A legendary Little Rock radio station will be celebrated with an event Friday night. In its heyday during the 1960s and '70s, KAAY-AM 1090 played top 40 music during the day and progressive rock at night. With a powerful signal that reached most of Arkansas during the day, at night KAAY's secondary pattern reached much of the U.S., as well as other counties.
The event at the Central Arkansas Library System's Ron Robinson Theater will feature many of the station's former on-air personalities, including Bob Robbins, Sonny Martin, David B. Treadway, Bob Steele and Beaker Street host Clyde Clifford. Moderating the event will be Tom Wood, a radio veteran who has worked in Little Rock for 40 years, though never on KAAY.
Also taking part in the panel discussion will be Barry McCorkindale, who for the past 14 years – as part of a personal project – has been working to digitize a large treasure trove of old reel-to-reel tapes. The recordings feature vintage commercials, including concert ads for legendary performers who were playing in the area. There are also news programs capturing key moments in Arkansas history, especially state politics.
"KAAY, the Mighty 1090 is not only Little Rock history, and Arkansas history, and even sort of regional history, it's national history," said John Miller, music coordinator for Arkansas Sounds, a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
The Butler Center is now the repository for the tapes that had previously been housed at KAAY's transmitter. Miller says they're being stored in an area where temperature and humidity levels are set for the ideal preservation of magnetic tape.
The station debuted its top 40 format in September 1962, which would last 23 years.
Because the signal could be heard clearly in Cuba at night, toward the end of the Bay of Pigs crisis in October 1962, the U.S. government used KAAY to broadcast propaganda directly to the Cuban people. At that time the U.S. was working to secure the release of more than 1,100 Cuban exiles who had been part of a invasion force that failed to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"The whole Bay of Pigs thing, that’s reason enough right there for it to be important, but the way it influenced people, not to mention Beaker Street and just the amount of amazing DJs," Miller said, "an amazing huge mega powerhouse of signal and of talent and just variety."
The end of KAAY as a top 40 station came in the mid-1980s, well after FM had overtaken AM as the primary place where listeners were finding music on the radio. April 3, 1985 was its last day as a top 40 station.
At 11 p.m., Clyde Clifford, who was no longer working at KAAY, was given the honor of being brought back to host the final hour. He hosted a one hour version of his program Beaker Street, which aired progressive rock.
In a 2011 interview with KUAR, Clifford said, "I started doing Beaker Street in late 1966 at KAAY and it was just kind of a nod toward all of the long-haired, weird music that was coming in from the west coast, and it just took off like a house of fire. It was amazing the response we got."
At 12 a.m. on April 4, 1985, the station changed its programming to southern gospel and paid religious material.
McCorkindale became program director of the KAAY after the format change and eventually learned from longtime engineer Felix McDonald about reel-to-reels of vintage material that were kept at the station’s transmitter site in Wrightsville, outside of Little Rock.
"He had encouraged me several times to come out and look at some of these tapes that are out at the transmitter building, and when he said that, I figured, well, he's talking about 40, 50, 60, 70 tapes, something along those lines."
After being reminded several times over the years about the tapes, finally in 2003, McCorkindale says he went with McDonald to the transmitter.
"He looks at me and he looks up at the wall and he says, 'Well there they are.' And I look up at the wall and went, 'good lord Felix, those are hundreds of tapes.' And to which Felix responds, 'Oh yeah. And there are some shelves behind the wall with some more.' So there were probably in the vicinity of a thousand tapes."
The commercials are for many longtime Little Rock businesses, with jingles that are likely cemented in the memories of many listeners of the era. There are also 1970s-era concert ads for legendary performers who would be coming to Little Rock, most playing at Barton Coliseum at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.
One ad is for a Dec. 10, 1971 Black Oak Arkansas concert, with only a brief mention of the opening act, rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry. Another show was a triple bill featuring Little Richard, Curtis Mayfield and Lee Michaels. Others include ZZ Top, Charlie Daniels and B.J. Thomas.
McCorkindale has selectively used some of the material for his online radio program Tin Can Alley. All the reels were subsequently donated to Miller to be added to the collection at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
Several times, Miller says, he has assumed McCorkindale has given him all of the tapes that are still around, only to learn more tapes have been discovered.
"I keep thinking, and he keeps thinking we're at the end and we have officially declared this over and done and wrapped up with a bow at least three or four times probably over the several years that he has donated these to me."
Many of the recordings will be played at Friday night's event.
Among the former KAAY DJs expected to take part in the panel discussion is Bob Robbins. He still works in Little Rock radio, having spent the last several decades as the morning man at country music stations.
In a 2015 interview with KUAR, Robbins said, "KAAY was the kind of radio station [where] you could have so much fun, you could do so many things, and radio has just changed a lot in that type of delivery, but I have a lot of love for that station, I always will. Its been off the air as far as KAAY that I knew and worked with for 30 years, but the memories live on… and I love it."
Celebration of the Mighty 1090 KAAY
CALS Ron Robinson Thater
100 River Market Avenue, Little Rock
Friday, June 29, 7 p.m.
For more information: arkansassounds.org
KUAR is a sponsor of Arkansas Sounds, which focuses on Arkansas music and musicians. This story has been revised to include more information and quotes featured in the radio report.