Nathan sent me an email a couple of weeks ago. He had been working up a blog post, then suddenly realized that (a) he hasn’t written in his blog in a year, and (b) he didn’t quite know what he wanted to say to finish it.
I started this post, and then decided that I wanted you to finish it. Borrow as you wish, but I hope you are up to the task because it is right up your alley. Tennessee is the other school that might mirror some of Arkansas' insulated nature.
I thought his idea and the expression thereof excellent, but had to sit there for a while and let it ferment to come up with the conclusion. Nathan’s words are in a different shade of blue, and follow:
This is a fashionably late idea that came to me, but thought I would post it nonetheless.
After all the wailing and gnashing of teeth from hat-gate (hat-gate refers to the firing of a reporter who came to a Razorback press conference wearing a Florida Gators hat, and was singled out by the coach; she represented a Razorback publication), I wondered what the big deal was about some random reporter that had been on the job for less than a month being fired for all the reason's discussed. The SEC regional, and especially national media scoffed at the idea of a pro-Razorback radio station.
But if you think about it, Arkansas is its own little kingdom (in a good way-most of the time). The rest of the SEC can't comprehend this because of the influence of in-state rivals in the same conference, in a different conference, or professional sports teams in any number of sports.
For the most part, Arkansas has a "fan trade deficit" meaning we export more Razorback fans than we import fans of other schools to the state. While Little Rock brings in some out of state grads, it is nothing like the melting pot of fandom that is Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Birmingham, etc... I always liked taking road trips to games in Alabama because of all the bumper stickers and license plates on the cars you see. There is a good chance that you would see something affiliated with every SEC school while driving from Fayetteville to Auburn, AL.
Fayetteville is it's own little insulated community when it comes to fandom.......which becomes very obvious if you spend any amount of time there.
Dividers are an interesting thing. Humans have had them apparently since the dawn of humanity itself. Some are real, tangible (an enormous mountain range, an ocean, or even a dense forest). Others are lines drawn on maps to demark boundaries.
In the case of Arkansas, there’s a little of all of the above.
The Mighty Mississippi has been a dividing line for as long as humans have been in North America; the native Americans used it as a divider as surely as we do today. It is where East meets West (and while you might not think of it that way in terms of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, it’s still true). The River, of course, was much more of an obstacle before bridges, rail, then air travel; interestingly, though, television and the internet have slightly CHANGED the divisions, in some cases exaggerating them.
Before the days of multi-million dollar coaches, bazillion-dollar television deals, and SuperConferences, football was a much more regional sport. These days, the University of Texas football team thinks nothing of climbing on the UT 737 and flying to Los Angeles to take on the Trojans of the University of Southern California. Arkansas (west of the Mississippi) blithely plays South Carolina (on the Atlantic coast) year after year.
It wasn’t always like that.
The first time Arkansas played Texas, the boys from the Ozarks (probably fairly wide-eyed) rode the train for a WEEK to get to Austin, Texas (now 45 minutes by jet). (The Hogs lost 66-0, setting that whole chain of events in motion). I do not have the story on this, but I am thinking that, when Auburn played Georgia in the first college football game in the south (in Piedmont Park in Atlanta), it probably took the Auburn boys at least a full 24 hours to go the 80 miles on the train (which stopped at every whistle stop between Auburn and Atlanta). No freeways, not even any paved roads, just red clay and pine forests.
When football conferences were organized, the first ones were gigantic (déjà vu all over again?). It was quickly realized that these giant structures were unworkable. Accordingly, the Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas schools broke away from the giant “Southern Conference” and formed the “Southwest Conference”, which was a bit more manageable. Fans from texass u (spit), say, could enjoy watching their team play in Waco (90 miles away) against the Bears, or College Station (90 miles, different direction) against the Aggies. Even then, the fans complained about the distances from the Texas schools to Fayetteville, Arkansas and Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma schools went with Nebraska and formed the Big 8, leaving the SWC as Texas and Arkansas. After World War II and the advent of prosperity, powerful cars, and smooth, paved roads, many Southwest Conference fans enjoyed traveling to mutual opponents’ stadia to root on their favorite team.
Likewise, when the Southeastern Conference was formed, those fans enjoyed the proximity of running the 275 miles from Tuscaloosa to Athens, or the 345 miles from Oxford to Baton Rouge.
Still, even with prosperity and even with the roads, traveling to and from opponents’ turf is an expensive proposition, taking time, effort, and loads and loads of money.
Accordingly, most folks sat home and listened to the games on the radio (because on television, until the advent of ESPN, there was the ABC “Game of the Week”; if your team appeared on television once a year, you were actually doing well).
Arkansas has always been an oddity of a state, an extreme mixture of people and cultures. The Delta and Southeastern Arkansas have always identified with the Southeast. They have more in common with someone from, say, Tupelo or Monroe than they do with someone from Bentonville. The mountainous northern and western parts of Arkansas have always identified with their mountaineer forbears from Tennessee and Kentucky---and are heavily influenced by the Midwestern city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ft. Smith, Arkansas is the third largest employment center in the state of Oklahoma. There, you’ll find much more in common with Duncan and Claremore and Tahlequah than Lake Village or Dumas or Helena.
Put another way: my female relatives in Malvern would never think of going anywhere but Dallas to shop. Meanwhile, my Stuttgart relatives would, of course, go to Memphis---and Memphis is one of the bookends of the Deep South (Atlanta being the other).
The state is divided by the Balcones Escarpment, which runs from Mexico through Texas, bisecting Arkansas on a line from Texarkana to Paragould, then on up into Ohio. Northwest of the escarpment is hilly, wooded, mountainous. Southeast of it, the flat Grand Prairie and Mississippi Delta ease slowly down to The River. Naturally, bison, then Native American, then Spanish, then English settlers, then the railroads, then the muddy track of US 67, then paved US 67, then Interstate 30, and at the same time flight Vectors, travel this same path. It’s a natural roadway; would you rather head out across the trackless prairie, or lug up and down mountains, or would you rather skirt along the edge of the mountains, knowing that path would lead you where you want to go?
So, Ft. Smith and the River Valley (west of Little Rock) have always identified with the pioneer spirit of Oklahoma; the Delta is the same whether you are in Arkansas, Mississippi, or Louisiana, and it identifies more with Mississippi and Alabama than with Northwest Arkansas. Southwest Arkansas, northern Louisiana (Ruston and west, including Shreveport), and East Texas are essentially the same people, and they all consider Dallas the hub of the universe. Northwest Arkansas identifies more with the Midwestern Tulsa than it does with, say, Lake Village.
Arkansas is neither true Deep South, nor true “Southwest” (a la Texas and Oklahoma), nor "Midwest”. It’s a border state with a strange divergence of people, that has always been a route for people traveling from one world---the east---to another world---the west.
A visionary coach by the name of John Barnhill realized that he was sitting on a gold mine of recruiting talent and fanbase support (read: money). If he could somehow unify this conglomerated mass of dissimilar cultures, he could “circle the wagons” and make the state of Arkansas “one thing” for the purposes of college football. He could make HIS team (the Razorbacks) the team for the entire state. Barnie knew that Ole Miss had Mississippi State with which to contend; Alabama and Auburn’s rivalry was already legendary; Georgia and Georgia Tech were a scant 30 miles apart. Only Tennessee, with its reach from Memphis to Mountain City, and LSU, which owned the entire state of Louisiana, were similar. Barnie took a page from their books, and added a few notes of his own.
The predecessor of the Arkansas Razorback Sports Network was born, led by the state’s flagship radio station, KAAY, the Mighty 1090 out of Little Rock. KAAY was one of the oldest radio stations in the US, and like WOAI in San Antonio, WBAP in Ft. Worth, WLS Chicago, WWL New Orleans, at dusk it went to 100,000 watts/clear channel. All the smaller, local stations shut down at dusk, and the big guns could then broadcast radio across vast distances using the skip. Accordingly, the entire state of Arkansas, from Lake Village to Bentonville, from Texarkana to Paragould, from Mountain Home to El Dorado, could get the broadcasts of the Arkansas Razorbacks games from the illuminated War Memorial Stadium.
For Barnhill had come up with another brainstorm: he convinced the “powers that be” to build a stadium in Little Rock, the geographic center of the state, and put lights in it. There were no lights at tiny Razorback Stadium until 1985, and as late as the early 1960’s (personal testimonial here), it was a 6 hour drive from Malvern to Fayetteville (think of US 64 with all of Interstate 30’s traffic on it; speed was about 30 mph). The Little Rock stadium (as unfashionable as it is now to say it) made the Razorbacks accessible to the whole state—but if you couldn’t afford to travel to Little Rock to see the game in person, you could listen to it on The Mighty 1090. Barnhill, George Cole, and their ultimate successor Frank Broyles, traveled the state, starting the local “Razorback Clubs”, so you could meet locally with a group of like-minded fans (and cough up some cabbage to support the team).
So, what you have is this:
Unless you travel to other states, other schools, and experience their traditions, their stadium, their hospitality (and they really do extend it); unless you can see the greater world around you and how YOUR piece fits in, you become very insular. If you’ve never left Little Rock, you might think, “I sure love our cool local restaurant, P. F. Chang’s!” when there’s one in every city in America.
Many Arkansans live and die having never left the state. Most of them love their little corner of heaven, and see no reason to go elsewhere---why would you go somewhere else when you’ve got everything you need right here?
Thanks to geography, and the efforts of Barnhill, Cole, Broyles, and their successors, there is literally a bubble around the State of Arkansas. In many places, there’s a time warp (you can literally be transported to another time in Old Washington or Pea Ridge or Arkansas Post). In almost all cases, the bubble lets “filtered” news through from the outside, but Arkansas folks are singularly insulated---because of geography, because of history, because of tradition---from the “outside world”.
This is both blessing and curse. It’s very cool to be in one’s bubble---but then, one can become stagnant and insular to the point of ignorance. Striking the balance is the trick. Those of us with experience in other areas owe it to our friends who stay home to tell them about the world outside the bubble.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that a state like this would have a radio network dedicated to one football program. It’s all Arkansas has. There are no pro teams (and, in typical Arkansas fashion, for the NFL, the majority of Arkies are Cowboys fans, while for MLB it’s the St. Louis Cardinals). There’s one unifying factor, carefully honed over a period of 60 years now. Whether you’re in Crossett or Mountain Home; Russellville or Pine Bluff; Stamps or Osceola, you’ll see the sign of a large, red, running boar and hear the siren song of a call echoing down from the Ozarks:
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, PIG!!! SOOOOIIIIEEEEEE!!!
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, PIG!!! SOOOOIIIIEEEEEE!!!
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, PIG!!! SOOOOIIIIEEEEEE!!!
(How did I do, Nay?)
(I used the old Hog because I didn’t want the Trademark Police after me….).