The visions that the mind conjures up about people we hear on the radio are often highly inaccurate.
An example: Ken Sibley of Magnolia radio station KVMA tells a story about once being on a remote broadcast when approached by a lady with a question. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’m Ken Sibley,” he replied. “No you’re not,” she insisted. “He’s a little man.”
The tale is humorous on two levels. Sibley is a man of considerable height. Additionally, it’s a rare KVMA listener in Magnolia or Columbia County who doesn’t know what Sibley looks like.
Ken Sibley has worked in some capacity at KVMA since 1961. He’s worked there full time for the past 45 years. And during all those years he has maintained a hyperactive community involvement outside of the radio job.
Sibley, a native of Magnolia, has, among other positions, served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, the Magnolia Economic Development Commission, the Columbia County Local Emergency Planning Committee, the Magnolia Rotary Club, and as chairman of the Magnolia Housing Authority. His community presence far exceeds that of a voice on the radio.
Now all of that is coming to an end.
Sibley, now 67, is retiring from KVMA. His last day is today, December 31. He and his wife Carol plan to relocate to Collierville, Tennessee, to be nearer to their grandchildren. A retirement reception was held for Sibley at the studios of KVMA on Monday afternoon. A steady stream of visitors passed through the hall of the station to congratulate Sibley for his long career and to personally express their best wishes and thanks for his efforts to improve the city and county.
Sibley’s radio career almost never happened. “What I thought I was going to be was a mortician,” says Sibley. “I did my ninth grade civics notebook on being a mortician. Fascinating subject.” But there was another interest as well, the Magnolia Boys Club, and the various activities it offered. The club’s director, Bob Lotridge, asked the then-teenaged Sibley if he would be willing to do a weekend Boys Club report on the local radio station, KVMA. “I did that and kind of enjoyed that on Saturday mornings,” said Sibley. “And that kind of got me interested in the broadcasting business.”
Sibley began working part time for KVMA while in high school. He continued to do so while in college at Southern State College (now Southern Arkansas University) while majoring in speech and minoring in psychology. The idea to become a mortician was still appealing until a person dear to Sibley, his future wife, caused its demise.
“Carol would not marry me if I was going to be a mortician,” he said.
It was 1968 when Sibley graduated from Southern State. Bill Bigley, then-manager of KVMA, asked Sibley what it would take for him to come to work for the station full-time. “I went home and ciphered and came back with a low ball figure, I guess,” said Sibley. “He nearly jumped over the desk and said, yes, that’s great, we can work with that.”
Eventually the temptation to go to the big time – Little Rock or Shreveport – made Sibley think of straying from his home town. But the potential job in Little Rock required not only the hours on duty at the station, but also additional hours as a booth announcer at night for Channel 11, and paid roughly the same amount he was making at KVMA.
The job offer in Shreveport came from The Radio Ranch itself, KWKH. “They took me out to Cross Lake Inn and fed us nice steaks and seafood, told me how much prestige they had, then offered me less money than I was making here,” said Sibley. “I said we appreciate it, but the last time I checked, the power company wanted cash and didn’t want prestige.”
By staying at KVMA, Sibley has, through the years, progressed from part-time employee to full-time employee, from sales to ownership, then to selling the station to Noalmark Broadcasting but staying on as general manager.
Prior to the Monday’s reception, Sibley sat in his office and reminisced about names from KVMA’s past. One was Mary K. Wyrick. The “Mary K Show” was for many local homemakers a must-listen-to program on KVMA in the 1960s and 1970s. Only 15 to 20 minutes in duration, it aired weekdays just before noon. She would begin each broadcast with her descriptive tag line, “The program about people you know, or wish you did.”
“She was an icon in this community,” said Sibley. “She had one of the most loyal audiences anybody would ever have in a radio station.” In her later years, when her health deteriorated, the station made accommodations.
“When she got where she couldn’t come (to the station), we bought back then a $2,500 transmitter and put at her house, so she could do it at the house,” said Sibley. “She did it from the glass room on the back of her house over on Foster Drive.”
One feature of her program was the “Good Neighbor” award she presented to local residents who had been nominated by listeners. “You know, she did so much good through the years,” added Sibley.
This prompts Sibley to launch into a common theme of his regarding the longevity of small-town radio. “The thing is, everybody has tried to put the death nail in local radio, and radio in general, for years,” he said. “And in small communities you’ll never be able to do it because you can’t get that information anywhere else. You listen to the Shreveport stations, you won’t get the lunch menus of the local schools.”
One piece of information the station regularly broadcast in years past is now, by law, no longer permissible. The program was called “Hospital Calling.” It gave the names of patients admitted and dismissed from the Magnolia Hospital each day, along with the number of babies in the delivery ward. “The privacy act put that out of business,” says Sibley, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which mandated extensive new requirements for privacy standards in health care.
Though “Hospital Calling” lasted only a minute or two, it was one of the most listened to programs on the air, according to Sibley. “We still get people wanting to know about that,” he added.
On the other hand, one program that’s been broadcast on KVMA from the time it went on the air in 1948, and continues today, is “The Friendly Show,” a morning swap-shop of the air.
Sibley says in the early days of the station, the program even made an impact on the local telephone office. Before solid state switching devices were used by the telephone company, relays were used to complete phone circuits. Jim Summit, wire chief at the phone company during that period, claimed he could gauge what time it was by the sound of the relays. “He said we can tell what time it is because about 9:00 o’clock all the relays start chattering [due to] people calling The Friendly Show,” said Sibley.
Sibley also fondly recalled KVMA’s long-time station manager Bill Bigley, calling him a “great mentor” and a “man of few words, but greatly knew the broadcasting business.” Long before “talk radio” came to prominence in America, Bigley would deliver commentaries on subjects he deemed important, often with a conservative bent. At the end of each of them, he would conclude with the words, “Give that some thought.”
“He wrote all those himself,” says Sibley. One additional talent Bigley had, Sibley revealed, was the ability to simulate football game audio from within the studio. Bigley and another employee would attend the Magnolia football games, but took no recording equipment with them.
“Bigley would go out there and write down all the plays. They would come back in and recreate them with crowd noise and everything at the station,” said Sibley. “They’d stay up late at night redoing the whole game. It was a wild deal.” The recreated version of the game would then air on Saturday morning.
Regarding the future for Magnolia and Columbia County, Sibley is optimistic. “I think the salvation of south Arkansas is going to be the Brown Dense,“ said Sibley, referring to the recent exploration for oil in the tight formation known as the Lower Smackover Brown Dense, which underlies this portion of south Arkansas and extends into northern Louisiana. “They’ve just got to perfect the way to get it out of there.”
Sibley also credits the presence of Southern Arkansas University as another reason for optimism. “There’s so many towns in Arkansas that wished they had a four-year university,” said Sibley. “Dr. (David) Rankin has done such a good job of getting the campus fixed up to where it needs to be,” he added.
Before going out to meet the well-wishers at his retirement reception, Sibley reflected on his reason for not only retiring, but leaving the only hometown he has ever known.
“I love Magnolia. I would stay here for the rest of my life, but I think I want to be with my grandkids in Memphis for a while, be with them as they grow up while I’m still in good health, and do that,” said Sibley, adding that he and his wife Carol prayed about what to do.
“So we’re going to retire.”