Every weekday at around 4 a.m., a man named Robert Spears pulls his boots on in the morning dark outside Sheridan and claps a hat on his head. When he first started working the early morning shift, his wife would get up and cook him big breakfasts: bacon, eggs, toast, hot coffee. After about a week of that, he told her to stop. Who can eat that early? Now, most days, she doesn't wake up until long after he's gone.
He's not as young as he used to be, and the road between Sheridan and Little Rock isn't getting any shorter. Driving, he thinks about work, or prays for a good day. Sometimes, he gives a nod in the direction of the dirt-road cemetery outside Ico where his father-in-law was buried seven years ago; a man he says was like a father to him, who he can't talk about at length without turning away, so you don't see him fight tears.
The most amazing thing that happens out there in the long stretches, however, is that the man behind the wheel becomes someone else. Not in the Clark Kent-into-Superman way of comic books - that'd be much too flashy for his taste, not to mention the fact he hasn't signed the name Robert Spears to much beyond his tax return in nearly 30 years. This change is infinitely more subtle - a sort of packing away of the things that mean the most to him, as if they might be faded in the spotlight that follows him most everywhere he goes in the state.
Somewhere along the road between Sheridan and Little Rock, the conservative, concerned, tender-hearted and opinionated husband, father and grandfather becomes radio DJ Bob Robbins - just plain Bob, warm as a campfire, the kind of guy men want to take fishing and women want to hug, beloved of little old ladies, advertisers, charities, and the lion's share of morning radio listeners in Central Arkansas.
With Robbins steering their morning drive time spot, country station KSSN 96.5 has been at the top of the radio heap in Arkansas for longer than a great many of its listeners have been alive. More amazing is the fact that, according to ratings of cumulative audience for the past two decades, Robbins has been the No. 1 DJ in Little Rock radio for an unheard-of 20 straight years.
If you aren't a regular fan of Bob Robbins' "Burnt Toast and Coffee Time" show, give it a listen some morning. In a market full of radio DJ's who cuss, laugh and argue over everything from sex to NASCAR, Robbins is the last of the old-school radio men, dedicated to the three T's: Time, Temperature, and the Title of the next song, all delivered in a style about as flashy as your grandmother's Plymouth.
That's just the way he likes it. And while his morning competitors might disagree, what they can't quibble with are the numbers.
The boy who would eventually become Bob Robbins was born in 1944 in Auburndale, Fla., a small town in the lake-pocked interior of the state, 40 miles southwest of Orlando. His father died of cancer when he was a month old. When he was 10, by then living dirt poor on a farm in Ashford, Ala., his mother passed away on Christmas Eve. The state split up the children, and Bob was sent to an orphanage.
He doesn't like to talk much about that part of his life. Normally a yarn spinner, he gives the facts of his childhood as if reading them off a police report. His voice gets stiller, smaller, like a driver trying to talk and negotiate a dark curve at the same time.
His mood lifts only at the point in his story when he talks about his adoption, and the moment soon after when radio came into his life. After two years at the Baptist Children's Home, Bob was adopted by an officer in the Air Force. After stints at airbases in Tampa and Shreveport, the country boy who had never been much of anywhere found himself stationed with his new father in Morocco.
It was there, at 14, that Robbins got his first job behind a microphone.
"Sgt. Bill Miller, a guy with Armed Forces Radio, gave me my first job in Morocco," Robbins said. "I was doing polka music and all that kind of stuff… That was the entertainment. A lot of folks didn't have television. Of course, over in Morocco the TV facilities weren't very good, so they listened to the radio to keep up with what was going on back in the states." He was instantly hooked. Soon, he became a regular DJ, playing request shows, and soap operas like "As the World Turns," and "Gunsmoke."
Except for a tour in the Navy and one small career detour in his early 20s ("I went into making windows for mobile homes," he laughs. "Made more money doing that than I ever did in radio. I stayed out about five or six months and couldn't stand it.") he's never been out of radio again. In 1967, a call from a friend at Little Rock's AM powerhouse KAAY led him to Arkansas. "I've been home ever since," he said.
Sitting in KSSN's modern broadcast studio at the Clear Channel Metroplex, where an hour's worth of music can be cued up at the punch of a few buttons, Robbins talks about those days at the more labor-intensive KAAY studios the way all people talk about the first job they really enjoyed. "We were all babies," Robbins says, "Those were the days of radio that you could just spontaneously do something. You didn't have program directors, and you didn't have consultants and consultants over those consultants, telling you every move to make. You could pretty much do what you wanted to when you wanted to. It made it a lot of fun." Along with the job, KAAY owner Lynn Broadcasting soon gave young Bob Spears the handle he plans on taking to his grave. A popular DJ with the company known as Rob Robbins had recently died in a training accident with the National Guard. When company brass tried to hang the dead man's name on their newest employee, he balked. "I don't want to take that name," Robbins said, "So they said, 'Well your name is Bob,' so they called me Bob Robbins." The station was sold a few years later, LBC didn't ask for the return of his name, so he has been Bob Robbins on "everything but speeding tickets" since then.
After the change of ownership at KAAY, Robbins moved to KSSN 96 FM in the late 1970s. Robbins worked mid-day. Then, after local favorite Sonny Martin quit and his replacement failed to click with the morning audience, station heads approached Bob about taking over the flagship slot.
"They came in and said, 'Bob, can you do mornings?' I said 'Sure!'" He smiles. "I'd never been a morning man. They came back in a little while, and said we want to talk to you. I was scared to death."
As we chat, Tommy Smith, the morning DJ at Magic 105.1 ambles in and asks Bob about a song called "Candida" whether he is right in thinking it was recorded by Tony Orlando and Dawn. Once rivals in the morning market (Smith is one of only two DJ's over the past 20 years who ever beat Robbins in quarter-hour share. The other is DJ-turned-TV sportscaster Craig O'Neill), they're stablemates now, both having seen their stations gobbled up by corporate media giant Clear Channel in the mid-1990s. After the computer finds Smith triumphantly right and walks back to his own studio down the hall, Robbins speaks of him something like you'd imagine a father speaking about a son.
"Tommy got his start with me," Bob says. "Tommy came in the studios at KAAY. I think he was going to UALR, and sat with me a few days and left and blamed everything on me that's happened to him ever since."
Though they're friends, Robbins still can't help a good-natured jab "One of the sweetest things is," he said, "Tommy's momma listens to me."
Bob uses this bit of market data to segue into his philosophy of radio. He received the secret to his success, he says, from the newspaper.
Just before taking over in the morning at KSSN, Bob was reading the Arkansas Gazette when he came across a one-paragraph story about radio. It would stay pinned to his bulletin board until KSSN moved into the Clear Channel building eight years ago.
"It said something in essence about what people wanted on radio," he said. "They wanted to know what their news was. They wanted to know what the weather and temperature was. They didn't care about any of this funny, crazy stuff, the nasty stuff. And they wanted a good lot of music. I cut that out and went down to [station manager] Jerry Atchley's office and I said, 'Jerry, this is going to be the Bob Robbins in the Morning Show, Burnt Toast and Coffee Time.'"
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. A year after taking over as KSSN's morning man, Bob scaled to the top of the ratings heap and hasn't had to eat anyone's dust since.
Robbins isn't shy in giving his opinions about more talkative, sometimes explicit, morning shows.
His goal is to run a show anyone can listen to. And even though he has tens of thousands of fans who would probably hang on his every word, not to mention agree with him, Robbins said he never finds himself tempted to wear his strong political views on his public sleeve. Often falling to the right of center politically (he has an autographed picture of George W. Bush on his studio bulletin board), Robbins' answer to why he refuses to pontificate on air is purely small-d democratic.
"I realize that we do have different opinions," he said. "I don't think it's fair for me to sit here and say, I don't agree with abortion, I don't agree with this, I don't agree with that. But you're sitting there listening, and you can't say to me, 'Bob Robbins, I think you're wrong.'."
Susan Spears carries herself with the grace of a woman half her age, and always speaks as if she has a fabulous secret she's dying to tell you. She and Bob have been married for 23 years. They are the classic case of two halves of the same whole -- her energetic twitter filling up the empty space in his gruff down-home drawl, and vice versa. Sitting in a little cafe near the Grant County Courthouse, they often finish each other's sentences.
Today, Susan works in the Grant County prosecuting attorney's office. Back when their children were young, however, Bob made her a deal that sounds like the hook of a good country song. "I think he said, 'I'll go to work and make the living if you'll make it worth living.'"
Since then, she agrees that her husband has more than delivered. He wouldn't agree with the comparison, but like God, Bob Robbins only rests on Sunday.
"I've never known him to lay down and sleep more than four hours," Susan said. "He might sleep for four hours, get up, get a drink, do something and then go back to sleep. But he's not one of the people that lays down and sleeps for eight hours, ever." Susan said she believes Bob's non-stop work ethic stems from sometimes being without as a child. There were times, she admits, when he's taken that fear of want to extremes, buying more food than his family could ever eat.
When he isn't in the studio, he is often out filming a television commercial, or doing a remote broadcast for KSSN. He recently landed his dream gig, a half-hour television hunting and fishing show, Bob Robbins Outdoors, which means more time on the job. The Friday after we spoke, he was once again scheduled to work from can't to can't: his radio show in the morning, remote broadcasts or commercials most of the day, then introducing fiddler Charlie Daniels at a concert in Conway that night. He'd be out of bed at around 4 a.m. and not back home until around 11 p.m. that night.
When he isn't working for pay, chances are Bob Robbins is using his famous face to stump for charity, most likely a children's charity. For most of his on-air life, Robbins has used his position to spread the love, shilling for every cause from Arkansas Children's Hospital all the way down to making on-air pleas for canned goods and clothing for listeners who have lost everything to fire.
His wife believes that the central thing that drives her husband's charitable heart is his poor upbringing, especially his work with the charity he is most famously associated with: the Marine Corps Toys for Tots drive at Christmas time. With Bob's help, the event has become one of the most successful Toys for Tots events in the nation.
"He'd tell me that he could remember going to school after Christmas," Susan said, "and all the kids would be telling what they got, and all he got was a bag of marbles and an orange. They'd say, 'Well, if you'd have been good, you'd have probably got something.' He said that always stuck in his mind, that he wants every kid to get something.
When people thank him, Bob says all he can think of is how blessed he is to be able to do it, and to live in a state where people are willing to help. "That's what life's about," he said. "It's not about how much money people have, or the big home they have, or the car they have, it's about the love in their heart. I know that sounds hokey, maybe, but to me, that's important. If I see a little fella smile, or a little girl feeling like a little girl with a new dress and got her hair fixed, man, what could be better?"
It's a philosophy his own kids couldn't always understand. When Bob's daughter Stephanie Mitchell was younger, she says her dad's workaholic nature and the way his fans often monopolized their time at the State Fair or the grocery store led to some teenage rebelliousness, mostly of the audible kind: listening to Prince, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper, who her dad couldn't stand.
As a teenager, she said she hated being introduced as "Stephanie-Bob-Robbins'-daughter"
Grown now, with kids of her own, she understands, and says she is proud of him. For all the time he was off doing other things, she said her father - the man who used to play tea party with her when she was a girl, who cried the night she went to her senior prom - got around to teaching her the important things: "He didn't want me to get walked on, to be one of those women that was barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen," she said. "You know, to speak my mind, and be proud of who I was, and to stand up for what I believe in. I'm grateful for that."
Bob Robbins may be a man who doesn't want to slow down, but like the rest of us, he isn't getting any younger, either.
He turned 60 this year. Two years ago, a trip to the doctor for indigestion turned into heart bypass surgery. He eats better now; turns away at least part of the food that local restaurants used to flood his studio with every morning. As he and his wife sit down for lunch with me in Sheridan, everyone orders big cheeseburgers and fries, wedges of pie that look like doorstops. Bob has chicken salad, and doesn't look happy about it.
If his health holds out, and they'll let him, he said he hopes to stay on the air another 10 or 15 years, maybe going to mid-days or afternoons, leaving the morning he's ruled for 20 years to someone else.
Though he's always been close with his family, his heart trouble seems to have made him appreciate the still, small moments of his life. These days, he has a keen sense of the past. As we walked across his farm a little before noon, he pointed out in detail all the things that his wife's father had done around the place before the old man died in 1997 from Ehrlichiosis, a rare tick-borne disease: a twist of wire securing a fence, a crumbling cow feeder he built, an iron workbench he used. On a leaning old barn, Bob directs my attention to an addition built by Susan's dad, who he calls Grandpa. For awhile now, he said, he's been trying to figure out a way to tear down the barn but leave the addition; to put a new barn up while sparing his friend's work.
From his example, Bob said, he tries to take things that will make him a better grandfather. When their last child left the nest a few years back, Bob says he wanted to buy a new Thunderbird or 'Vette. These days, with a growing herd of grandkids, he's more likely to be shopping for a pony than a Mustang. The sun rises and sets, he'll tell you, on his grandkids.
After lunch in Sheridan, we sit and talk, Bob stopping periodically to say hello to patrons who know him or know his face. Bob talks about his friend, the singer Alan Jackson, who refitted his jet with stretchers, used a smaller plane for touring, and saved the lives of sick children by ferrying them back and forth to specialists ("If I had that kind of money, that's what I would do. But I'd be like him, I wouldn't want people to know about it.").
Eventually, I ask him and Susan about slowing down, and they talk about it as if it's something they've discussed a million times, their voices breaking in on one another the way only old married couples can pull off without one or the other getting offended.
"He has never met his goal," she said. "I don't know what that is, but whatever he sets it at, he keeps moving it up. He's never going to reach the mountaintop."
"I'm on the mountaintop, but it keeps getting a little taller," he said. "The furtherest star is not the furtherest star. You reach it, and look up, and there's still another one." He looks for a second like a man who has actually given starcatching a try in his day, then his wide, famous smile breaks over his face.
"When I reach THAT star," he said, "When I reach that top one, I'll be up there asking Him, 'You got a mike around here somewhere?'"
Who could resist signing off at that?