|City/Town: • Newport|
|Location Class: • Amusement • Commercial|
|Year Built: • 1949 | Year Abandoned: • 2004|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • Michael Schwarz • Gage Fears|
“The Voice of The White River Valley”
Nestled in the center of the White River Valley stands a monument to Rock and Roll history and the development of modern media. A one story building built of a light tan brick, glass block windows, and a yard with grass taller than your ankles. Large black letters pinned across the face of the building read, “KNBY KOKR”.
The radio station operated from October 1st. 1949 until March 14th. 2004.At the time of its beginning, the station was operation as an AM station on 1280Khz at 1 KW-D. After eight years of silence, in 2012, the KOKR call sign went back on air with a renewed license and new building. Operating as River Country 96.7.
The station was founded under the Newport Broadcasting Co., under the Sudbury Broadcasting Group. The station’s call sign stands for “(K) N)ewport (B)roadcasting Compan(Y)”. KOKR did have a meaning, but for a brief time. It stood for “(K) (OK) (R)adio”.
KNBY had always been a Gospel and Oldies format. The slogan was “Great Gospel 1280”, which then moved to “Golden Gospel 1280”. KOKR had went through multiple formats. Top 40 Hits & Rock, and Country were the two most common. KOKR switched to Country in the fall of 1988.
Radio stations were growing in popularity as a faster source for news. Now, instead of waiting days or even hours for news, you could turn your resistor radio on and hear every event instantly. Breaking news came from the United Press and Associated Press directly through telegraph lines that came through a teletype machine.
KNBY-AM would for years broadcast a news section at 9:30AM. Earl Black Jr. had given live play by play reports of the Newport Greyhounds’ sports games. This gave the station a strong local following. KNBY KOKR was also a sponsor for the St.Louis Cardinals and the Arkansas Razorbacks.KNBY KOKR went through many radio personalities in their years. The two that had served the longest were Dale Gardner, a current broadcaster for Heber Springs’ KFFB 106.1 station (as well as being a Heber Springs Area Chamber of Commerce Ambassador), and Mr. Evans.
The station held multiple unique programs throughout the day. In the 1970s, Al Evans and L.D. Hoover had hosted a morning show every Monday through Friday. Another segment from the 1970s was one called “Talk of The Town”, hosted by a lady referred to as Ms.Neely. This segment was a talk show that included sit-ins from local special guests.Every Friday night, a segment was hosted called, “The Greyhound Coach’s Show”, hosted by Earl Black Jr. and former Newport coach, Bill Keedy. Another was one that involved the local youth, called “Radio Club”. Newport Highschoolers were also invited to go to the station on Sunday afternoons and operate the station.
KNBY KOKR was the go to source for hearing live Newport Greyhounds games. Earl “Bud” Black Jr. was the main announcer for the games for over twenty years. Earl was known for his ability to report every single play as it happened and give such excitement to games. “You just don’t see that with games in the local level anymore.”, LeeAnn Holmes says. Earl Black Jr. set the bar high for local sports radio. Former employees say numerous times, he had a gift. “He was, and will forever be, “The Voice of the Greyhounds.””, Bud’s brother, David Black says.
On the AM channel, every weekday morning, a program called “The Trading Post” was broadcasted. This was a segment where locals could call in and list an ad on something they were selling or were looking to buy. This can be considered as an early version of Craigslist, or the station’s version of the “Classifieds” section in the newspaper. This segment was one of the most popular segments and ran for a long time.
In the 1950s, a now defunct baptist church from Grubbs, Arkansas had broadcasted a 30 minute sermon on Sundays and performed gospel songs live if time allowed over the AM frequency. This segment was called “The Baptist Hour”
In the early years of his career, Steve Stephens, the host of “Steve’s Show” in Little Rock, Arkansas; was a disc jockey for a short time possibly in 1949 and 1950 while still a Newport High School Senior. This had given him the motivation to become an entertainer later in life.
The building was remodeled in 1969. The exterior gained the new black letters on the face, losing the sign on top of the roof that read “KNBY-AM (Voice of The White River Valley)”. The doors had changed from white wooden doors to grey metal doors. This was three years after the station had gained an FM frequency operating on 105.5 mhz.
Al Evans was the general manager between 1969 and roughly, 1985. His wife Jean took care of payroll and “traffic”. (Traffic is the term used for keeping logs of every minute of broadcasting.) Mr. Evans worked in the station until he suffered a heart attack in the mid 80s. Jean Evans and LeeAnn Evans had worked there part time until 2002.
Harold Sudbury Sr. had attempted to bring Al Evans to his team three times. Sudbury Sr. had flown from Blytheville to Batesville those three times to convince Al to join the team. These attempts were met with arguments over $5.00 a week on his salary. The final time, Sudbury Sr. had called him and told him “Come to the station, and prove yourself. If you do well, I’ll pay you the extra $5 a week.”
Al Evans was known to be a family man, and this had impacted his career. He was a community-minded person. “He was bubbly”, Dale Gardner notes of his radio personality. “He had this deep, somber voice that all of us radio folk wish we had.”, Dale adds. Al was the president of the Arkansas Broadcaster’s Association for two terms. “He was such a cool guy. He just exuded coolness.”, Heath says.
KNBY KOKR sat beside the former Porky’s Rooftop Club, which had burned down over twenty years ago. The club had been in operation around 50 years and saw the likes of Sonny Burgess, Elvis, Jerry Lee lewis, Carl Perkins, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, and Waylon Jennings live in concert. This had helped pave the history for Rock & Roll and for the area. In 2009, Hwy 67 was dedicated as the “Rock And Roll Highway 67”.
The radio station had broadcasted a number of live performances from the club. Two in particular were Sonny Burgess and The Pacers, and Billy Lee Riley. Both artists are deceased. With this information known, it is undeniable that the KNBY KOKR radio station had a role in the growth of Rock & Roll, and music in general.
The station is along side Arkansas Highway 67. It is set back about 60 yards from the road. It is built with light brown brick, and has glass block windows. It bears the station’s call sign on the face of the building. A large satellite dish sits about twenty yards in front of the left front corner of the building.The once gravel parking lot is just a grass yard now that stand about 2 feet tall.
The station’s antenna is about 5 yards behind the building and has a fence around it. The grass within the fence has grown up about four to five feet. Multiple guy-lines for the tower are slacked and laying on the ground. Whether that be from corrosion and rust or a snapped line, is unknown.
Every window is boarded up with 2 inch thick wood panels which are bolted and screwed in place. The steel doors on the front are chained up and blocked from the inside. The small windows on the doors are shattered. The glass block windows are surprisingly not broken or stolen. The exterior is in phenomenal shape for a seventy two year old building. The inside is another story.
Upon entering the building you are greeted with the familiar smell of mildew, mold and rust. A common smell in deteriorating buildings. In the 17 years that the station has been sitting, the interior has fallen beyond repair. The ceiling has all fallen down and became mush on the floor, while being molded and mossed over. Your feet create three inch impressions with every step you take.
Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs and pieces of wet drywall ceiling. Most of the equipment is still in the building is still present as it is too large and heavy to carry out. Light fixtures hang from the ceiling at an angle. Ripped open boxes and folders scatter the floor.Personal items such as eyeglasses, sports awards, autographed band photos, and a jar of pickles sit in the station.
A menu from a now defunct restaurant lies covered in dust on a table. An advertisement from the 2004 Newport Centennial Celebration hosted by Depot Days is still on the wall. Sonny Burgess had performed at that event.Reel to reels, CDs, cassette tapes and vinyl records lay strewn across the floor in the broadcast room. A pair of rusted and molded headphones sit atop DJ equipment in the broadcast room.
Multiple reel-to-reel machines lay broken or unusable all across the station. The transmitter room is 20 degrees cooler and much darker than the rest of the building. The “promo room” has seen the worst of the entire building. Items and ceiling pieces in a pile two feet high. Everything molded and rusted. Anything that isn’t metal or some other durable material has rotten away.
A signed photograph of a local wrestler, Austin Lane (who spent some of his career at the Valiant Arena in the neighboring town of Tuckerman) sits in a filing cabinet drawer.On the DJ’s table, a note was found written to the current DJ in 2004 with short a list of songs from the Top 50 on March 14th. At the top was written, “Play these songs today.”
The FCC reports the licenses for KOKR and KNBY being renewed as of February of 2020. While KNBY is off-air, the call sign is still being kept up with on the legal side of things. The group had attempted to broadcast in Searcy, but did not succeed. They moved back to Newport and purchasing their current building.
What was once the go-to for all of your news and sports highlights in the Newport area, is now just an after thought. We turn our radios on in our cars every day, but never sit and think to ourselves, “How did we get here?” The station’s history is vivid, but forgotten by improvements of technology and a slow dying of a port-town.
We forget that sometimes, buildings mean more to some than just a place of work. When talking with former employees, they all get emotional going through the memories. “Overall, we had some really good times.”, Grant Carey says. Grant adds about his time there, “It got me a lot of valuable experience, one of the best friends that I have. I grew a lot during that time.”
Many former employees reminisce especially of their time spent with Jean Evans. “She was a sweet lady. She really is.” Grant says. “Ms. Jean was like a second mom.” Heath notes. “I will never forget Ms Jean for her motherly advise and Dale Gardner too.” Michael Steele says. (95.9 The Wolf, Jonesboro).
During his time there, Heath hired Grant in 1995, who at first served as a sales representative, but then moved his way to the broadcast room. Today, both Heath and Grant work for Crain Media in Searcy. They have been best friends since.
LeeAnn Holmes (Daughter of Al Evans), notes her favorite memories of the station are “Walking in, in the afternoon, Bud leaning over the counter, Dad leaning on the counter. Watching Dad do his thing, and getting to be a part of that with him.” She adds, “I grew up there.”
Heath said when working a segment called the A.M. Update that, “Me and Grant got to do the A.M. Update together, which was the most fun I had in years. Which that was the beginning of our friendship.” Heath went on to say about Dale Turner, “I learned a lot from Dale Turner, because he was like my older brother. Even though he had been married three times, he gave great advice about marriage.” Michael says about Earl Black, “I accredit Bud for being one of the most influential persons to my personality.”
Employees mention that their time at the station, was overall, very positive. They cherished their days working at this station and cherish the memories with others. They don’t speak often now, but speak highly of each other.
Michael Steele notes, “I must say I have never to this day been more warmly accepted into a community then the day I moved to Newport. Though I am not from there I still call it my hometown,” Heath had mentioned about the collaborations between the station and ASU Newport had brought some of his favorite memories. As well as working the A.M. Update, while live on location with Grant.
Heath says about Michael Steele, “I always thought the world of Michael J., because he nursed that creativity that we would use later on.” Dale Gardner says of Michael, “We always knew he would go on to do bigger things.”
The now derelict station closed in 2004 due to many circumstances. When interviewed, former employees had shared that the building was never grounded properly. “You could be sitting there, and a thunderstorm hit and you would see electricity travel from one end of a cable to the other.”, Heath Shelby says.
Another reason being that the building was not elevated above the field that surrounds it, causing water to seep in over night. Employees would have to put a water pump in the broadcast room and pump the water out. In later years, a trough was built in that room to help with the flooding issue, but was never the solution.
In 2004 the Sudbury Broadcasting Group had bought a new facility (a former EMS building) behind the former Price Chopper about a quarter-mile down the road. This was the final coffin in the nail.
Currently, the property is posted as private property, locked, and boarded up. The owner wishes to keep it secure and local authorities patrol the area as well as regularly check the building. The antenna and AM equipment are still active and are highly dangerous to tamper with.
Bibliography & Additional Media
Historic Photos Courtesy of: Jean Evans, Heath Shelby, Leanne Holmes, Grant Carey, Dale Gardner, Rock & Roll Highway 67 Museum, Jackson County Library
This audio is of Al Evans in 1984.
Audio courtesy of: Jean Evans
This audio is of Earl Black announcing the 1981 Newport Vs. Alma game.
Audio Courtesy of: Cable15News.com