull in wherever they spotted it because we were always giving stuff away. I dug back into the music storage room where we kept records sent to us from the record labels (I was Music Director). We had HUNDREDS of albums and singles because every label wanted to get their new music played on a broadcast station which simulcasted over a 5,000 watt AM and 100,000 watt stereo FM station. It WAS the most powerful combination of broadcasting facility west of the Mississippi in it's day. James and I would wait for a break after a record and then toss a coupe of hundred 45's in a pile outside and tell the fans to dig in, and they sure did! We even did broadcasts from Battle of the Bands contests that I set up ahead of time. Every band in the area wanted to be heard on KWHN/KMAG so getting bands to show up, set up, and play half an hour for free was easy. The winning band would get some prize furnished by whoever our remote client was for that day.

I am sure James and I bored Robert to tears over lunch talking about those old remote broadcasts and laughing over each disaster we remembered. I hadn't seen James or even talked to him since 1976. As a matter of fact, his daughter found me on Facebook and we got reacquainted just a few weeks before this exhibit came up.

After lunch Robert and I drove over to Sigler's Music Company, where Jimmy Atchison still worked. Jimmy was the guitarist for "Rock Bottom" back in the 70's and we have kept in touch over the years via email and Facebook. I wanted him to meet my son and I also wanted to visit my old haunt at Siglers…. The store named for Mr. Sigler (I called him "Siggy") who was my bankroller for all those concerts I used to do. After all, I didn't have pockets deep enough to float a $10K concert promotion all by myself. Mr. Sigler always bankrolled me and if he made money, I made money. If he didn't (which didn't happen too often) I lost nothing but credibility. After a twenty minute catch up with Jimmy we headed over to Steve Lane's house. Steve was the drummer for "Paperkid" which I managed in the 80's, and we hadn't seen each other in a while. He had his drum room all set up with a KILLER kit surrounded by first-rate microphones, all connected to a modern computer recording set up. But most importantly… his house was air conditioned, and it was sweltering outside.

I changed my clothes at Steve's and we headed for the Museum in time for the 5:30 reception. We had no sooner arrived than I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was James Inman and his daughter. We looked at the exhibit together and I was surprised to discover there were already several pictures of me on the walls. I suppose they had pulled the images from my website. Then James said "Hey, come over here…." And he led me to a mock radio control room set up. Sitting in the middle of the display was the SAME Sparta board we used in the bread truck! Carl had somehow salvaged it from obscurity and restored it to its former glory. I just HAD to sit in front of it and touch the knobs once again. James' daughter Cindy saw a photo op and got some shots, and for that I am thankful. The room filled quickly with visitors and many broadcasters and former radio and TV people past and present. All the local TV stations began dong interviews with some of the senior members in time for their evening newscasts. I spent my time lurking behind the scenes and pointing out things to Robert, like the AP news wire machine that used to chatter constantly over in the corner of every control room in America, or a ancient vintage Altec 639A "birdcage" microphone - the SAME mic that I used to use in the KWHN control room to do all my radio shows with. Robert looked at the mic, then walked over and peered at the picture of me on a display wall to verify that it WAS, indeed, the same microphone. I was so proud to have him there with me.

Lynn Wasson showed up and started introducing me to many of the "newer" broadcasters that did not know me. I DID encounter several people who shook my hand and told that they used to be big fans. It was pretty nice and reminded me once again that a person sometimes doesn't realize the impact they have on another's life until people start coming up to you and saying nice things about what it all meant to them. There were more than a few moments when I had a lump in my throat, like when Lynn told me "There is former mayor Jack Freeze" and I watched stunned as he strolled by. I excused myself and caught up to him and offered a hand to the man that had first lured me to Ft. Smith in 1970 to work for him at KFPW radio station. He gazed deeply into my eyes and then said "Well, hello, Bob… how are you?". I was speechless.

There were pictures of "G.O." (now deceased), James, and other people I worked with through the years at KWHN/KMAG. The room was FILLED with vintage mics, old TV broadcasting gear, and hundreds and hundreds of images, posters, articles and other broadcast memorabilia. As amazing as it all was, I kept returning to that old Sparta console and just looking at it, remembering those remotes……

There were a few short speeches, mostly by the head "suits" at the local broadcasting facilities, and Carl also had a few words to say, and then it was over and the room started thinning out. The newsmen had all left to go edit their pieces for the evening newscasts. I got a few moments alone with Carl and we reminisced but I did not want to dominate his Moment and hog what time he had left among visitors and well wishers. The last thing he said was "I can't believe you came all this way down for this, and I thank you for participating. This is as much YOUR display as it is anyone else's". I just looked at him and said "No problem, little CR, But I'll be back down in December to collect "my" Altec birdcage" and we both had a good laugh because he knows what a vintage gear slut I am. If I am lucky maybe Teena won't want ALL that gear back in her house, cluttering it all up…………….

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