Tuning In Texas
These radio personalities bring you the sound of music, not to mention news, sports, and a little talk.
West of Van Horn, for a vague fifteen or twenty miles, life goes no faster than a headache and the depression of your gas pedal. A dulled mind pushes a dulled finger towards the radio and… nothing. You are in The Zone.
Stock market reports, farm news, and music fail to penetrate the dizzy static. The tuner twirls across the dial and except for a few Spanish phrases lingering in the spherics one might as well trade in the old Chevy for a Conestoga and listen to the wind. On the edge of the Diablo Plateau you meet the Sierra Blanc-out, Land Without Radio.
Next time, of course, heat inversion and windage might conspire to shower the airwaves with every weather report in northern Minnesota. But in The Zone you ordinarily escape your fellow traveler, radio; in fact, you escape everything but thirst and blowouts. The road is as empty as life without music.
But The Zone is the exception, not the rule. In Dallas and Fort Worth, no less than 35 locals wait behind the speaker’s facade. Powered by various amounts of electricity and advertising, the 434 licensed radio stations in Texas (plus a handful of Spanish language stations with offices in Texas and transmitters in Mexico) compete for an invisible audience often perceived only in the curiously construed surveys of radio rating agencies.
Diversity on the far side of the microphone is part of the show. Everyone knows what he likes, and on one radio station or another he is likely to find it. The Texas airwaves are less homogenized than the casual dial-twister might suppose, partly because of the personalities of the people who inhabit them.
Bill Mack talks to the big rigs, moving late at night.
Beneath the 50,000-watt clear-channel antenna of WBAP, Fort Worth, sits The World’s Greatest Country and Western Disc Jockey, Bill Mack, and he’s got an award from Nashville to prove it. To the late-night world of those who circle the inferno of America’s highways. Bill Mack is the trusted voice in the dark, a guide and invisible sidekick bantering through the road’s longest hours. As a result, few people in any field inspire as zealous a following. The boys hauling Peterbilt semis down IH-20 count on the Midnight Cowboy “soooieeess,” his C&W, and Harold Taft’s weathercasts to keep them awake, entertained, and informed.
Mack’s projected personality is for real. From the alligator boots on up he plays himself. In the flesh, he surprises only with a pixieish grin and a stature that is unexpectedly small in relation to his well-deep voice. The wrinkles dig into his face like a high-baller stares into a set of brights.
“I’m glahd you could make it.” Mack settles down into a tired swivel chair and adjusts a microphone the size of a snowcone. Two men, both nattily dressed, one of them wearing white shoes and a pulsate watch, have come in with him. They are from a Bible group that is sponsoring a choir trip to Fort Worth. “When was the last time you saw Bob Wills?” White Shoes asks. A poster of the creator of western-swing decorates the studio. Bill starts his theme song, Felix Slatkin’s instrumental version of “The Orange Blossom Special.” He peruses a pile of tape cartridges and organizes his commercials. In Mack’s studio even the pace of conversation slows. “He’s had another stroke. He’s over in the Children’s Hospital,” he replies. Both of the Bible men hesitate a moment. “I’m sorry to hear that,” White Shoes says. “I’ve got a request if you can get to it.” Bill nods. “Sure, just hand it to Marie.”
“Wee Marie” Willis has a pickup truck decorated with at least 300 country and western bumper stickers. She has been on the show for four years, taking requests dialed from over half of the continental United States. “We’ve got a couple of people who always call us from the John Hancock Building up in Chicago. They clean up the place at night,” she says.
Slatkin finishes his train ride and Mack opens the mike. “Well-l-l-l HOWDY, this is Bill Mack the Midnight Cowboy on the WBAP Open Rooawd Show. It’s just after eleven o’clock. Area Code 817-265-7081 is our number for requests so call us. If you can and if you can’t drop us a postcard care of WBAP, Fort Worth. This is Ole Bill with you until 5:30 tomorrow morning, the Midnight Cowboy rides again with that old hard-drivin’, foot-stompin’ country music. Right now we’ve got Big Buck from Bakersfield and his Buckaroos playin’ for ALL the truckers.” Buck Owens’ “Truck Drivin’ Man” wheels out over the airwaves, telling the world about the time he “stopped at a road house in Texas.”
Bill glances across the control board. “If you just wait a second we’ll talk about radio. I’ve got a couple of dedications.” The next few seconds fill with sweet messages from wives to truckdriving husbands and vice versa. “This is from Margaret to her husband on the way to Fort Worth. She says she wants me to play any Eddie Arnold song. But first here’s mighty Merle Haggard.” He shuts off the mike.
“You know, sometimes I find out about a guy’s kids being born before he does. This is like a midwife, a giant 50,000-watt midwife. I get some really odd things happening here. This guy and his wife had been split for six months and the wife called and told me that they had been back together for six weeks and would I play something for them. I said sure and over the air I said ‘Jennifer and George are together and real happy and she says he’s out on the road and wants a song.’ I just happened to pick ‘Thank God and Greyhound You’re Gone.’ He called from a phone booth and said O. K., that was all between them and they were through. I had to play love songs all night long just to smooth things out. She phoned me back and said they were back together after the night was over.”
Haggard has finished his spin. Bill reads an ad for Nocona Boots (he wears them) and plays an ad for Rip Griffin’s truck stop in Big Spring. If it all looks Cowtown and folksy that’s because it is. But do not let the appearance fool you. Bill Mack’s talents extend beyond the control room. He has written a novel that was out Christmas and his song “Drinking Champagne” has been recorded by almost 60 pop and country artists including Ray Price and Jerry Lee Lewis. In fact, Bill has had his own band for twenty years. Quite a dossier for a man who rings a cowbell on his radio show and shouts sooieee.
“I started out in my hometown, that’s Shamrock. My dad had a truck stop up there. In fact I drove gravel trucks for a couple of years. I started into radio in Shamrock on KBYP for twelve dollars a week and then I went into news at KLYN in Amarillo. But I got my real start in country at KWFT in Wichita Falls. I worked a couple of places in between that played country music but they were always apologizing for it. Here we play non-apologetic country music. Why, I had a manager at KCUL who went nuts every time I Splayed something by Ernest Tubb. So I quit and went to work as the announcer for Buck Owens’ syndicated TV show. Then WBAP hired me and they let me do what I want… no pressure. I think we’ve proved a point, that the public really wants to hear country. I’m not working from a format. We’re a fulltime country station and that means we play ’em all. If somebody’s good enough to work for a major label and the listeners want to hear ’em, we’ll play their music. Tom T. Hall, Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, you name it.” Marie hands Bill another request. “Well, this is from Crane, Texas, and we’ve got a big hello to all the truckers. YEAHHHH. A ring of the ole cowBELL. Bill Mack with you until 5:30. The Open Road Shooooow.” The next commercial features a truck stop in Tucson. “We’ve got ’em advertising from Bakersfield to back East,” Mack smiles. The ads come on folksy, friendly, and sincere, appealing to the truckers’ sense of camaraderie and pride. “I’ve been told we have something like two million drivers listening. I feel a responsibility to those guys. And they take a personal interest in my life. When my little girl was born last spring one guy even sent me a quilted blanket he made himself.”
When the gasoline shortage really got rough truckers were among the first to feel it. He glances down to the floor and sets his jaw. “A lot of people think that the truckers shouldn’t get more gas. That’s not so. This country runs on trucks and if they stop, everything stops in a day or two. Most of the guys who called me were scared during that wildcat strike. They didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t want to strike. And in places some of them were being shot at.” Bill shakes his head. “I don’t know. I just listened to them and sympathized. They’re real people. I just heard ’em out.”
Mack plays another ad for the Triple-T Truckstop in Tucson. “They felt like they were rejected and didn’t feel like anyone was standing behind them. So I stayed here in the middle. Communication. That’s the only reason I’d stay up and do this show.”
Bill plays a tune by Waylon Jennings. What does he think of country rock? “I respect a lot of the musicianship in country rock and what’s coming out of Austin. But I don’t respect the scene and a lot of its trappings. Some country rock groups nowadays sound more country than country folks. That’s because of their management. There’re a lot of smart minds behind them that know where the money is. But I do like a lot of the musicians. The thing is, those kids are going to have to find out that a country audience can spot a fake.”
Bill takes a break as weatherman Harold Taft sidles in to give the open-road weathercast. It’s already 2:30 and some people in the studio are nodding off. But Bill Mack’s kept this up for six years and still looks strong. “I get tired but then every once in a while I get a good laugh. There was this guy from Fort Worth about four years ago who was out drinkin’ on Saturday night and he smashed into a parked car. The police hauled him downtown. He said he was entitled to one phone call and the cops said sure. He called me and requested ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ The cops called back and they were laughing.”
It was past three when I left. Bill had pulled a sly maneuver and placed me before a microphone. I did not know what to say, so we talked about radio and truck driving. As he let me out of WBAP, the security guard drawled, “You been interviewin’ Bill Mack?” I nodded. This seemed to satisfy his scrutiny. It’s no wonder he looked perplexed. His transistor radio blared forth a Top 40 tune.
Bob Collins turns black programming a little gray.
I first turned on to KJET while less than pleasantly moored in dry dock. The derrick barge Geo. R. Brown had been plumbing the Gulf for over a year without refit and the front lines of the energy crisis dug well into its paint. One of the welders lent me his pocket-sized transistor, permanently tuned a decibel below what the straw boss could hear. (Brown and Root don’t like no goofin’.) As Rich and I slapped suds on the roundhouse and spit into the Sabine, our ears witnessed the last days of East Texas rhythm and blues in its purest form. KJET, Beaumont, was in menopause. Every once in a while, the grinding beat of a sub-Memphis Delta tune would pop across the airwaves, but that was but the whimper of rural blues amidst the bang of soul. It’s the uncollard-greening of America.
“We’ve been number one and no less than number two in this market so we’re much more mass-appeal oriented than when the station played a lot of blues. Of course artists like B. B. King receive air play. He’s blues but he has… well, appeal to a larger audience.” KJET operations manager Bob Collins turns back to the microphone and unleashes a high-speed, yet soulful baritone that summarizes the weather in ten seconds. Not even a comma of silence pares the temperature’s final syllable from the first words of Earth Wind and Fire’s latest release.
“We’re what’s called a contemporary black format, but I really shouldn’t say the audience is black only. Naturally we’re reaching for a black audience but I try to play anything that’s good—Chicago, Redbone, and this close to Louisiana Dr. John goes over real well. We changed from the old format because the station’s programming needed a more contemporary approach, something more oriented to what’s going on. Nobody’s really heavy into old R&B any more. It’s all soul.”
Bob shuffles through a stack of tape carts and loads two ads into the machine;. The third contains his next “record.” With everything taped and containerized there are no mistakes and no scratches.
“That’s Earth Wind and Fire number seven on the super-soul survey and hey! this weekend on a soul spectacular one of the real soooper-stars, Mister Otis Redding, every other record until Sunday sign-off.” Bob finishes and fires an ad. It runs its careful circuit.
Collins started at WNOV in hometown Milwaukee and did the air personality thing at KDKA in Dallas. But the big market took its toll. “You can fake it for a while but sooner or later either you catch yourself or your audience does and then you lose them. People can tell when you’re not interested. Right now I’m doing what every programmer should do. Instead of living radio I’m enjoying radio. I’m using my own ideas.” He stops for a moment and nods to the newsman who sits expectantly behind the glass wall. Both eye the clock like trackmen waiting in their blocks, cool but tight. “Hell, this isn’t exactly a small market any more. There’s oil money here. And industry. This place could support two black stations and a little competition would really generate some excitement.”
The controlled energy of a hit-and-run newscast and Bob’s quick recall of the weather make my Swiss-watch radium green with envy. Real timing. Bob turns off his mike. “You know what I really like about this place though? The actual attitude of the people here is a lot more friendly. East Texas is a little more relaxed. Up North there’s no respect, everybody’s trying to make it. Up North if you need help you’d best be in a clique or, baby, you’re sunk. Hang on.” Collins slips his headphone back on and deftly slides from the song into an ad.
LOST PLANET AIRMAN
Don Sanders is not always of this earth.
Rolling Stone magazine refers to Don Sanders as Houston’s “spritely local folkie.” That is reasonably accurate. His shoulder-length platinum hair and thin face set with kaleidoscope eyes are often grouped with a guitar and a bar stool in the corner recesses of a Houston coffee, house. But once a week Sanders hides out as Donnie Jo DJ (KPFT, Monday, 8-11 p.m.) with, to put it loosely, one of the most refreshing approaches to radio in the state. Loose it is: a pastiche of radio pasted to shape by the entertainer.
Don walks into the studio with about two minutes to spare, striding past the various significators of listener-sponsored KPFTs existence: a note scrawled on the studio desk urging the reader to “support masochism,” a nine-banded stuffed armadillo atop the record rack. Sanders draws an album from its cover and, like the Mad Hatter preparing for his tea party, starts with one of the truly great artists of his time: Don Sanders. Over the dying strains of “waitin’ for my coffee to boil” Radio Donnie fades the singer into the spherics.
ON THE AIR—“This is Donnie Jo DJ and this will be fairly laid back tonight… [apt silence, breathing]… just got in from Austin and we’ll probably be calling Jim Post in San Francisco [an old Houston folk-singer friend] and John Lomax in Nashville…” Sanders fades a rinky-tink piano solo underneath his rap. This lasts for about 30 seconds and is followed by Mozart’s Serenade No. 9 in D Major. He tops the splendiferous background with a couple of short poems by Leonard Cohen. Perhaps in another ether there floats a preconceived notion of what should happen next, but no logical positivist has yet discerned it. Don Sanders and Marcel Duchamp ply on into the airwaves.
OFF THE AIR—“For me radio expresses my personality as best I can… with a certain kind of craziness. A lot of people do radio more professionally than I do. I don’t have that deeeeep professional voice. I’m on the air for the same reason I’m on stage. To entertain. I guess I’m doomed to appeal to a small audience.” He cracks a smile and returns to business.
ON THE AIR—“I think that Mike Murphey, after pulling every potential string in the business, is just a little bit tedious saying ‘nobody tells me how to play my music.’” Sanders plays a set of Texas rock, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, Townes van Zandt, and Willis Alan Ramsey. We drink Dr Pepper laced with Southern Comfort. Willis Alan’s “Northeast Texas Women” tracks off into silence. Don turns to the mike. “Willis Alan Ramsey is an enigmatic figure in Texas music. I first met him when he was doing Stephen Stills imitations at Sand Mountain back when he still had an obnoxious Stephen Stills personality. Now he’s got a modified personality complete with a newly modified Texas accent and some fine music.”
OFF THE AIR—Richard from the front office walks in with a request. “Say, a party of psilocybin freaks would like to hear some Jerry Jeff Walker.” Don nods. Another round of DP and Southern Comfort circles the suddenly crowded control room. One of the girls steps up to an extra studio microphone. Sanders turns it on.
ON THE AIR—Girl—“I was at the Michael Murphey concert Sunday night and I liked the show.” Don brightens up, “There you have it, folks, an alternative view… [he pauses and whips through a pile of public service announcements]… Say, we’ve got a rider named Stewart who wants to go to Southern California… Southern California?… saaaay, when yah goin’, Stew… yah takin’ yer board… some heav-v-vyy stuff out there. Stew… also friends, speaking of leaving, I need a place to live, in Montrose for under a hundred dollars a month… if you’ve got something and could love me as a neighbor call KPFT and ask for Delta Dawn Sanders. I need some new digs.” Don turns the show towards a half hour of music.
OFF THE AIR—Sanders came into radio through the studio’s side door. “I did some benefits for Pacifica and when I was out in Berkeley I wrote a topical song a week for KPFA and for a while I did the same thing here. During a strike of Pacifica station personnel my personal position was that the station should remain on the air as a duty to the subscribers. Someone asked me to do an airshift and it was either put up or shut up. I went on the air and to keep myself interested I started inventing characters to entertain. Like Daddy Dumptruck. Yassuh, country western Deejay. You know, shit kickin’ music. I love it.” The record has run out and KPFT’s FM wave modulates beautiful dead air. Don loses no cool.
ON THE AIR—“Hang on, folks, other things were going on.” Don thumbs through a copy of Roland Kirk’s Volunteered Slavery. A stack of records topples to the floor and Sanders answers a phone call. The girl on the other end has been waiting for fifteen minutes and she wants to hear something erotic immediately. Sanders starts the Rolling Stones just as Richard walks into the studio and hands him a note. The Stones record ends and Sanders takes the airwaves. “I just got this here note and it says ‘Don, why don’t you just play your music and not bad rap the rest?’ I guess whoever called this in means what I said about Mike Murphey… well, I’m bad rapping that particular show… and if you don’t like my choice of erotic music, well, I didn’t have L Geils’ ‘Hold Your Lovin’ All Night Long.’ Too bad, I still believe in giving, the little lady what she wants… I’m sorry, I’m just a cynical person.” The tone of voice sounds like a frown and the audio-viewer cannot see the laugh in the eyes. Sanders is an entertainer, visual and aural; TV would release the full beauty of his chaos. And in a world of personalities built on cosmetic-thin superlatives, a little honest bad rapping shines hopeful.
SPREAD IT THICK
Dewey Compton gets up early to tell how things grow.
The first days of 1956 had been exceptionally bitter and the late January freeze that iceboxed Houston’s early hours fogged breath all the way to the Valley. It was 5:30 a.m. and KTRH’s agribusiness commentator Dewey Compton, professional son-of-the-soil with childhood roots in a Rusk County vegetable farm, prepared for his morning broadcast. Out of habit he took a swipe at the wire-service machine.
“There just happened to be this story of a young boy dyin’ of a kidney malady in Rhode Island and his final request was for a fresh watermelon.” Dewey pauses to let the absurdity of the situation penetrate. “Remember, it’s January and it’s cold, but you never know who’s listening. Ah ran the story first thing on my show, full knowing at the time that the only place fresh watermelons could be found were in the Yucatan Peninsula.” Dewey stops again. A quick estimate situates the melons over 1500 miles away via radio beam. But to Dew, the distance is trivial. “So naturally I requested that any food broker in the Yucatan who had any knowledge of some melons please call me. Well, within ten minutes, a buyer from Houston who was listening for the Houston weather telephoned and says, ‘Yes, I’m in the Yucatan and I’ve got some melons.’ Well, while I discussed this on the radio, the division manager of Trans Texas Airways calls and says he’s got a flight leavin’ the Yucatan at seven a.m. and if that buyer could get a melon to his pilot he’d make sure it got to Houston. No sooner did I hang him up than the division manager for Eastern calls and he says to tell the TTA pilot to take the melon to the Eastern terminal and they’d get it on a flight to Rhode Island.” Once more Dewey pauses, allowing the chain of circumstance to collect with the inevitability of falling dominoes. “At three that afternoon the Eastern captain delivered the melon by cab, persunnally!” A sort of amazed satisfaction fills Dewey’s face. “Ah still don’t believe it, but I guess that’s what you call puttin’ it all together. It warms you to realize you can do somethin’ for someone you’ve never met before, yet all I was doin’ was answering the phone.”
Dewey puts a lot together. He has to, because he’s up and on the air before most people yawn. The old farmer once rose with the chickens; the modern manager of an agri-business enterprise or a Houston broker about to sink his investors into sorghum awakes to Dewey Compton. Other early birds can munch on their can of worms.
At 48, Compton may well be the quintessential Aggie, a successful hybrid of businessman and Good Ole Boy who doesn’t mind a little manure on the carpet of his Cadillac. Behind his desk he looks like a graying, beefy cross between Wilbur Mills and Rod Steiger’s gum-chewing Southern sheriff. Behind the mike he’s an agricultural encyclopedia whose 50,000-watt backyard spreads from Houston to Louisiana to Mexico.
“Three times a day you consume an agricultural product. No matter who you are or where you’re goin’ you have to eat, and right thar you’re in agriculture.” Dew leans back in his chair and relaxes. Two men from a Dallas supply company wait patiently for him to finish. A Compton recommendation is worth more to their product than the police fingerprints of every green thumb in Texas. “Ah try everything I sell ’cause that’s what I’m in a position to do, to gather and disseminate the latest scientific information for the benefit of the farmer. That’s where I differ from, say, someplace like KFYO [Lubbock] which concentrates their agricultural programming on price reports. That’s why I got into this business because of its ability to reach quantities of people with vital information.”
Dew started out in 1951 as county agent for DeWitt County. The young crusader soon discovered there was no way to reach the 2800 farmers scattered throughout his district. “I besieged KCFH in Cuero and finally they let me have 30 minutes free time Monday through Friday, without compensation to themselves or to me. Ah just sat there and talked to the farmers and ran a few special-interest stories. If a fellow had a dairy cow who produced 20,000 pounds of milk in one year I’d take my tape recorder out and interview him.”
Several of those DeWitt County spots ended up in the KTRH studios. In 1953 Dew left Cuero and moved up to Houston and its big-league farm club.
On “Gardenline,” his phone-in program, he plays Father Confessor and Mr. Wizard to anyone with a phone and a plant box. He’s done it for fourteen years with no preparation except the storehouse of information in his head.
“I’ve had a few close ones on that show,” Dewey grins. “One day this fellow called in from Baytown and asked me what kind of fertilizer to put on his marijuana plants. He says, ‘I’ve got aphids on ’em. How do I get rid of ’em?’” This perturbs Dew. There are a few growing green things about which he does not care to know. “Now I’m in a sweat. Here he is on the phone and people listenin’ and I’m thinkin’ if I help him I might be contributing to a felony. So I told him real fast to put 12-24-12 on it and spray it with Malathion and I hung up.” He smiles and savors the incident.
Dew turns and stretches. “Us farmers get up early.” Alas, neo-American gothics, chores in the electronic age wait for no man.
THE BULLETIN BOARD
Bart Hamil chats with his audience over the back fence.
The watermelon-sized Teplica growing beside the courthouse proclaims Seguin the home of the world’s largest pecan. That boast may well be the loudest noise around. In this small town 30 miles east of San Antonio word of mouth travels faster than the weekly newspaper. So…
“We do everything a daily paper does.” Ken Lott lounges by his typewriter and adjusts an absent tie. His office is a combination newsroom and file cabinet. “We carry obits and all the lost dogs and cats, the things that make a small-town newspaper and the things that make a small-town station. But boy, you sure caught a bad one today. There’s nothing going on.” He shrugs. “That’s what makes even trying to sound like a big-time news department so hard. What do you do when something only happens every other day?” KWED’s fastest-breaking story repeats a plaudit delivered by the local Little League chairman thanking the populace for making last night’s banquet a success. “Last night’s lead was a reminder the banquet was being held. It’s the same where I used to work, over in Lockhart.” From a basket located beneath a poster (“Guidelines to Fair Pre-Trial Stories on Crime”) Ken produces a sheaf of moribund stories. “Here’s one of our big locals, ‘Square dancing is scheduled for tonight in the social hall of Emanuel’s Lutheran Church. The activities will begin at eight o’clock.’ Or how about ‘The youth Bible study group of Trinity Baptist Church will meet tonight at the Church.’ And this is today’s big story about a huge traffic snarl outside the main gate at Randolph Air Force Base.” Ken takes a short draw on his cigarette and thinks for a moment. “But seriously, that is a big story. A lot of people here in Seguin commute to the base to work.” He tosses the stories down beside a copy of A Pronouncing Guide to the Classics.
Of course, sometime something is going to happen. Statistical science assures us of this and the almanac confirms it. “A couple of weeks ago we had a real big murder. Then something was really going on. The alleged (Ken has read his guidelines) criminals were arrested right in the sheriffs office. The sheriff called one of the guys’ wives, they were all Mexican, and told them they’d be in big trouble if they didn’t get right over to the office. The guys had no idea they were suspects, and when they came into the office and found the sheriff and the DPS and the police, boy, were they surprised. He arrested them right there.” Ken pulls out another Iceberg cigarette and lights it. “The only reason we can figure why they killed the man was because he was white.”
In spite of the endless pound of dogs and cats, small-town radio serves as more than just a tote board of births (The Baby Report, 8:05 a.m. and 5:20 p.m.), church bazaars, and quaint programs painted in local color. (Try “Oompahpah—That Good Ole Time Music,” polkas and waltzes from 10-11 a.m. or “The Daily Hymn,” 11:30 or 11:33 a.m., depending.) The small station provides the minor-league springboard for small talent diving into a potentially profitable big-market gig. KDOK in Tyler, for example, has one of the most remarkable records around for supplying major market talent. Big name Top 40 and progressive deejays like BUI Young, Steve Lundy, and Jimmy Rabbitt tripped through Tyler on the way to Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So if DJ Bart Hamil’s hair looks a little freaky for Seguin that’s because he has been elsewhere and is going back.
“One of the primary differences between a small-town and a big-time station,” he says, “is that the small-town broadcasts are chatty and newsy. Even gossipy. In a big town you’re slicked-down and refined and going after a specific audience. In a small place you’ve got to serve the whole community.” Bart has been playing soft music over KWED’s FM branch and his voice modulates like Karo. “But there’s a nice aspect to the small towns that’s not really properly appreciated. A major market can get hectic, really wired with ego trips. This life is very mellow. I could make a living here the rest of my life and as long as there are no big ruffles in anyone’s feathers I’d have a job as long as I wanted one. Some guys plan to stay forever, but for me a small town is a place to get started.” [At press time Hamil did move on—to Austin’s progressive rock station, KRMH.]
Bart Hamil began his career doing progressive rock at Rice University’s educational station, KTRU. Rosita Ornelas managed to get through the sixth grade before she had to go to work. “But if there’s a star on this station it’s her,” Bart nods at Rosie as she sits behind the sound-proof glass of the AM studio. A small plaque tacked above the door proclaims Rosita “Number One in Guadalupe County.”
Jet-black-haired Number One sits demurely before the control board. Exact in her makeup and coiffure, she is dressed more for a church service than a radio show. There is a gravity about her.
“I never thought that I was going to be in radio. I started out putting covers on records back in 1952. I helped the man who did the Spanish show, Mr. Daniel Ramirez. He owned a small drugstore in town. I worked a split shift at the snack bar so I was off between one and three. Then I would go to the station to help. After three I came back to the store and cleaned up. I handled both jobs for fourteen years until they convinced me despite all my bills to sit one job.”
The record finishes and Rosita flips on her microphone. “Para Jim y Lucia… feliz cumpleanos!” She presses the tape-cartridge machine and a Lone Star ad (in Spanish) blares across the infinitely translatable message of beer.
Rosie Ornelas exemplifies everything a communicator can mean to a community. They embrace her. By choice she is engaged in all aspects of her audience’s life and her resulting world is vibrant and vast. In the small society of Guadalupe County she could be a moving political force among her listeners but she chooses to remain politically aloof because she feels it would be wrong to alienate any portion of her audience, and there are many things in politics she does not particularly want to understand. “I did not have much confidence when I first began, but people were always encouraging me and asking me to emcee a dance or a wedding at one of the churches.” A wan look crosses her face. “I never thought I could please the people. Up until now they cherish me and I don’t know why. After 22 years I tire of myself.”