At 5 a.m. Friday, Jan. 16, 1948, people around Orange for the first time could tune into AM 1600 KOGT. On that day, listeners heard local news, a Stark High basketball game, Bing Crosby and organ music. These days, listeners will still hear local news and a West Orange-Stark High basketball game but don’t expect the organ music. “We may play some music from 1948 but no organ music,” said owner Gary Stelly, who bought the station in 1992.
Through the years, listeners have heard about hurricanes, livestock, state championships, elections, murders and scandals, all local.
In 1961, the station began a country music format that has drawn loyal fans from around the area. Richard Corder was again on the air this morning and his voice is as much KOGT as the call letters. Corder started working at the station in January 1955 for more money than he was earning at KPAC, a station operated by the then Port Arthur College. Stelly refers to him as “King Richard,” a title for which he has a certificate. Corder was the last King Neptune in Orange, crowned in 1978 as part of what for years was an annual water festival. Corder has stayed with KOGT through smooth popular music, the Elvis rock ‘n roll revolution and into the station’s stable format of country.
When he started, the station sold programming to advertisers, who would request certain music. If a businessman wanted to sponsor 30 minutes of Mantovani, he got Mantovani. If the next buyer wanted 15 minutes of Pat Page, he got Patti Page. “You can see how that wouldn’t work because you couldn’t have an audience that could depend on anything”, Corder said. Corder helped push the country format some 37 years ago. And the station found its audience. “We have carved a niche for ourselves,” he said. “We probably the only real country station in the area.”
Stelly said the station plays some of the contemporary country that resembles pop music, but its core is true country. For Corder, that means the Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb style music. He credits the two stars with keeping country music alive by helping people like Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty keep groceries on their tables during their beginning years.
KOGT has kept a local audience, even those who don’t like country, by covering local news and live high school sports events.
Corder considers Hurricane Audrey in June 1957 as the biggest news event he’s covered. The eye of the hurricane went over Orange, but it was the storm’s direct hit on nearby Cameron that brought some 350 deaths and worldwide attention. Corder said everyone knew the storm was in the Bay of Campeche and he went to Port Arthur on Tuesday night. He got a call from the station to come back because the storm was moving north at 25 to 30 mph, an unheard of speed for a hurricane.
As soon as he could find someone who could speak French, he began issuing the warnings in that language because of all the Cajun people on the Louisiana coast. The Cameron parish sheriff’s office was having a hard time getting people to leave, he said. “They’ll revert to their native language in a time of crisis,” he said.
The station’s operations were at 5304 Meeks Drive, where it is today. Electricity was out, but the phones were working, Corder said. He had arranged for a ham operator in Cameron to give him names of victims as soon as they were identified. For a few days, people around the country were calling KOGT to ask about relatives and friends in the Cameron area. The National Guard, Red Cross, and Salvation Army would bring food to the station. Corder had a front row seat to another major news event. ‘The station had moved its studio to the upstairs of an old building at the southwest corner of Main and Fifth streets in downtown Orange.
One night, in the early 1960s, the block of downtown across the street burned in a huge fire. He watched from a window and broadcast the news live as firefighters sprayed the station’s roof to keep the fire from spreading. “It got so hot (in the station), we had sweat breaking out while we were in the control room,” he said.
Sports, too, has been a staple. Corder said West Orange-Stark’s back-to-back state football championships in 1986 and ’87 were the biggest events he’s covered. He also covered Bridge City’s state football championship in 1965 with All-American running back Steve Worster. ‘The only time he ever spoke to a game official, he said, was when the old Stark High football team lost the state semi-final game in 1962 while playing Pharr-San’Juan Alamo in Victoria. The Tigers were playing without All-American quarterback David Foster, who had a broken shoulder. Plus, other players were injured, he said. Corder chastised the officials after the game and not for opinions on calls, he said. “Some things they did on the field were just so flat out wrong”’ he said.
Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, Stark High was the main school in the county. On Friday nights KOGT covered Stark and on Saturday nights, the station covered the all black Wallace High.
Legendary coach Willie Ray Smith was at Wallace in the ‘50s and Corder recalls the bed checks Smith did on his players each night. KOGT had one of the players working and if the student had extra work, the station manager would write an excuse to Smith so the kid could be out later. Corder said one of the Wallace games he covered had pouring rain and the field was so wet the officials had to stand on the ball between plays to keep it from floating away.
When KOGT started, it’s antennas were installed on land at 5304 Meeks Drive, which at the time was three miles outside the Orange city limits. The first production studio was in a building owned by Joe Molley on 10th Street between Green and Elm avenues. When Corder began working, the studios had moved out to Meeks. Later, the studios moved to the downtown building across the street from the Fair Store at Main and Fifth. For some 20 years, now, all the station operations have been back at Meeks Drive, at a site now surrounded by houses.
Around 1960, Ed Lovelace, a legendary local promoter, bought the station and ran it for several years. The station has changed ownership several times in the past 20 years.
Stelly, an Orangefield High graduate who had worked at KOGT when he was in college, bought the station from a small, out-of-town company. Since 1992, he’s replaced equipment and doubled the size of the staff from six to 12. He likes broadcasting sports and other on-air duties, but as owner, he’s also relegated to a lot of paperwork.
Still, the KOGT crew goes on, knowing they’re entertaining and informing Orange County. It’s a job, but it’s also a love.
Republished with permission.
Originally appeared in the Jan 21, 1998
edition of The Orange Leader, Margaret Toal reporting.