It was a cool November morning, still a couple of hours before sunrise, and downtown Marshall’s main drag was quiet except for the muted din of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” emerging from speakers beneath the white awning in front of KDPM-FM (92.3) “The Depot.” Shortly after the song ended, the Fat Man came slowly walking around the corner and let himself into the three-year-old radio station’s studio.

The Fat Man is the nom de deejay of Chip Arledge, the manager and lead host of the Depot, which specializes in country music and, in Arledge’s words, classic rock “that doesn’t piss off country fans.” The station gives extra play to Texas artists, especially those hailing from East Texas. You might hear a Willie-and-Waylon song segue into a new Chris Stapleton single and then an old Eagles hit (front man Don Henley grew up in Linden, 35 miles north of Marshall), a classic rock track from Steve Miller (who was raised in Dallas, 150 miles to the west), and Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (a universe away). Every hour, the station plays a clip about a famous East Texan, such as recordings of Lady Bird Johnson describing her hometown of Karnack (15 miles northeast) or Howard Cosell yelling “Down goes Frazier!” when Marshall native George Foreman battered Joe Frazier in 1973. 

In between all that, the Fat Man keeps listeners up to date on local happenings. Arledge talks mostly as he does when he’s not on the air—the Ohio native doesn’t pretend to have a Texas accent. He’s earnest, with a bit of geeky and a dash of hokey: the Depot is a “roving band of reckless renegades”; listeners make up “the army of compassion”; whenever there’s good news, such as the Marshall Mavericks advancing in the state high school football playoffs, he gives “a tip of the Fat Man’s fedora.” 

Arledge is often the only person on the streets downtown at this early hour. A couple of generations ago a sizable chunk of Marshall’s labor force would’ve already awakened to the piercing scream of a train whistle and been heading to the nearby Texas and Pacific Railway Depot, from which the radio station gets its name. Today the former depot is a museum and Amtrak stop. “There are only two 24/7 businesses downtown,” Arledge, who is 64, said in a dry baritone after he’d settled into the host’s chair. “This is one of them. The other is the jail.”

The DJ, dressed in his standard outfit—joggers, sneakers, a large T-shirt draped over a long-sleeve crew, and a gold earring with a small peace sign dangling from his right ear—sat behind a U-shaped desk cluttered with computer screens, audio equipment, notepads, brochures, a newspaper folded to a half-finished crossword, and a black coffee mug emblazoned with the logo of his beloved Cincinnati Bengals. He started out in indie radio in the seventies, a time when local stations were pillars of small-town life. He worked as a DJ in several towns around the Midwest for the better part of two decades, but in the early nineties he was sucked into the major conglomerates and enlisted as a foot soldier in the campaign to consolidate and homogenize local radio.

Arledge at the sound board.
Arledge at the sound board. Photograph by Andrea Mendoza
Inside the Depot.
Inside the Depot. Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

Arledge, in other words, became the enemy of the type of station where he once worked. “I would go into markets like Amarillo, Wichita Falls, Tyler, Longview, and Lubbock, and I’d open up my fancy Halliburton briefcase, take out a floppy disk—we still used them—and say, ‘Here’s your radio station.’ Those were my marching orders.” Local programs were often replaced with syndicated shows stuffed with lots of ads and bits of local news. Arledge remembers once driving from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Alabama in the aughts. “I listened to the radio stations along the way—Flint, Saginaw, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville—and it all sounded the same. No local content. The only thing that differentiated one market from the next were the commercials.”  

He came to regret his role in bulldozing local radio and swore that if he was given another chance, he’d work at the kind of station where he started his career. In 2020, when a former colleague connected him to a lawyer who was interested in starting one in Marshall, Arledge, who was living in Shreveport, Louisiana, leaped at the chance. 

Marshall residents can pick up dozens of stations from Longview and Shreveport, but there’s only one other commercial operator in Marshall, KMHT. One of its FM signals, 103.9, offers some local stories and talk but also relies on syndicated news and music shows. Arledge believes that KMHT, which is owned by a media company in nearby Carthage, broadcasts the sort of programming he once pushed on listeners. 

The Depot feels like that shot at redemption he wanted, but there’s a second layer to his mission as well: to boost his adopted hometown while also subtly—though to some people’s taste not subtly enough—nudging it to be a better version of itself. “I want to move Marshall and East Texas forward both
economically and culturally,” he says. There are few who would argue with the economic part of that plan. It’s the cultural aspect that has a few noses out of joint—though, he emphasizes, just a few.

Downtown Marshall.
Downtown Marshall.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

Several of the buildings in downtown Marshall sit vacant, but new businesses are set to open over the next year, including a brewery, a farm-to-table restaurant and boutique, and a whiskey distillery. Sales tax receipts in downtown have rebounded since the depths of the pandemic (though they haven’t returned to pre-COVID levels), property values have grown 40 percent since 2018, and median household income has jumped from $35,702, in 2015, to $45,500, in 2021. Marshall, going by the numbers, is a town on the rise.

Perhaps the most significant shift, though, has been the rapid growth of Marshall’s Latino community. The town’s population has hovered around 23,000 for decades, but Latinos, who made up less than 9 percent of the population in 2000, now account for more than 20 percent. Marshall High School’s current student body draws a clear picture of the town’s demographic near-future, at 40 percent Latino, 35 percent Black, and 22 percent non-Hispanic white. Given that Marshall was 50 percent non-Hispanic white at the turn of the millennium, that’s a dramatic change—and one that has been largely embraced by a town with a thorny racial past.

For most of Marshall’s history, it was a city cleaved in two. After its founding in 1841, it became one of the biggest and wealthiest towns in Texas, largely because, at one point, cotton-rich Harrison County had more enslaved people than any other county in the state. After the Civil War, Marshall was a leading light of Reconstruction. The Freedmen’s Bureau established an office here, and in 1873 Wiley College (now University) was founded as the town’s first institution of higher learning as well as the first historically Black college or university west of the Mississippi. But like elsewhere in the South, the end of Reconstruction ushered in a brutal white backlash. Segregation was strictly enforced; Black residents were effectively barred from going to the east side of the courthouse square. In 1905 a Confederate statue was erected there. 

Marshall’s Main Street.
Marshall’s Main Street. Photograph by Andrea Mendoza
Arledge outside the Depot.
Arledge outside the Depot. Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

Harrison was one of the last counties in Texas to desegregate, but by the 1980s Marshall had elected its first Black mayor—a full decade before Dallas and Houston would do so. Today, Marshall’s city manager and its representative on the Harrison County Commissioners’ Court are Black. Downtown’s most powerful real estate investor is a Mexican immigrant who moved here to attend Wiley. Integration has seeped into Marshall’s economic and political elite. 

Still, history has a way of hanging on, like the Spanish moss that dangles from the branches of the cypress trees in nearby Caddo Lake. In 2019 Marshall’s poverty rate sat at an unenviable 25.2 percent, compared with the 16 percent average for the 23 counties that make up the northeast region of Texas. And that number, bad as it is, obscures a profound racial disparity in Marshall: the poverty rates for Black, Latino, and non-Hispanic white residents are 34 percent, 21 percent, and 11 percent, respectively—measurably worse than the state averages. 

Those inequities play out in more subjective, sometimes charged ways as well. The Confederate monument still stands despite the efforts of the multiracial coalition that petitioned county officials to remove it in 2020. And in 2022 a local white man assaulted Miguel Lopez, a longtime restaurant owner, after hearing Lopez speaking Spanish to his wife. It was an isolated incident—no one I spoke with mentioned anything similar happening before or since—and the man was arrested. But it carried an echo of a not-so-distant past. 

Lopez, like everyone I talked to, was quick to describe Marshall as a great place to live. “I think this is a good town,” he told me in Spanish. “It reminds me of the small town where I grew up in Mexico. Everyone knows each other and is friendly.” He said many of his regular customers, a number of whom are non-Hispanic white, came to offer their support after the incident. (Lopez retired in December; he plans to stay in Marshall.)

“There are none of us who know Miguel who were not appalled,” said Fran Hurley, who is white and has lived in Marshall most of her 75 years. A prominent member of the community, she serves as the director of the Marshall Regional Arts Council. We were sitting at a round stone table in a beautiful pine grove on the west side of town; next to Hurley was Charles Cornish, who works as Wiley’s director of alumni and outreach. Cornish, who is Black, is 39 years old and has lived in Marshall since moving here from New Orleans when he was a child; he’s often referred to as the town’s unofficial mayor. He and Hurley became friends when she invited him to join the Rotary Club. “Marshall has always been diverse,” he said. “Different people have always lived here.” He just worries that they haven’t always made the most of that diversity.

Miguel Lopez, on December 27, 2023.Photograph by Andrea Mendoza

After Miguel Lopez was assaulted, Arledge offered him free advertising on the Depot. “I made a deal with Miguel: ‘I’ll give you the advertisement for free, but I have to write it,’ ” Arledge said. The sixty-second spot they recorded recounted what happened to Lopez and urged listeners to patronize his restaurant. “Such examples of racism and bigotry are ingredients to a recipe none of us should have to endure for one second,” Arledge said in the ad, which finished with Lopez, in Spanish, thanking the community for its support.

The ad, in some cases, had the opposite of its intended effect. “I heard from some listeners that they would change the station when it came on,” Arledge said. Some grumbled that the ad’s frequent play—six to eight times a day for about six weeks—made the town look bad. “And I’d tell them what happened to Miguel is bad, and not saying that and not coming to his aid is what actually would make the town look bad.” 

But critique isn’t all Arledge is offering. Not long after his first broadcast, he contacted Natalie Hill, a mass communications instructor at Wiley who manages the student-run radio station KBWC-FM (91.1), which plays a mix of music—gospel, R&B, rap, reggae—by predominantly Black artists. “He knew the music we played, which is totally the opposite of the Depot’s,” Hill said. Arledge pitched Hill on an idea: having students write and record sixty-second spots highlighting significant Wiley alumni that he would air on the Depot during Black History Month. The students have produced reports on Wiley alums such as Heman Sweatt, the plaintiff of the U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated the University of Texas at Austin’s law school; Opal Lee, who led the campaign to have the federal government recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday; and jazz trumpeter Richard Williams, who played with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. 

Arledge says the reception to the segments has been overwhelmingly positive. “We didn’t get any blowback from our audience, like we did with the Miguel ad,” he said. Community members’ apparent openness to building these sorts of bridges is one reason Arledge is bullish on Marshall. “The potential for this town is huge,” he said. “Look at the downtown. It’s beautiful.” He was sitting back in the host’s chair. The sun was setting, and he had just signed off the air for the day. Luke Combs’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” played. The microphone was situated so that whenever Arledge spoke into it, he could face out to the street. He wants pedestrians walking past to see him working, and he often waves when he catches someone’s glance. 

He hopes the station will eventually feel like a place where anyone can just walk in, plop down on the couch, and listen to music—and to the Fat Man putting his spin on the latest local news. That happens occasionally, but not as often as he’d like. “I want to be able to say that, you know, we helped lay the groundwork for a massive improvement in this town,” he said. “I want this to be my last stop. It wouldn’t bother me if one morning after I had my six cups of coffee my heart exploded and listeners just heard a thud.” If that happens, the people of Marshall may have mixed feelings about his refusal to go quietly.  

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Radio Free Marshall.” Subscribe today.