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Four icons of Little Rock radio to share stories at CALS event

Longtime Little Rock broadcasters Bob Robbins, Craig O'Neill, Broadway Joe Booker and Tommy Smith will take part in the event moderated by Danny-Joe Crofford (front).
Nelson Chenault
Central Arkansas Library System
Longtime Little Rock broadcasters Bob Robbins, Craig O'Neill, "Broadway Joe" Booker and Tommy Smith will take part in the event moderated by Danny-Joe Crofford (front). It will be held Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock.

Four veterans of Little Rock radio with careers spanning about a half-century will share some of their experiences during an event Saturday night at the Ron Robinson Theater.

“An Evening with the Legends of Radio – Live and Unscripted” will feature the longtime morning men "Broadway Joe" Booker, Craig O’Neill, Bob Robbins and Tommy Smith. The event is being organizing by John Miller, entertainment coordinator for the Central Arkansas Library System, with this being a fundraiser for the downtown theater.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview that aired Friday. You can learn more about the event here.

KUAR’s MICHAEL HIBBLEN: Tell me how this event came together.

JOHN MILLER: Well, we've done several tributes to local radio stations. KOKY, that was the most recent, also Magic 105...

I was there for that...

Also the legendary KAAY…

I was there for that, too...

And strangely, all of these careers of these four legendary broadcasters, all of which, by the way, have at least four decades of broadcasting – that's a big deal. Four decades is a long time, and so all of these folks have sort of been part of these tributes. I found out researching and doing the tribute for KAAY that Tommy was there for a period of time. These folks, the paths have crossed, and so in doing that it just seemed logical to do this. With the retirement of Tommy and then sort of the recently postponed retirement of Craig O’Neill, these are timely subjects. These are things that I believe are not only the history of broadcasting, but it's also people's history. I grew up listening to these folks, so this is Arkansas history.

For me, growing up in central Arkansas listening to morning radio, these guys were the kings. And I'll note, I'm 50-years-old, so that kind of helps shape the glory years for radio for me [as a listener]. Bob Robbins is still on the air at 105.1 the Wolf, but I think will best be remembered for his decades at KSSN 96, back when it was by in large the number one rated radio station. [Clip of Robbins on KSSN], "Broadway Joe" has been doing mornings for decades at Power 92. [Clip of Booker]. Craig O’Neill, was at several radio stations before going to TV about two decades ago [Clip of O’Neill on KKYK]. He's been on channel 11, KTHV for about two decades. And then Tommy Smith, as you mentioned, retired a couple of months ago from 103.7, the Buzz, but for me he'll be forever associated with my favorite station as a kid, Magic 105. [Clip of Smith on Magic 105].

The last time we talked was before the KAAY event, and at that time you showed me the collection that the library system has built-up of old recordings, reel-to-reels and whatnot. First, tell me about the collection there at the library and what it has done to help capture and save the history of radio here.

Well you know the thing is, most of those tapes that we were talking about at that time were KAAY tapes, reel to reel tapes. Some of those were master tapes of events. Some of those were scratch tapes. There's a lot of commercials in there, but there's also a lot of live events. So, radio is one of those broadcasting means of the moment and particularly the further you go back in time. But even into the ‘60s and ‘70s, as television got popular, radio was still incredibly popular and KAAY was a huge station. In those donations that we have, these reel-to-reel tapes, there are gubernatorial debates, the only copies of things that we have, there's man-on-the-street coverage of local folks getting local reaction of what was happening currently on the Moon, when we went to the Moon in 1969.

So that documents not only our local history, but our national history. So, the history of radio is the history of Arkansas and is the history of the progress of the country. And to hear people being moved by the people on stage is a great thing. I have similar memories of these four gentlemen because like you, I'm 52, about to be 53, so, I grew up with all of these gentlemen and still listen to them now.

Well, I'm most appreciative of the fact that you are bringing them out here and documenting them, forever encapsulating their stories, but also letting the public sit in. The intimacy of radio being a kind of a one-on-one medium between someone talking into a microphone and the person listening, it's very intimate and people feel an incredible bond with these people.

Right, they're part of [the audience's] morning routine. They're listening to them make jokes in the shower. Some of these people are with them from the time they get up to the entire ride to work and the time they walk in the door and then put headphones on or turn on their computer and listen, or on their radio and finish out the program, and have been doing that for a long time.

There's not a lot of things like that anymore and that is still happening. So that's the impact, like you said, that these folks have had, and we're proud to do this. That's part of the celebration and the recording and the tracking of this history, and the preservation of it is something that's central to the Central Arkansas Library Systems’ mission.

Radio has undergone drastic changes over the last couple of decades because of corporate ownership, which resulted from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Up until the ‘90s, most stations were locally owned and one company could only own one AM and one FM in every market. Now you have a handful of corporations that run most stations. You don't have live DJs on 24 hours a day. At some stations, none of the people are local and it's all recorded. Radio has changed a lot and it's not quite there's not the need for the public service that there once was and it is more than ever a business.

Indeed, and I believe now, with so many means and modes of communication, it's a different ballgame completely. There are so many different players for the same amount of attention span. A similar thing has happened in television when you go back to the three major networks and then the addition of PBS, and now things are completely different. Cable kind of scramble that and now streaming has done the same thing.

That's what the documentation of this and the celebration of this is, because literally, things are changing so fast now with streaming and radio and things like that. We want to celebrate these people while they're with us, so we can know and give them their flowers while they're here, and then at the same time also document that history and then celebrate that history because in doing that we celebrate these legendary four gentlemen, the Mount Rushmore if you will, of Arkansas broadcasting.

When we celebrate that history, we're celebrating our own history and that's the great thing about that. Plus, we're also learning a lot more about ourselves. And of course we record these for our archives and we throw those in right next to the reel-to-reel tapes that are 50 or 60-years-old from KAAY, and it's a pressing need to celebrate these folks. Obviously, COVID has set us back a couple of years on that, but we're trying to get back at it hot and heavy because there are so many folks to honor and so many folks that we're interested in honoring and celebrating. Again, because it's our history, it's our personal history, it's ourselves.

Audio clips of the four radio personalities are courtesy of Fayetteville NPR station KUAF which featured a segment about the Legends of Radio event in a recent Ozarks at Large program with Randy Dixon of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.