Mountain Pine native deals real on the radio, goes nationwide

By Shea Stewart Published March 23, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Arshia Khan

Bobby Estell, aka Bobby Bones, has carried his on-air moniker since taking to the airwaves with KLAZ 105.9 FM when he was just 17 years old. Bones, a native of Mountain Pine, now has a syndicated radio program called The Bobby Bones Show. The show airs on KSSN 96 FM (95.7) in the Little Rock market.

Bobby Bones, a Mountain Pine native and the host of the nationally syndicated country music radio program The Bobby Bones Show, paused when asked about his childhood. He had a slight correction to the question, describing his childhood as “rough.”

“It wasn’t ‘rough’ then, because that’s what I knew,” he said. “Looking back on it now, if I have to see other kids living that way, it kind of [stinks]. My grandmother adopted and raised me for a while. My mom was there some, as well. I don’t know my biological dad at all. My mom had some [addiction] problems so she was in and out. My grandmother died when I was a teenager. That was hard. But every experience makes you who you are. My mom passed away two years ago when she was 46. She was still really young. I wouldn’t say, ‘rough.’ It was what it was as it was happening.”

Bones discussed his childhood while sitting in his office in a building along Nashville’s famed Music Row, and just down the hall from his radio studio where The Bobby Bones Show is based. Each weekday morning from 5-10, the show is broadcast to nearly 3 million radio listeners via 63 Clear Channel Communications radio stations through Premiere Networks, the country’s largest radio syndication company. (Premiere is also owned by Clear Channel).

The show, broadcast in Little Rock on KSSN 96, is a little unorthodox when it comes to country music radio. The show’s personality identifies more with a Top 40 or rock radio show. Bones and co-hosts, Amy and Lunchbox, gather around the studio’s microphones and bolt through the five-hour show, delivering a pausing-only-for-commercial-breaks procession of today’s country hits from artists such as Florida Georgia Line, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum and more, along with humorous stories drawn from their daily lives and social media, a little bit of heartfelt realism, celebrity dirt and more. The songs are the focus, but the hosts, who are also joined in the studio by Eddie and Nada, are the stars of the show.

“I don’t feel as though I’m a syndicated country music guy,” Bones said. “I feel as though I’m just a guy who goes on the radio with my friends and tries to be funny.”

The Bobby Bones Show follows no script, but Bones generally knows where the conversation is going. His co-hosts don’t. This is the way Bones has run the show since its start on 96.7 KISS FM in Austin, Texas.

“I love this method,” co-host Amy Brown said. “Show prep doesn’t stop. Some shows have meetings … and after that they go and try to do what they talked about. Well, our life is constant show prep. … We compile everything, and it all goes to Bobby, and he is kind of the brains behind it all. He sifts through it. ‘Good, good, good, good, bad.’ But he’s got that all in his head and doesn’t share it with us. So when we come on air he’s got a schedule of everything we’re going to be doing that everyone said to him, but we don’t know about it until the moment it is brought up. He wants it to be organic.”

And going on the air and being impromptu, genuine and funny is paying off for Bones and crew. Earlier this year, Bones, Amy and Lunchbox won the Academy of Country Music’s National On-Air Personality of the Year award, tying with Country Countdown USA host Lon Helton.

The 33-year-old Bones knew he wanted to be involved in radio when he was 5 or 6, he said. Growing up in Mountain Pine, a map speck of less than 1,000 people just northwest of Hot Springs, Bones would listen to KLAZ 105.9 and US 97 (97.5 FM) in Hot Springs, and KSSN in Little Rock. “In Arkansas or the South, country music is part of the fabric,” Bones said. “You like other [music], too, but you don’t escape country music.”

Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw were two of Bones’ favorite country artists growing up, but his grandmother also educated him on classic country greats — artists such as Johnny Cash, Randy Travis (his grandmother’s favorite), Conway Twitty and more. Then there was classic rock, along with hip-hop and ’90s alternative rock artists.

At the age of 17, Bones started working at Henderson State University’s college radio station before going to KLAZ 105.9 and asking for a job. He wasn’t worried about the title or duties. He was hired to do some cleaning, switching out CDs and filing. A couple of days later, KLAZ 105.9 shifted around its on-air talent. A manager came to Bones and told him he was going on air. Bones, born Bobby Estell, was given a choice of on-air radio names: Bobby Z or Bobby Bones. He chose the latter, and the moniker has been his name ever since.

“It’s kind of weird having a radio name,” Bones said. “But every place I’ve been has been connected to the last place, so I couldn’t change it. I’ve never been able to shake it. The name is so stupid. I’d go back to my real name if I could.”

For the next four years, while studying at Henderson State in Arkadelphia, Bones worked at KLAZ 105.9. When he graduated from Henderson State in 2002, Bones moved to Little Rock and started working at Q100.

His first full-time radio contract paid him $17,000. Bones thought he was rich.

“I was a food stamp and welfare kid,” Bones said. “Mountain Pine is a pretty poor place, but I’m proud to be from Mountain Pine. It’s not hard being poor when you’ve always been poor. But in Little Rock, I had $50 a week extra after bills. That was awesome. I thought it was great money.”

After working in Little Rock for a few months, Bones moved to Austin, Texas, where he built The Bobby Bones Show from a morning show on a Top 40 station into a show syndicated to markets around the U.S. Austin is also where Bones met Lunchbox (in a bar) and Amy (in a restaurant) and turned the pair with no radio experience into his co-hosts.

“I always felt as though if I stayed away from radio people it wouldn’t sound like a radio show,” Bones said. “That was always the goal. Organic. If it sounds rough, that’s fine. In normal conversation, people talk over each other.”

In the fall of 2012, Clear Channel officials approached Bones with the idea of moving him and his show from Austin and a Top 40 format to Nashville and a country music format while taking The Bobby Bones Show nationwide. Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio station owner, wanted Bones, the kid with a love for radio from tiny Mountain Pine, to be its No. 1 country music radio personality nationwide.

“I was shocked,” Bones said. “I couldn’t believe it. I felt comfortable in [country music], but there was a risk, too, because I had to give up what I built. It [was] a risk for [Clear Channel] because here comes a wrecking ball. We both just threw risks together. People have taken chances on me that I don’t even think I would have taken.”

Rod Phillips, a senior vice president of programming at Clear Channel and a longtime Bones promoter, was one of those Clear Channel officials who thought the show could easily transfer to country markets. Bones said his show possesses a “controlled nuttiness,” but Phillips said the show’s unrehearsed nature is exactly what country music needed. “The antics, the creative, the fun is all part of the plan. It’s not scary. It’s different for country. There are many more personalities in rock radio and Top 40 radio. That’s what we wanted to change in country. We wanted real personalities.”

And Bones is definitely a real personality. Since going nationwide last March, Bones and crew have not been afraid of sharing details of their personal lives with listeners. That candidness is one of the appeals of the show. For Bones, being sincere on the radio provides him with an outlet.

“We feel as though we are just regular people, so we try to talk like regular people,” Bones said. “It’s not all playing the hits and smiling.

“The only place I feel comfortable talking, openly, is on a microphone. It never feels like people are listening. It almost feels like it’s the place where I can go not to be judged.”

Staff writer Shea Stewart can be reached at (501) 244-4342 or shea@syncweekly.com.

Night cops reporter Shea Stewart can be reached at 501-378-3598 or sstewart@arkansasonline.com.

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