I wrote this story last year for the Arkansas Free Press, shortly before it went von hiatus. It has never been published until today. It will be going into my next book, which I hope to have out in the spring of 2010.
Kellams at Large
KUAF News Director makes mark on Northwest Arkansas
Written by Richard S. Drake
August 1 marked 19 years of full-time service for Kyle Kellams at KUAF, the popular NPR station run out of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “But if you go back to college, I started in ‘81,” the news director explains.
Having worked at at KTLO in Mountain Home before coming to Fayetteville, during his first week as a freshman on campus, someone pointed out to Kellams that there was a small student-run radio station at the UA. In those days, KUAF was a mere 10 watts.
“When I was a freshman, I probably looked like I was thirteen. The guy who was on the board said, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, “I want to be a DJ,’ or whatever.
“He didn’t give me the brush-off, but it was like, okay, whatever. And it was like five minutes later this same guy came in and said, ‘The guy who was going on next had his schedule changed. Can you go on the air?” And so a career was born.
In those days, being a 10 watt station, KUAF’s signal didn’t go very far. In fact, if the station got a call from as far away as Springdale, it was cause for excitement.
KUAF has undergone several format changes over the years, all the way from the “Big Mix” format (in which a little of almost everything would be played), into some of blocks of time in which a particular type of music would be played. “Shades of Jazz” (with host Robert Ginsburg) and “The Pickin’ Post” (with host Mike Shirkey) got their start near this time.
While Kellams was still a student, KUAF put on the first National Public Radio show, the popular “All Things Considered,” with host Terry Gross, around 1985. Kellams at the station for a few years, but when he began working again in 1990, the station had moved up from 10 watts to 100.
It was a gradual process, but the station became an NPR affiliate in the 1990s, offering national programs such as “All Things Considered” as well as popular local shows.
As to the range of the station now? Well, southward to Mena, Tahlequah to the west, close to Neosho to the north, and close to Harrison to the east. But what kind of audience does KUAF have? Certainly, there is the cliche offered up of the latte-sipping, liberal with a Mozart fixation, but how close to reality is that? What sort of audience feedback do they get?
“All kinds. A lot of, ‘Why don’t you carry more of this? Why do you carry so much of this?’ You can’t judge by looking at someone whether they do or don’t listen. When I started doing ‘Ozarks at Large,’ and I would make calls, I had to explain a lot, about KUAF. I don’t have to do that so much any more.
“Even people who don’t listen, they want to listen to rock and roll or whatever, hardly ever do they not know. They may not know the name of the program, but they know it is a public radio station.”
Ozarks at Large - a radio magazine
“Ozarks at Large” (http://www.kuaf.org/ozarksatlarge.html) is Kyle Kellams’s own special baby, a radio magazine he has been producing for over 18 years, taking over from Dave Edmark (The Morning News) and James Russell (KUAF’s “The Classical-Jazz Fusion Hour”). Previously an interview program, when Kellams took over he changed the format to magazine style.
“The basic format,” Kellams, said, ‘is that there is no format. That is the
joy/curse of being your own producer-boss. It’s a 60 minute show where you might have interviews, essays, stories. It doesn’t sound exactly like ‘Morning Edition’ or ‘All Things Considered,’ it’s not nearly as hard news. We try to cover arts, humanities, and science.”
“Ozarks at Large” runs for an hour - Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Three different shows, though Kellams said that some elements may get run twice.
When asked about some of the more memorable shows from the past, Kellams pointed to the “underground” shows they ran some years ago. “We tried to do every story that was underground.”
He said it was fun, pointing out that the “ultimate cave tour” that one area was offering. “But then we found out that every building on Dickson Street has a basement, and so Jennifer Fulford went to every building. We did something about the steam tunnels on campus, the legendary mythical tunnels of Eureka Springs.
“I wish we could have more of those, but that takes a lot of planning. I do get to do a lot of interesting things. Tomorrow I interview T.J. English, who is one of my favorite writers. He has written a book, ‘Havana Nocturne,’ about how the mob lost control of Cuba to Castro. I get to interview him.
“So you get to read great book and interview the person who wrote it. That’s fun. Thursday, I’m going up to Missouri to a cannon-shooting exhibition. Some guys from Pea Ridge are going up there. Later today I’m going to the Walton Arts Center and see a stage put in.”
As Kellams points out, the show affords him an opportunity that one might not ordinarily have. “And hopefully, people listen, and there’s part of the Ozarks in there.”
For the most part, feedback has been positive. There are always those who wish the show could do more in the way of investigative journalism.
“I do, too. Those stories don’t happen in a day. And we don’t have beats. That’s the value of newspapers, and the TV stations that have them, that you get to know stuff. We just don’t have that luxury.”
“Ozarks at Large” runs Fridays (6pm), Saturdays (noon) and Sundays (9am).
While admitting that the “Ozarks at Large” website is not what it could be - “We have more ideas than time” - he hopes that will change in the future. The KUAF website - http://www.kuaf.org. - with some material from NPR, he is more happy with. There is also a complete program guide on the KUAF website.
Those not in the KUAF listening area can also go to the site and listen to the day’s offerings, as it being played at the time.
2009: KUAF’s Big Move
Sometime in 2009, KUAF will be making its move away from their long-time home on the UA campus to a new location, across from the Fayetteville Public Library, in then heart of downtown, in a building that once housed such well-known spots as Edna’s and David’s.
Plans for the new building include a performance studio, which might accommodate a small chamber group, or singer/songwriters. Kellams says that there may also be enough room for a live audience of perhaps 15 to 20 people.
The possibility of the new range of HD channels also offers much growth for KUAF’s future.
Those wanting more information about KUAF can check out their website at: http://www.kuaf.org.
A long-range goal is to allow the Internet user to access their site and listen to any of the stories that have run on KUAF in recent years. The process takes time, and man-hours, which many people do not understand.
“I’d love to have an intern who could come in and do it,” Kellams said.
The man behind the microphone
But what about Kyle Kellams when he isn’t chained to the recording studio? “I like to run,” he says. “I like to read.”
He enjoys non-fiction, and is, in his own words, “A voracious magazine reader. I spend way too much money on magazines.”
As for news, he listens to “Morning Edition” on NPR, reads the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Morning News, USA Today, New York Times, and several local blogs.
He remarked that many Americans today will often seek out a news sources (Fox News, .huffingtonpost) that reflects their political views, and may not get a balanced view.
“I think there’s value in going to the huffingtonpost I think there is value in going to CNN or Fox, but I think the wider the stuff you take in, the more sources, the better. People will tell me that NPR is the only news source they listen to. I don’t think any news source should be the only news source you listen to, or get it from.”
Though he feels that radio still has a strong future, he does have some qualms about the direction it seems to be headed in. “The saddest thing about radio is that there is just not a lot of local content.”
He feels that the more people know about their community, the more connected they are to their community.
A lot has changed since the young freshman walked into the doors of KUAF, hoping for a DJ job. As Kellams points out, as NPR’s fortunes have improved, so has KUAF’s. And “Ozarks at Large” has grown along with the station, entertaining and informing the ever-growing number of listeners in Northwest Arkansas.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, Freedom Run, and a history of Fayetteville, Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.