It has been 30 years since a legendary Little Rock radio station changed formats, marking the end of a key chapter for Arkansas media. This past weekend, many former employees of KAAY-AM 1090 got together to share stories and reflect on changes in the industry.
For a time, it was perhaps the state's most influential radio station, with a powerful signal that at night could be heard in parts of 40 states and other countries. The Mighty 1090, as it was known, became a top 40 station on September 3, 1962. It also featured news, Razorback football games, and beginning in 1966, progressive rock at night. On April 3, 1985, a new owner changed the format to paid religious programming.
"Officially, this is the 30th anniversary of what I refer to as the day the music died, which is the last broadcast day of the old KAAY," said Barry McCorkindale. He began working at the radio station shortly before it changed formats and organized Friday night’s gathering at the Oyster Bar in Little Rock.
Rex Nelson recalled for the crowd hearing KAAY while he was growing up in Arkadelphia, saying it inspired him to go into radio in his hometown as a teenager, before moving on to work for newspapers, serve as a political adviser, and today being president of Arkansas Independent Colleges and Universities.
"For those of us of a certain age, 1090 was the soundtrack of our childhood," he said to applause.
"What [Station Manager] Pat Walsh did and the people he surrounded himself with is that they made that station the very core of what the state of Arkansas was, who we were, from the music, to the personalities, to the newscasts that you heard," Nelson said.
The gathering also featured many former disc jockeys from KAAY, like Bob Robbins and Sonny Martin, who shared stories about their days there.
"Getting a call from Pat Walsh cussing you real bad because you said damn or something," Robbins said. "He'd threaten to fire you, but never did. Those days, I hate to say they're gone, but they’re gone and it’s a sad thing."
Robbins moved to Little Rock from Georgia in 1972 to take a job at the station.
"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," Robbins said in an interview after the event. "But I have a lot of love for that station, I always will. Its been off the air as far as the KAAY that I knew for 30 years, but the memories live on and that’s what we’re here for tonight and I love it.”
Robbins eventually left KAAY to have a long, successful career as a country music morning man at other radio stations in Little Rock, but has fond memories of how the industry used to be.
"We had all the great jingles and sound effect things and it just made for a happy work day. I wish we still did things like that.”
Another longtime DJ was Sonny Martin, who started with the station in 1966, staying for 11 years.
"I was music director for a good number of years in there, did mornings with [news anchor] George Jennings. We had breakfast cereal, did a bunch of crazy things. It was a lot of fun," Martin said.
"We’d open the newspaper to see what we were going to do and that’s basically how we put the show together. It could have been like a new giraffe at the zoo and let’s get a name for him. Could have been like the skunk festival that we pulled off, cow chip toss off, football rallies in downtown where they threw the footballs off the bank buildings. I mean, there were a lot of things that we did then that you can’t do now.”
The station was owned for much of that time by LIN Broadcasting. Most of the air staff didn’t use their real names, but were given air names that were the same as members of the company’s board of directors. When DJs would leave, new DJs would rotate through the same list of names.
The Sonny Martin who spoke Friday night was the second person to have that air name, and he noted during the event that he stayed there the longest of the two. Also working there in the late 1960s was Charles Scarbrough, who worked the afternoon shift using the name Charlie King.
"I didn’t care about the money, I just loved doing it, but to know I could make a living was just a bonus. Had great fun. And all the people that I got to work with, they really made it great," Scarbrough said.
But by the 1980s, FM radio stations had grown in popularity and AM music stations were having a harder time competing when the KAAY was sold. It was noted that it still did relatively well in the ratings, but the new owner in 1985 decided to change the format to paid religious programming.
But unlike many stations before a pending change, the air staff was able to say goodbye to their listeners. Sonny Martin, who left KAAY in 1977, came back to join the station on the air that final day and take many calls from saddened listeners. In a recording from that day, he said, "I hate to see it go."
The final hour of the original KAAY was given to Clyde Clifford, who had hosted the late night program Beaker Street in the 1960s and '70s, which dug deep into album rock, blues and experimental music.
"I had been out of radio for a while and it was just a real shock to be asked to come back. That whole day Sonny and the other guys were doing kind of a retrospective and kind of talking about what was going on and talking about the old times at KAAY and I was listening to them and really enjoying it," Clifford said at Friday night's gathering.
"In fact, I was recording the whole thing at home and then I got a call [from] David Treadway to come in and do the last hour. Talk about being honored, I think that’s probably one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had, to have my fellow disc jockeys at KAAY [let me] be the last one to sign off the big fellow."
On the recording of that final hour, he talked about how the station was full of former staffers, TV cameras, newspaper reporters, and lamented the change in his second-to-last break.
"This is just about it. We've got six minutes until midnight. It's at midnight the changeover occurs and KAAY changes formats and the end of, I guess, an era. And a lot of people like me who grew up with this station... the era changes. A little of our life changes," Clifford said.
That may have been the end of KAAY as generations had known it, but many are working to keep the memories fresh. There's a blog, http://mighty1090kaay.blogspot.com, where many fans and former employees regularly share vintage recordings, information and stories.
Barry McCorkindale has also been engaged in an extensive project to digitize reel to reel tapes that were stored at the station's transmitter site in Wrightsville. He said longtime engineer Felix McDonald had been telling him for years about the recordings and finally he went to see what was there for himself, not realizing what an extensive collection was there.
"Well he said a few tapes and I’m thinking 50, 60, 75, maybe a hundred. When I finally get out there and I look in the basement of the transmitter building, there’s a whole wall of tapes," McCorkindale said. "So there are easily a thousand tapes and this has been a 12 year project of mine now. I think I started in the summer of 2003. I’m still going through tapes."
Most were master tapes for commercials and news programs. Some recordings are mundane, like national advertisements with local tags at the end, but occasionally he finds gems like ads for local concerts. He played some of those recordings, including news programs, promos and jingles during Friday's event.
Rex Nelson then summed up his remarks by saying, "So the KAAY that we knew, that many of you worked for, that KAAY has been gone for 30 years, and yet it lives on. It lives on in everybody in this room. The memories, the good stories, the laughter. Working together we have kept the mighty 1090 alive. Thank you for all that you’ve done to do that."