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 often issues “take cover” warnings before the National Weather Service in Amarillo does. “Weather sells,” he says. “It affects everyone, and this areahas such wildly changing weather patterns that you need constant updating.”

KFAN-FM 107.9, Johnson City, Fredericksburg
KEEP-FM 98.3, Bandera, Fredericksburg

THE FAN IS THE HOME OF TEXAS REBEL Radio, a localized version of the Americana format. Disc jockeys have more than 14,000 cuts to select from, and Texans get prime time: There’s the “Texas Six-Pack” (six Texas tracks in a row) at eight, three, and eight every day, “Local Licks at Six” (featuring unsigned Hill Country and regional acts), and “Red Steagall’s Cowboy Corner” every Sunday at seven. In other words, it’s a good bet you’ll hear plenty of Lyle, Robert Earl, Lucinda, and Willie, as well as Geronimo Trevino, the Derailers, Steve Earle, Tom Petty, and Iris DeMent.

KGUL-FM 96.1, Edna, Bay City, Palacios
KYKM-FM 92.5, Cuero, Gonzales, Yoakum
KHLT-AM 1520/KTXM-FM 99.9, Hallettsville, Schulenburg, Weimar

STEVE COFFMAN, THE CEO OF THIS MULTISTATION COMBINE, has been pushing a Texas Radio format since he worked at KAFM in Dallas in the mid-seventies. His latest incarnation, focusing on the likes of Augie Meyers, Kelly Willis, and Junior Brown, has landed in the Bohemian Belt of south-central Texas, where quirky music has been made since the dawn of the twentieth century. The Reba-free playlist avoids what Coffman describes as “Nashville slick” (though it’s very much country in orientation), and it pulls the sort of younger audience that makes advertisers drool. “We’re actually making money,” Coffman says. Still, he’s no fool, so he also airs traditional programming like the six-in-the-morning. farm report (which is followed by a reading of the day’s obituaries and police reports—my favorite news segment) and live coverage of high school sports. Don’t miss Bobby Pavliska’s “Texas Waltzes and Polkas” show on KHLT weekday mornings at eleven.

KVLF-AM 1240, Alpine
KALP-FM 92.7, Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties

THE VOICE OF THE LAST FRONTIER, KVLF augments its big-band and country formats by mixing in Spanish-language programming, a local music show called “Onda Chicana,” and plenty of coverage of high school sports, including play-by-play from Kokernot Field, the Yankee Stadium of Texas baseball. A couple of years back, I stumbled on a magic radio moment when regular programming was interrupted one afternoon by a special bulletin: a live interview by Sul Ross student broadcasters with Dwight Yoakam’s touring band, who were playing at a local club that evening.

Canyon Lake Radio 105.7, Canyon Lake

LOW-POWER MICROBROADCASTERS—unlicensed stations operating under 100 watts—define the latest generation of small-town radio. One of the most celebrated is Canyon Lake Radio, which beams 30 watts to listeners within twenty miles of its namesake town north of San Antonio. The station went live a year ago after Houston transplants Lisa and David Huff noticed the absence of any local media around the lake. “I ordered a transmitter from England and picked out the emptiest frequency I could find,” Lisa says. The Huffs quickly discovered an audience out there and, even better, amateur deejays eager to be on the air. That has made for the most amazing mix of music heard on any radio station: death metal, big band, swing, honky-tonk, country blues, oompah, reggae, punk, arena rock, and thrash—whatever the fifteen-person volunteer staff, which ranges from teenagers to senior citizens, deems worthy. Just as important, community needs are met in the form of plugs for the Kids in Safe Surroundings program and the Canyon Lake Animal Shelter Society, Canyon Dam stream-flow information for the benefit of the rafters and tubers on the Guadalupe River, and on-the-spot coverage of road closures during bad weather, like the October 13 floods (big-city reporters in San Antonio and Austin didn’t do nearly as well.)

Also Worth a Listen

KMIL-AM 1330, Cameron A disquisition on the meaning of succotash and dramatic readings of both the police blotter and the church bulletin—all in the same morning show.

KDET-AM 930, Center Mattie Dellinger’s talk show (Tuesday through Friday from 4 to 5) is a hoot. When Willie Nelson got word that 85-year-old Mattie didn’t like his music, he showed up at the studio and played a song to change her mind.

KCLW-AM 900, Hamilton Texas’ best round-the-clock retro country format.

KIIZ-FM 92.3, Harker Heights Small-town black radio that sounds more professional than most of its big-city counterparts.

KCTM-FM 103.1, Rio Grande City The most interesting mix of news, talk, and grupero (a mix of the norteño and tropical musical genres) on the border.