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REMEMBERING ARKANSAS Hot Springs' KTHS was pioneering radio station

by Tom Dillard | March 9, 2008 at 6:20 a.m.

— Last week I told you about the early years of radio in Arkansas. This week our subject is the impact radio had on Arkansas news reporting and entertainment.

Radio came to Arkansas in 1922, a time of change in the state and nation. The Great War in Europe was over, and America turned inward. It was a time for recuperation, relaxation and fun. The radio brought the thrill of major league baseball, the romance and excitement of weekly serials, and a host of comedy shows. Radio simply seemed to fit into this era of technology, when automobiles were becoming commonplace and telephone linemen were making their way down remote country lanes.

Perhaps the most important pioneering radio station in Arkansas was Hot Springs' KTHS-AM, 1040. The call letters stood for "Kum To Hot Springs." The station was licensed on Dec. 19, 1924, to the New Arlington Hotel, which had just been rebuilt after a devastating fire a year earlier.

KTHS was a real radio station, with ample quarters including a studio with a grand piano and a separate transmitter and control room. The hotel's ballroom and orchestra pit were also wired for broadcasting. Following the first broadcast, 186 telegrams and 25 longdistance telephone calls arrived from 22 states, testifying to the far reach of this early radio station. During its first two months of operation, the station received 25,000 letters requesting information on vacationing in Hot Springs.

Like most early radio stations, KTHS originated its own programming using local talent. Glee clubs often performed, as did the several orchestras then operating in Hot Springs. The 153rd Infantry Band gave a performance, as did a male quartet sponsored by the Gus Blass Co. of Little Rock. It helped that the station broadcast only a few hours daily.

KTHS did not restrict itself to Hot Springs. In 1925 the station began remote broadcasting from the Rainbow Garden atop the 555 Service Station in Little Rock. Broadcasts also originatedat the Conway Theater in Conway.

KTHS was the first station in Arkansas to broadcast state election results, thanks to the assistance of Associated Press wire reports. On Aug. 30, 1928, KTHS gained national prominence when it broadcast Arkansas Sen. Joseph T. Robinson's speech accepting the vice presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

If all this pioneering were not enough, KTHS earned a place in entertainment history by discovering Lum and Abner. On Saturday morning, April 26, 1931, two young college-educated comedians from Mena, Chester "Chet" Lauck and Findley Norris "Tuffy" Goff, appeared on KTHS on behalf of flood relief.

Lauck and Goff had made a name for themselves around Mena as skilled entertainers. On their way to Hot Springs, they decided to try out a new act featuring Lauck as Lum Eddards and Goff as Abner Peabody, country storekeepers. The program was popular from the start, and it was soon picked up by national networks. For the next 25 years, Americans laughed at the gentle humor found at the Jot 'Em Down Store at Pine Ridge, Ark.

Radio station KLRA-AM, 1010, in Little Rock, was also instrumental in discovering new and talented performers. KLRA was founded in Chicago in 1926 as WLBN, then moved to the Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith, and finally to Little Rock, where it later became KLRA. In 1929 KLRA joined the Columbia Broadcasting System, one of several national radio companies that was quickly carving up and bringing order and a system to a rapidly emerging national radio system.

At some point after World War II, KLRA began a live country music program called the Barnyard Frolic. The Frolic filled Robinson Auditorium every Saturday night. The show was not only a popular live performance; it also attracted a large radio audience. The Frolic hosted amateur contests, which drew entries from across the south. Among the Arkansas country music singers who got their start at the Frolic was the Brown family of rural Dallas County.

It was in 1952 that 21-year-old Maxine Brown secretly entered her brother's name, Jim Ed, in the amateur contest. Though he lost the competition, the three Brown siblings were on their way to stardom. Over the next 15 years, Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie, performing as The Browns, recorded such hits as "Looking Back to See," "I'll Take the Chance" and "The Three Bells," the latter reaching top place on the country and pop charts and selling more than 3 million records.

Probably the longest running radio program in Arkansas history is King Biscuit Time, a blues program led by guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. on station KFFA-AM, 1360 in Helena-West Helena. Begun in 1941, the show made famous Sonny Boy Williamson, a blues harmonica player who later built a career in Chicago. Bob Cochran, head of the University of Arkansas' Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies, has described Williamson (whose birth name was Aleck Miller) as "a laconic, often mordant and sarcastic vocalist, as well as a masterful instrumentalist." King Biscuit Time show continues today.

Space limitations prohibit a discussion of such interesting radio topics as the growth of religious broadcasting, radio's impact on politics, the arrival of Spanish-language stations and the myriad of innovative programs such as Beaker Street, a late-night program blasted across the nation by Little Rock's highpowered KAAY-AM, 1090 during the1960s and '70s.

Tom W. Dillard is the founding editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

(www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net), and head of the special collections department at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville. E-mail him at

tdillar@uark.edu

Travel, Pages 91 on 03/09/2008

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