PHILLIPSBURG — It might not be what he originally set out to do, but Bob Yates says he is living the dream.
As a young disc jockey, Yates had his sights set on making the big-time on Chicago’s airwaves.
But as he got older, he started a family and found himself influenced by community leaders, that dream began to change.
Yates knew he wanted to be in radio when he was 8 and his Boy Scout troop in Coffeyville toured the local radio station.
When he was 10, his parents gave him a radio. He discovered it also had a microphone input, and soon had it hooked up to speakers in the house to create his own radio station of sorts.
“I was always practicing I was on the radio, piping all this stuff from the basement, driving my parents crazy,” he said.
In 1974, his family moved to Phillipsburg, where his father, Walt, became manager of the oil refinery. The first thing 14-year-old Yates did was see if the town had a radio station. It did — KKAN AM 1490 — and Yates took a tape of his basement radio station to manager Dwight Look. He was hired to work after school and on weekends, but had to wait three years for a chance to get on the air, after two other local students graduated.
He still had that Chicago dream when he went to Colby Community College, and even after returning to Phillipsburg. An FM station, KQMA 92.5, got started in Phillipsburg, with the two stations eventually merging and going through several ownerships.
“I survived five ownership changes from 1977 to 1988. The more and more I looked at this, ownership might be want I wanted to do,” Yates said.
He briefly got out of radio in 1984 and worked as a personal assistant to Darrel Olliff, owner of a memorial chapel, and Huck Boyd, publisher of the Phillips County Review and a mentor to Sen. Bob Dole, who was making a bid for president at the time. Their influence helped push him on to that new dream.
“My wife and I had the backing, but then my dad, who had recently retired from (the refinery) after they closed it down, said, ‘Why don’t I do it?’ ” Yates said.
Yates and his wife, Teal, joined with his parents, Walt and Kay, to take over the radio stations April 1, 1988. Since his parents’ deaths approximately 10 years ago, Yates and his wife have been the sole owners.
A large part of their 29 years of success comes from the emphasis on serving the local audience.
“We have always been KKAN and 92.5 KQMA. We’re not ‘The Gizzard’ or ‘The Crawdad.’ We’re not a gimmick. We are an established information center, as a public trustee though our broadcast stations,” Yates said. “We are very locally centered, small-town radio station with a huge signal that serves a large area.”
The FM station’s 100,000-watt signal reaches a 60-mile radius from Phillipsburg, and sometimes farther depending on atmospheric conditions.
With 1,000 watts, the AM station’s signal is the strongest within a 30-mile radius, but has a strong listenership in outlying areas, too. Yates recently received a letter signed by 10 people in McCook, Neb., 75 miles away, expressing appreciation for the station’s ’50s and ’60s music format. While its programming is automated, the songs are all hand-picked by Yates.
The FM station features what could be called an eclectic mix of hot country, Top 40 adult contemporary and classic rock, again with hand-picked songs, and also features community-oriented programming such as a call-in classifieds and area dining directory on weekday mornings, the weekly “What’s Up” on community events and extended news broadcasts several times throughout the day that include local news, weather, obituaries and community events.
During the day, the DJs are live from the studio in downtown Phillipsburg. Evenings and weekends are automated, but Yates has the ability to sign in to the computer system if needed, even when he’s in Hays visiting his son’s family.
A big part of the station’s local emphasis is due in part to the station’s staff. Although Yates gets audition tapes from across the country, he prefers home-grown talent. Mark Gower, who assists with the programming, has been an announcer on the station for 17 years. Award-winning sports broadcaster Tad Felts retired last year after more than 40 years as news and sports director for the stations. Jesse Rhea, who grew up in Agra, stepped into that role after working part-time with Felts for six years. His color commentator is Robbie Gibson, who grew up in Kensington.
While Rhea admits a call from ESPN or Kansas State University to do play-by-play might tempt him away, he said he, too, is “living the dream.”
“I’m pretty lucky to be able to come back home to do what I wanted to do,” he said. “My family is here. I like having my dad be able to listen to me,” he said.
Both he and Gibson already have checked off “bucket list” items in their broadcast careers in calling championship games for the high schools they attended and played for — Phillipsburg and Thunder Ridge, respectively.
Smith Center High School football is broadcast on KQMA, and Phillipsburg High School football on KKAN. Basketball from both is featured on the FM station, and they occasionally broadcast games from Logan High School and Thunder Ridge when the schedule allows.
At the end of February, Rhea was putting in extra hours preparing for state wrestling and sub-state basketball broadcasts. The MCL wrestling tournament, state wrestling and state track meet are also among KQMA’s biggest sports broadcasts of the year.
Yates said he’s grateful Rhea is continuing in Felts’ footsteps on the news and sports side, and Gower’s assistance with programming, as that allows him to focus on advertising sales and making sure the stations stay compliant with FCC regulations.
“I worry more about paying the bills, and then I let these guys take over and do their thing,” Yates said.
He does still get behind the mic for part of the weekday mornings, largely because listeners still want to hear his voice.
Even with access to streaming music and radio stations online, Yates said KQMA continues to pull in listeners. In fact, the station’s online stream has grown its audience, he said.
“I have not noticed any drop in listenership,” Yates said. “If anything, it’s increased. That’s something that you may not find in many places across the country.”
KQMA’s all classic-rock weekends and especially classic episodes of Casey Kasem’s Weekly Top 40 are popular with online listeners.
“If there’s a problem with the online stream, I will immediately get emails from across the country,” Yates said.
As much as he said he’s enjoyed every minute of the last 40 years with the radio stations, Yates said he knows there will be a day he’ll want to retire from the airwaves. When that time comes, if the stations don’t stay in the family, he’ll find just the right buyer who will continue its successful formula.
“We are still as strong as we always have been here in rural America because of the fact that people know we are there, we’re live, we’re local, we’re going to tell you exactly the information that you want,” he said.