THE TOWER WITH THE BLINKING RED LIGHTS on the edge of a small town has the distinction of being the tallest man-made object for miles around—taller than the water tank, the courthouse, and the grain elevator. It signals the presence of a radio station, the electronic heartbeat of any community, the chronicler of local concerns and local eccentricities in the absence of a daily newspaper or a television station. That concept may be an anachronism in the modern media climate of lifestyle formats and niche marketing, but to loyal listeners, it’s the way it always has been and always should be.
Small-town radio is birth and death announcements. It is detailed farm reports. It is call-in classifieds variously known as “Want Ads of the Air,” “Swap and Shop,” and “Tradio.” It is country formats where George Jones gets more spins than Garth Brooks. It is music selected by the disc jockeys themselves, not a computer program or a big-city consultant, so someone can walk in the door with a CD and get it played on the air just because it sounds good. It is a safe zone where Paul Harvey and the Texas State Network have more credibility than CNN, and where high school athletics pull better ratings than the Cowboys or the Astros. It is a lab where people can actually experiment with something new. Most of all, it offers insight, a soundtrack, and a sense of place, even if you’re only just passing through.
Here are my favorite small-town stations:
KBWC-FM 91.1, Marshall
THE 100-WATT RHYTHM OF MARSHALL, which emanates from the campus of Wiley College, is worth a listen mainly because it’s such a rare bird: It’s a small- town radio station devoted to black music, mainly jazz (both traditional and modern) but also a smattering of gospel and R&B.
KULP-AM 1390, El Campo
THIS GREAT STATION IN TEXAS’ RICE BELT radiates stability. Music director Clint Robinson was playing his version of the Americana format—an eclectic mix of Texans singing country, rock, and folk—before it had a name. Ignacio Vallejo, Jr., the host of a nightly Pan-American music program that features musica en español, is celebrating his fifty-first year on the air this month; he’s el viejo of Texas radio. Polka music announcer Al Kozel was a morning regular for 37 years before he retired last December; B.J. the D.J., another polka program host, is a car salesman and former bank president. News director Paul Daly trains his sights on local affairs in El Campo as well as in Wharton and other nearby communities. Sports director Bob Nathan leads a team of reporters—including former Houston Oiler Ron Carroll—in covering high school sports, girls’ softball included. KULP earns extra points for live coverage of both the Christmas Parade and the Polka Fest, devotionals every weekday morning, white gospel music and black church preachers on Sundays, and candidate roundtables during political campaigns. “We think that’s what you’re supposed to do,” says Jerry Aulds, KULP’s general manager and the host of its morning-drive show. “Being local is our franchise.”
KSHN-FM 99.9, Liberty•Dayton
KSHN’S PROGRAMMING IS SOLIDLY SMALL-town, with a heavy emphasis on local news and public affairs; the hugely popular “Trading Post”; farm prices updated three times a day; Larry Wilburn’s fishing reports; the blues, R&B, and zydeco show hosted by the Crown Prince; Roy Bennett’s bluegrass show; and black and white church services on Sundays. And, of course, there’s plenty of high school sports coverage. In fact, since KSHN switched from AM to FM in 1991, listeners have gotten used to the split-channel sports concept. On the left channel, they can hear the live broadcast of the Liberty High School Panthers football team; on the right, the live broadcast of the Dayton High School Broncos football team. “If you leave the balance in the middle or don’t have stereo,” warns station owner Bill Buchanan, who does the Panthers’ play-by-play, “all you hear is mush.”
KNEL-FM 95.3, Brady
KNEL COVERS HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS IN Brady, Mason, and Menard and goes on location for Brady’s Fourth of July parade and World Championship Bar-B-Que Goat Cookoff on Labor Day weekend. But the real reason to listen is the six-hour stretch every Friday night when this modern country station in the geographic heart of Texas shifts into retro for “Hillbilly Hits,” and the music of Johnny Bush, Ernest Tubb, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, and Patsy Cline sounds as fresh as it did way back when. Tracy Pitcox, KNEL’s music director, began hosting the show a decade or so ago while he was still in high school and very much a fan of faraway deejays like Bill Mack on Fort Worth’s WBAP and Larry Scott on Shreveport’s KWKH. It’s so popular that it has spawned a fan club almost five hundred members strong, and there’s a Hillbilly Hits Museum under construction on Brady’s main drag.
KOGT-AM 1600, Orange
YOU COULDN’T PUT A PRICE TAG ON RICHARD Corder’s warm, friendly, steady voice, which has been a constant in the Golden Triangle since 1954. In addition to delivering the morning headlines, Corder operates something akin to a chat-n-chew, visiting on air with chamber of commerce representatives about the benefits of shopping in town, tossing out trivia questions about now-defunct landmarks like the Snow King soft ice cream stand, and the like. Other things to listen for: Orange County news, which is broadcast six times daily, the “Cajun Cuisine” music show Saturdays from noon to three—a rocking presentation of cajun and zydeco sounds indigenous to the region, and gospel and bluegrass on Sundays.
KGRO-AM 1230, Pampa
KGRO’S ADULT CONTEMPORARY MUSIC format is tolerable, and its coverage of the area’s high school sports teams is admirable. But its weather and storm coverage is absolutely indispensable—particularly during the late spring and early summer. Three times a day, local news features comprehensive reports by meteorologist Darrell Sehorn, 55, who’s been calling the weather since he was 17. A storm chaser who frequently seeks out severe weather while broadcasting live, Sehorn