by Kelley Bass | Photography by Jamison Mosley
“There goes the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say. … There goes your freedom of choice. There goes the last human voice. There goes the last DJ.” – “The Last DJ,” Tom Petty, 2002
Upheaval in mass media – what’s available today and how it’s consumed – has been of almost unfathomable proportions. You don’t have to be all that old to remember a pre-internet, thus pre-social media, world. Nor a lot older to remember when cable TV hadn’t yet spawned hundreds of channels and when DJs on local radio stations were the people who introduced you to new music.
Some of those radical changes were tied directly to breakthroughs in technology, but at least one reflects your government at work. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 “was designed to allow fewer but larger corporations to operate more media enterprises within a sector [such as Clear Channel’s dominance in radio], and to expand across media sectors [through relaxation of cross-ownership rules], thus enabling massive and historic consolidation of media in the United States,” says Wikipedia.
The veteran radio guys who own and operate the Arkansas Rocks network of radio stations reflect fondly on the good old days, when they were free to explore the fringes of popular music and weren’t ruled by corporate mandates. And that’s why Arkansas Rocks is making ripples that the people behind it hope will become waves (if not tsunamis) in an Arkansas commercial radio world ruled primarily by corporate-owned stations that are clones of the ones they own in other markets.
Arkansas Rocks is a collection of 11 stations – six FMs and five AMs – that first went on the air in October 2018, at which point there were seven stations in the group. Owner Jay Brentlinger had been in radio in Little Rock before moving to work in the Phoenix market in 1982, eventually owning stations there.
Brentlinger’s first experience in radio came as a 10-year-old when, after establishing himself as a child prodigy TV repairman who was in love with all things electronics-related, he met the station owner of KBBA (now KAFN), and was allowed to go on the air. Fast forward many decades later and Brentlinger was looking for “my next project” when he saw that KAFN had gone “dark,” meaning it was off the air. He contacted the owner, who reported the station actually was back in service, but the owner hadn’t contacted the FCC about that change.
All that led to a licensing agreement for Brentlinger to operate the seven stations along Interstate 30 that were owned by the High Plains Radio Network and mostly carried local sports programming. Brentlinger had amassed a huge collection of classic rock songs during his decades in the Phoenix radio market, and that’s what his stations started broadcasting in October 2018.
Arkansas Rocks didn’t get much attention in those earliest months, but when Brentlinger was able to purchase two stations that served Little Rock and two that served Pine Bluff, the listening audience grew. And thanks to Brentlinger’s longtime relationship with area radio veteran Bob Terrell, and Terrell’s relationship with the one and only radio veteran Tom Wood, all of a sudden Arkansas Rocks started gaining momentum and building a reputation for playing a much broader spectrum of music that still could all be called “classic rock.”
Brentlinger says, “the addition of 94.5 and getting Tom Wood on the air is really when people started noticing us.”
Terrell serves Arkansas Rocks as its operations and production director and also is the on-air host for the morning show. He first hit the local airwaves in 1980 when KLPQ-FM (KQ-94) suddenly found itself without a host for its weekly “Amateur Hour” program, and he was pressed into duty. He remained in local radio until he was a corporate casualty in one of the many bloodlettings at iHeart Radio (formerly Clear Channel).
As for Tom Wood, after the corporate suits decided he no longer was needed on the air, the voice/personality everyone remembered from Magic 105 and later as the namesake of “Tom-FM,” served as public affairs and production director at iHeart Radio. Then, “I got into work one Tuesday, and five minutes later I was unemployed,” he remembers.
“I was licking my wounds for a while, and then Bob (Terrell) called me and said, ‘I don’t know if you’d be interested,’” in Arkansas Rocks. “Shoot yeah, I’m interested,” Wood says. “Bob told me about his long relationship with Jay. I asked, ‘Can I trust this guy?’ Bob said absolutely I can trust him.”
So, Wood now handles the afternoon time slot and serves as music director, while he and Terrell are joined on the air by other well-known area radio veterans including Sonny Victory and Mark Wallace, who goes by Uncle Marcus on the air and also handles the bulk of Arkansas Rocks’ active presence on Facebook.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had helped huge corporations consolidate radio station ownership, but the great recession of 2008 had forced them to cut a large percentage of on-air talent and further centralize operations, making the resulting offerings more homogenous across their network of stations.
“Today, most classic rock stations play about 300 songs a day and play them over and over every day of the week,” Brentlinger says. Arkansas Rocks’ “music library contains over 2,700 songs, of which more than 1,700 are played each week. And we are in the process of building an even larger library of over 10,000 classic rock songs.”
So through a collection of mostly low-power stations – if you’re headed from Little Rock to Benton, you’ll need to switch from 94.5 to 99.3 about the Pulaski-Saline County line – and with a stable of “senior” radio personalities, is Arkansas Rocks just a vanity project for a man who has accomplished much success in his 50 years in this business?
(One semi-modern advantage Arkansas Rocks has is this thing they call the internet. Thanks to its website – www.arkansasrocks.com – and a blue button that says “Basic Streaming Listen Live,” anyone anywhere can tune in, 24-7.)
“We are a commercial broadcast group of stations, so – yes – we need the project to become profitable at some point,” Brentlinger says. “It would be great if we did not need to make money, and it’s a labor of love, but it ultimately needs to make a profit.”
Just as he’s gotten a lot of tried-and-true talent to handle the on-air duties at Arkansas Rocks, Brentlinger has a veteran in charge of sales and marketing – Paul Meacham. Meacham has been in the radio business since 1969, and “I’ve owned 12 stations of my own,” he says. “I also owned an advertising agency that specialized in radio and TV promotions.”
So, profit at some level is the goal of all these radio veterans who today work as independent contractors – “everyone who works here is being offered ownership,” Brentlinger says – but another strong motivation is to return radio to what it used to be: a fun job with programming decisions made locally with the listeners’ interests at heart.
“When the FCC ownership rules were changed in the 1990s, the radio we all grew up with and loved ended,” Brentlinger says. “No, it didn’t happen overnight in most markets, but the changes were progressive and driven by corporate greed and the need to provide profits to publicly held corporations to keep shareholders happy.
“So, in the most basic terms, corporate radio killed radio as we knew it. Now I feel like it’s our job to try and rebuild radio back to the radio we remember!”
Arkansas Rocks touts that it plays “deep tracks” as one of the reasons listeners should tune in. And that is definitely what differentiates the stations in the network from the typical corporate-dictated playlists every other commercial station plays. SiriusXM has a popular channel called “Deep Tracks,” but its playlist dips only slightly below the layer of worn-out songs that bob on the surface of the rock ’n’ roll radio ocean.
Not so with Arkansas Rocks. To wit: “Almost Cut My Hair” – a David Crosby-penned and -sung tune from “Déjà Vu,” the second album by Crosby, Stills and Nash – is arguably the sixth best-known of the 10 tracks on the album, after “Our House” (Graham Nash), “Helpless” (Neil Young), “Teach Your Children” (Graham Nash), “Woodstock” (written by Joni Mitchell and sung by Stephen Stills) and “Carry On” (Stephen Stills). “Almost Cut My Hair” on commercial FM radio in Arkansas. Now that’s a “deep track.”
If a Point 94.1 DJ tells you a “double shot of Golden Earring is on the way,” you can bet your inheritance you’re soon to hear “Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone.” But Arkansas Rocks will teach you that this Dutch rock band had a lot more to offer.
And that there’s way more to Jethro Tull than “Aqualung” or “Bungle in the Jungle.” And that Thin Lizzy’s bluesy rock is worthy of more than regular spins of “The Boys Are Back in Town.” And that Grand Funk Railroad has plenty of fabulous songs that don’t mention Sweet Sweet Connie. Like “Mean Mistreater” from 1970.
Think Fleetwood Mac never had a good song with a male singing lead vocals? Well there were dozens of them before the boys in the band let Christine McVie spread her wings and then invited Stevie Nicks to join.
But beyond “Oh Well,” the Peter Green song that defines the non-female Fleetwood Mac sound for most, there’s “Bare Trees,” the title cut from the 1972 album written and sung by Danny Kirwan, who then left the band.
I heard that one on Arkansas Rocks just after jamming to “Low,” a 1993 rocker from Cracker.
That kind of morning drive programming decision, and sequencing, proves Arkansas Rocks doesn’t only goes deep – it goes wide. And it made this aging rock fan sit a little while longer in his car before hollering “Hell yeah!” to himself and then opening the car door to head into work.
That was the identical reaction I had the first time I heard Arkansas Rocks play “Cities on Flame with Rock ’n’ Roll,” a Blue Oyster Cult anthem from my high school years and a song never before heard on commercial radio in this burg. My friends and I wore out the double live “On Your Feet or On Your Knees” BOC album long before “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was recorded.
The guys at Arkansas Rocks play deep tracks because they can and because they should if they want to attract listeners. But they also must get some satisfaction out of just being able to do what they were told they no longer could do as corporate radio squeezed them tight … before it squeezed them out.
Playing the full 17 minutes, five seconds of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” has to be these radio veterans’ way of basically flipping the bird to all the corporate suits who would blow a gasket if someone at one of their stations pulled such a stunt.
Well played, friends. Well played.
— Kelley Bass