Was Brother Hal in danger, about to have his microphone shut down after twenty-nine years on the air? It seemed impossible, like hearing that Santa's sled had been denied license plates, but there had been a shakeup down at KLRA in North Little Rock, and several long-familiar voices were no longer to be heard. Consternation reigned in many central Arkansas homes.
"For more than 20 years KLRA has been our alarm clock in the mornings, and Brother Hal has gotten us off to work with his wonderful stories and unique humor," wrote a North Little Rock couple who then went on to detail their appreciation: "at 5:15 A.M., a fast-talking DJ from Dallas or some other foreign place is hard to take. We don't like strangers in the house early mornings."
Many neighbors evidently had similar feelings. "We put in a whole lot of satellite programming just after we purchased the station," recalls Philip R. Jonsson, President of the Dallas-based Signal Media Corporation, "and then I went on the air asking listeners to tell us what they wanted from KLRA. What happened was something of a surprise. We got far more letters in support of Brother Hal, who was still working, than we did for any of the announcers or programs we'd discontinued. We thought we were buying a radio station; it turns out we were inheriting an Arkansas institution."
The focus of all this attention and concern was no teen idol wildman rock DJ, but a wheezing, gossipy old codger who for thirty years now has presided over an early morning country and gospel music show, and for just slightly longer than that has made his home in the heart and mind of one Hal Webber, a 59 year-old Memphian whose parents were "old Arkansas people on both sides." It's Hal Webber's voice, precise and careful in its own right, that slows to a nasal crawl for Brother Hal's garrulous memories and fulsome tirades. "We don't agree at all on some things," says Webber of his cantankerous alter ego, "but I respect him and I love him."
Brother Hal, says Webber, was inspired by his friendship with an old man in Forrest City. "I was doing an amateur talent show on KXJK," he remembers. "Saturday mornings. Worst show you ever heard—we had people just come in off the street. One time a guy came in with his dog, wanted to do tricks. I tried to explain how this wouldn't go over real well on radio, but he wasn't buying any of it. He was there to perform, so we put him on. He put the dog through his paces—rolling over, begging, all sorts of things—while I described what was happening as best I could. That kind of thing wasn't unusual at all. The show was so bad it was hilarious. Everybody listened to it."
"Another time a roller-skating fiddler came in. Imagine that on the radio! He's circling the studio on his skates, fiddling away—left handed too—cruising in and out of the microphone's range, skates making a big racket. I had more fun in radio over in Forrest City than I've ever had since. Those were great days.
"Anyway, there was this old man there who used to show up for the talent shows. He gradually just sort of took things over, started acting like my assistant. He'd line up the performers and keep everybody quiet. It wasn't official at all. He was just a local character, a guy who'd gotten hurt in World War I and got a pension. He didn't have a job, so he spent all his time going around giving people orders and getting involved in everybody's business. He was a great help to me, and I got the idea for the Brother Hal character from him. Out in the country back then you had a lot of big families--the oldest boy got called Brother. You'd see that a lot."
Brother Hal made his debut in Forrest city, where in addition to his talent show responsibilities Webber had made a name for himself as a radio salesman. "We called it P.I. work, for 'per inquiry,'" he explains. "One of my biggest deals was with the McCray Hatchery in Iowa. We sold chickens over the radio—100 baby chicks for $2.98, guaranteed to have no leghorns. The hatchery got $1.98, and we got a dollar. Boy, we sold those chicks, too! You could drive out all around Forrest City and see those roosters coming up. They hated me down at the post office—that's where they all shipped it. Some days they got thousands."
It was his reputation as a salesman, rather than the appeal of the still-new Brother Hal character, that brought Webber a job offer from Connie B. Gay when the latter bought KLRA in 1955. "He was in the country music business," says Webber, "managed stars like Jimmie Dean and Patsy Cline. He'd heard I was a good P.I man, and he offered me $125 a week to come over." And so it happened. The Brother Hal show went on as an early morning country music and gospel show, beginning the run that continues to the present, and Webber continued to ply his talents as a P.I. hustler.
"Radio was really wild in those days," he says. "We sold everything you didn't need. Seaweed candy for weight watchers—it was called Kelpadyne, tasted like alfalfa. Hemorrhoid cures, fertility belts, 100 spools of thread for a dollar. I sold Dr. Brazzel's Compound too, which claimed to cure arthritis, until the Food and Drug man came to see us. I said we'd had lots of repeat orders. He said the stuff was a very dilute solution of creosote. We had people loaning money, people selling high school courses, preachers by the dozen. The preachers were the worst. One old preacher over in Forrest City was the most hypocritical man I've ever seen. He sold River Jordan water. Said he'd gone to the very spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Had hundreds of little bottles. I saw him filling them up from the tap behind the station.
"It was pretty wild I guess. People used to threaten to beat me up sometimes when their stuff came in. The 100 spools of thread turned out to be a piece of cardboard with 100 notches down each side and a few strands of thread wrapped around each one. It was a lot like today's tabloid newspapers."
The period of unbridled hucksterism on KLRA lasted only one year, until the station was purchased in 1956 by Leonard Coe. "He wanted a higher tone," Webber remembers. "He got rid of all the P.I. stuff and the preachers, scheduled good music, show tunes, for everything but the Brother Hal show. He paid me very well, and we became good friends. I was a contented man." With Leonard Coe's support, Webber was freed from pushing thread and hemorrhoid medicines and was able to concentrate on being Brother Hal for his, and KLRA's, growing number of early morning fans.
The typical format of the Brother Hal Show has changed very little since that time. Mornings begin at 5:30 with gospel music, moving over at 6:00 into country programming. Webber plays current hits, mixing in an occasional oldie. A separate announcer, Wald Sadler, handles the news, while Brother Hal frequently adds his own comments to weather reports. Throughout, between the music and the news, after the weather and before an advertisement (which he does not read from a script, but tailors to each sponsor and each broadcast), Brother Hal delivers himself of stories and comments on every conceivable subject. He's nothing if not opinionated, and more often than not his pattern is to begin in the present with a current song or topical news item and move to ancient anecdote or the application of historical wisdoms by chains of association that defy rational comprehension.
The tense siege in the spring of 1985 at the remote compound of the right-wing paramilitary group calling itself the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord, for example, when reported on Walt Sadler's news break, put Brother Hal in mind of a fifty year-old story about a "hysterical" woman named Emma Tidwell. Here's how he told the story:
Now that Arm of the Lord bunch? You know they hemmed them up and brought 'em all to the jailhouse. And they was little ole sucklin' younguns among that bunch. I'se just worried to death that the po-lice would have to shoot their way in and out of there, and it'd be dangerous, them little ole babies. You know they cain't run. Womenfolks git hystericals. You cain't hardly tell what'd happen in a situation like that—I'm glad it's came out the way it did.
You talk about motherlove, that's a pretty powerful thing, but I've seen—well, do you know of the Tidwells? Emma Tidwell—she was a hysterical woman. And I remember the church caught on fire, on I think it was the 18th of November, 1937. Oh they had a good preacher. I mean he was as good as I've heard, he was lettin' 'em have it. And that old stove, it caught the chimbley on fire and that ole wood buildin' it just went up. And she come outta there, along with everybody else, squallin' and hollerin', and suddenly realized she didn't have that little ole baby with her. She'd been sittin' up there, ya know, nursin' that baby while the preacher was givin' it to 'em. And she got out, realized she didn't have that baby, and oh she commenced to holler. And then, one of 'em said, "Hush up, Emma, you got the baby." Show how stout that baby was, he's hangin' on. Her not, she wasn't holdin' him. He's just hangin' on with his lips. Red in the face, just swingin' there like a watch fob. He held on when she dropped him. I admire a youngun with that kind o grit.
This is Brother Hal in one of his finest roles, the cracker-barrel storyteller. The humor in this instance greatly outweighs the social commentary, but Brother Hal's disapproval of the "Arm of the Lord bunch" is clear enough. He repeats this disrespectful "bunch," and he obviously thinks it's a poor group of parents who expose "little ole babies" to such danger. If you're all that heated up about the Lord, Brother Hal is saying, you ought to be looking out for the children. Nothing in either the commentary or the anecdote suggests that Hal Webber's views differ markedly in this case from Brother Hal's, but on other occasions things are more complex. Consider, for example, Brother Hal's recent commentary on the issue of U.S. aid to anti-Sandanista rebels:
Well, looks like the ain't gone give President Reagan no money to give to the Contras, down there in Nicaragua. Look like he done get whupped on that. Well, I tell you my honest opinion—I believe they oughta give them Contras some money to whip around on them Nicaraguans. 'Cause if we ain't careful we'll wake up some mornin', bloomin' Nicaraguans standin' outside our door.
Them's mean little devils, Nicaraguans is. I've knowed two or three of 'em—they mean. You ever get one mad at you he don't forgit it. I don't want nothin' to do with no Nicaraguans. Except somebody, if somebody'd shoot one for I'd take my limit. Go out an get me a limit of 'em.
Here Brother Hal's tirade seems marked as excessive in several ways. Surely Hal Webber knows that Nicaraguans at our door is highly unlikely. The whole country is slightly smaller than Arkansas; Minnesota has more people. Webber may very well favor aid to forces opposed to Nicaragua's government, but he undermines Brother Hal's remarks in two ways. First he makes him contradict himself, saying he thinks "they oughta give them Contras some money" and then declaring he wants "nothin' to do with no Nicaraguans." Then, in the remark about taking "a limit" if somebody else will kill them for him, he talks about people in a language normally reserved for game animals and fish. Brother Hal is a country-raised older man, too, talking largely to country-raised older listeners, and he sounds a little silly talking about "my limit" when somebody else is doing the hunting. All in all, it comes across as a marvelously gauged performance, overplayed just enough to be easily recognizable as something other than serious political commentary.
Brother Hal speaks in much the same vein on moral issues. After playing a song called "That's What You Do When You're In Love," in which a wife takes an indulgent and forgiving attitude toward a wayward and repentant husband ("If there's anybody perfect well I ain't met him yet, and we all gotta learn to forgive and forget"), he comes on with a much sterner view:
That's the new morality that's rampagin' this country and cuttin' the very heart out of the sense of decency on which this republic was founded. Now she just forgives you—"Well, did you have a good time?" "Oh yeah, I found me an old sister that wanted to romp awhile." "Oh well, come on in the house. Dad blame, you got your supper cold, but I'll heat 'er up."
Just take it that casual, ya know—I don't believe in that. You can withstand the temptations if you got the proper character. Why, radio announcers get more dad blamed temptations throwed at 'em in a day than most of these folks in a month or a year. Always some old grubby woman wantin' ta get aholt of ya. Fall in love with your voice, ya know, listen to it on the radio and just commence to work buttonholes. He just got to be firm about it, ya know. Tell 'em you appreciate it, and all that, that they takin' that kinda interest. But you got a little ole youngun, still just barely weaned. Ya need to get on back to the house. You just have to fight, it's what you gotta do. Show's you was brought up right.
Brother Hal surely speaks the minds of many listeners here, and no obvious contradictions undermine his remarks. But there is the comically overblown opening ("rampagin'" and the use of "republic" instead of "country"), in sharp contrast to the homely dialogue, and then when Brother Hal moves to a description of himself as a sex symbol of the airwaves pursued by "temptations" in the shape of "grubby old" women, the whole commentary dissolves in hilarity.
That Brother Hal's fans have found him on the whole wise and good is clear from the mail KLRA received in his behalf. A Benton listener wrote to applaud his "friendly but firm reminders and nudging his friends to always do the right thing," while a family from El Paso, Arkansas testified that "Brother Hal has been and continues to be an important part of our day—a sort of beacon for life's little storms and the brother who is there just at the switch of a button." A seventy year-old woman from Biscoe ended her letter with a plea: "Stand by us and don't ever let Brother Hal go. We are his fans."
That these same fans know Brother Hal can be bumptious and foolish is no less clear. One Little Rock man wrote to say he needed Brother Hal to "get started in the mornings," and added that "the tales he tells, I get a good laugh. However, it's not always like he says, but he can give you a good picture."
Hal Webber, after thirty years, is quietly proud of what he calls Brother Hal's "small contribution." He knows that many people, especially older people, are often lonely, and he knows that Brother Hal is for them a connection to a familiar life. "I got a lot of Brother Hal's stories from listening to sharecroppers and old timers on my grandparents' farm in Poinsett County," he says. "I was a good listener, and I always respected those people. They were great storytellers—they could take a simple little incident and make it the funniest thing you ever heard. These old folks now, they know all about Brother Hal. They lived through the Depression and they recognize everything about him. They know when he's wrong. People always know when something's wrong—they knew slavery was wrong, but they had to justify it. Brother Hal does some of this kind of justifying."
Webber is careful not to overestimate the weight of Brother Hal's social and political commentary. "I try to say something occasionally, but I'm not leading a cause, or trying to change society." For him it's not a terribly complex matter. He's a professional radio announcer, for whom success is measured by the number of listeners he attracts. The Brother Hal character has attracted a great many, and held them for a remarkably long time, so it's no surprise, thinks Webber, that he should even now be "always looking out for things I can use for Brother Hal."
For all their obvious differences in outlook and temperament, their long association has made them one in their most important role. Together they've brought enjoyment and a genuine sense of companionship to hundreds, even thousands of people, and they're still going strong as Brother Hal passes thirty and Hal Webber approaches 60 (looking close to ten years younger). They've got reasons to be happy with each other, and they have the good sense to know it. Honored last year with a bonus and a banquet in Little Rock, Hal Webber chose a phrase out of Brother Hal's lexicon to sum things up. "I sliced a fat hog," he said.
Robert Cochran is a professor of English and the director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas. His books include Singing in Zion: Music and Song in the Life of an Arkansas Family (Arkansas, 1999) and A Photographer of Note: Arkansas Artist Geleve Grice (Arkansas 2003).