PHOTOS BY BRIAN CHILSON
‘THE BADDEST SOUND IN TOWN’: KOKY Program Director Mark Dylan (below) started shadowing at the station in 1978, following in the footsteps of Al Bell (right), who cut his teeth at KOKY before becoming a Stax Records producer.
J Paul” Webber is not a morning person. But for the past 17 years, weekend mornings have hummed by to the soundtrack of his spontaneously queued playlists for Blues Saturdays and Smooth Jazz Sundays on KOKY-FM, 102.1. As long as he can remember, the sounds of jazz and blues — “People relate to blues because it tells a lot of stories,” Webber told this reporter — have bookended weeks for KOKY listeners. Webber reports to the studio with an arsenal of CDs. He’s collected them over years of Friday paychecks, chipped away at by subsequent trips to local record stores. As the minutes of Webber’s show tick by, those albums get spread across his broadcasting table. Every song he plays gets written down into a notebook Webber maintains of his own accord, scribbled in chronological order from the top of the radio hour. If listeners come calling about the name of a song, he reasons, he wants to be able to give them a title, and to remember what’s come before. In 1956, you could tune in to 1440 AM — what listeners called the “ebony spot on your dial” — to hear KOKY, referred to then as “The People’s Station,” broadcasting just blocks away from Central High School. Some years later, in the late 1970s, programming moved to 1250 AM, and the radio’s catch phrase became “the Sound of the City.”
52 MAY 2019
Today, some of Little Rock’s oldest urban sounds emanate from a room in West Little Rock just off of Chenal Parkway. Yellow banners on the wall bear KOKY’s curly lettered logo and a descriptor that accurately distills its past: “legendary.” With an ebb and flow between frequencies and forms in its 63 years, KOKY is a time capsule of black voices against the backdrop of Little Rock history. “[KOKY] has changed with the times, but it hasn’t left its roots,” Webber said. “It’s still there.” KOKY did disappear for a number of years in the 1980s after its call letters were bought and used by a Sherwood gospel station. So when Citadel Broadcasting decided in the ’90s to revive its Urban Adult Contemporary presence on a new frequency, longtime radio presence and director of programming at Cumulus Little Rock “Broadway” Joe Booker said he felt that the KOKY letters “would be perfect” as a marker everybody knew and loved. He was adamant about finding where the letters were being used and resorted to lots of digging, with the help of a lawyer, to trace them. Eventually, those discarded call letters were found, unclaimed, in a so-called “dead letters” file, abandoned and forgotten after the gospel station went off the air. KOKY formally returned to 102.1 FM when Citadel purchased the rights to the call letters and
revived them from their place among the discarded. KOKY began airing again on New Year’s Day 1998, a revival marking both a slight deviation from its AM past and a kind of homecoming. Now, KOKY carries forward its legacy as Arkansas’s first radio dedicated to all-black programming and an Urban Heritage station, broadcasting as a city-grade station with an effective radiated power (ERP) of 4,100 watts. Ask folks who came of age from the late ’50s to the ’90s in Little Rock about KOKY, and memories flow. A recent Facebook post in the group “Remember in Little Rock” by KOKY Program Assistant Kimberly Armstrong-Smith received 82 comments with nuggets of history. “Super soul brotherhood. The baddest sound in town,” wrote one user. Another user commented that they “grew up on the blues on KOKY,” while another person says they viewed it as “our only real radio.” An old slogan, as remembered by one listener, went: “Everything’s okee-dokee at KOKY.” Commenters say, too, that tuning in was a balancing act in and of itself: “You had to get the line just right on your radio dial to prevent static.” KOKY celebrated its legacy at a Central Arkansas Library System/Arkansas Sounds event Feb. 22, bringing together DJs from its earliest days, former program hosts, devot-
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