By Gloria McGinnis-Stein

When you tune into 106.7 FM or 1390 AM in Wharton County, Texas, the warm, familiar voices you hear belong to your friends and neighbors at KULP radio. For more than seven decades, this independent locally-owned station has served as a vital source of information, entertainment, and community connection for the people of El Campo and the surrounding rural communities.

Founded in 1947, just as network television was starting to take hold in American living rooms, KULP aimed to super-serve local audiences at a time when radio was still the dominant mass medium. “From day one, KULP’s mission has been to reflect the unique character and spirit of Wharton County,” says Stephen Zetsche, VP and General Manager of Wharton County Radio, Inc. which owns and operates the station. “While the technology has changed dramatically over the years, that fundamental commitment to being live, local and community-oriented has never wavered.”

In an era of increasing media consolidation, with many radio markets dominated by clusters of stations owned by large conglomerates piping in generic nationally syndicated programming, KULP’s independent local ownership and laser focus on a single community is a rarity. The station is a closely-held private company whose handful of shareholders have a combined 90+ years of broadcast management, sales, programming and engineering experience. That depth of radio expertise paired with an intimate knowledge of the market has enabled KULP to remain relevant and financially viable despite dramatic changes in the media landscape.

“The key to KULP’s longevity is that it’s truly woven into the fabric of daily life here,” explains Zetsche. “We’re the station people turn to first to find out what’s happening in town, to hear about local people and events, to get the latest ag market reports or high school sports updates. There’s a personal connection and trust that comes from being a part of people’s lives every day for generations.”

At a time when 1 in 5 American newsrooms have shut down and many others are operating with skeleton crews, KULP maintains a full-time news operation providing in-depth, high-quality coverage of issues affecting Wharton County. The news team, led by veteran News Director Jim Schroeder, is a familiar sight at county commission and school board meetings, community gatherings and crime scenes.

“In a small community like this, local news coverage is essential,” Schroeder asserts. “The regional TV stations in Houston might swing by if there’s a sensational crime or disaster, but they’re not interested in the local politics, economic development, and day-to-day happenings that really matter to people’s lives. We’re in the thick of things, asking tough questions and shining a light on what’s going on. I see our role as not just reporting the news, but helping shape the local discourse and advocating for the community.”

KULP’s commitment to community service extends far beyond just reporting the news. The station is deeply involved in local charitable causes and also organizes several major events each year. Their “Christmas for Kids” toy drive, going strong for over 30 years, has provided presents for thousands of underprivileged children. Each Spring, the “KULP Country Cares” radiothon raises tens of thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society. And “Cares for Kids” in August collects school supplies for students in need. The station also partners with local agencies for blood drives, food drives and disaster relief efforts.

“KULP’s generosity and public spiritedness are unmatched,” declares El Campo Mayor Randy Collins. “Whenever there is a need or worthy cause, they are the first to step up and rally the community. So many of our nonprofits and charities rely on KULP to get the word out. They are a huge asset and we are lucky to have a station that is such an engaged community partner.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates KULP’s integral role in the community better than its longstanding commitment to being the “Voice of Wharton County Sports”. For over 60 years, KULP has been the exclusive broadcaster of local high school football, basketball and baseball. In this sports-crazed region, where youth leagues are a rite of passage and the “Friday Night Lights” burn bright, KULP’s game coverage borders on the reverential.

“High school sports are the biggest thing happening in town most weeks,” says Scott Swendall, KULP’s Sports Director. “Going to the games is a ritual, and so is listening to our play-by-play coverage for folks who can’t be there in person. We know we have people tuning in from all over — grandparents, military members stationed elsewhere, former players away at college…to them, KULP is the next best thing to being back home in the stands.”

Swendall, who has been painting vivid pictures of Wharton County’s athletic heroics for over 20 years, is himself a local institution, feted with a “Scott Swendall Day” by the El Campo City Council in 2015. “The neat thing is that a lot of the kids I cover playing high school ball now, I also covered their dads or moms playing decades ago. There’s a real multi-generational connection,” he reflects. Indeed, many of KULP’s most loyal listeners first got hooked on the station as youngsters hearing their names on the air. Now they make sure their own kids are tuned in.

While steeped in history, KULP has also proven nimble in adapting to the rapidly changing nature of modern media. Recognizing early on the potential to expand their brand online, the station launched a website in 2001 and began streaming its programming over the internet 24/7 a few years later. In addition to reaching a global audience of displaced Wharton County expats hungry for a taste of home, this digital presence has attracted listeners from as far afield as Europe and Asia who have stumbled upon KULP’s unique down-home flavor.

The livestream, accessible both on KULP’s website and through popular aggregator apps like iHeartRadio and TuneIn, garners over 40,000 listener sessions per month with an impressive average listening duration of 40 minutes. “For us, streaming isn’t about trying to compete head-to-head with Spotify, but about super-serving our local audience,” GM Stephen Zetsche explains. “The digital platforms give us another touchpoint to connect with the community and make our content available whenever and wherever folks want it.”

Additional online offerings include local news and sports headlines, weather forecasts, ag reports, a community calendar of events, and more. Reporters in the field can easily update the website and post photos and video from their smartphones. And livestreaming of high school games on Facebook Live allows KULP to pair its renowned play-by-play with real-time video.

This multi-platform approach has opened up new possibilities for serving listeners and advertisers, the vast majority of whom are locally-owned “mom and pop” businesses. Over 95% of KULP’s ad inventory is local direct retail business at premium rates, not heavily discounted spots from national agencies or chain stores. And perhaps most remarkably in this era of overly-commercialized radio, the station airs a maximum of just 12 minutes of ads per hour, about half the industry average.

“When an advertiser comes on KULP, they’re not just buying a generic 30-second spot, they’re forming a real marketing partnership,” says Mary Hull-Miller, one of KULP’s senior account executives who has been with the station for over 25 years. “We work closely with clients to craft customized campaigns utilizing on-air, online and in-person promotions. And since most of the businesses we work with are within a few miles of the station, we can be very hands-on and responsive to their needs. It’s all about relationships.”

Those deep community roots and the trust they engender are what give KULP a unique “stickiness” in today’s fractured media environment. While the station’s strong on-air ratings and robust online metrics are certainly welcomed, they almost seem beside the point for an operation so thoroughly enmeshed in the daily rhythms of its hometown. With a populace of just over 17,000 spread across 775 square miles of rice farms, ranches and small towns, raw audience numbers will never be huge. But few media properties anywhere can match KULP’s localism, longevity and the sheer loyalty it inspires.

Listeners like 87-year-old Walter Novosad, who still begins each day with KULP’s Houston Livestock Show reports just like his daddy taught him some 80 years ago. Like 45-year-old Gloria Henderson who recalls singing along to Janet & Debbie Polka Party as a little girl and now catches it on her phone while commuting. Like 19-year-old Chance Kresta who grew up listening to his brother’s football exploits on KULP and is now creating his own sports memories at Wharton County Junior College. They are more than just an audience — they are a community with KULP as the glue that binds them.

“Some of my fondest childhood recollections involve KULP,” shares El Campo native and longtime listener Charles Simpson. “Whether it was waking up to ‘Tradio’ on summer mornings, getting Christmas music and Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, or hearing the birthday club on my special day each year, KULP has always been there. Even though I’m in my 60s now with grandkids of my own, whenever I tune in, it still feels like home.”

As media habits change and audiences fragment, staying true to that homespun essence while evolving to remain relevant is KULP’s biggest challenge. Balancing a respect for tradition with a spirit of innovation is key says Zetsche. “Whether you’re listening to us on a transistor radio or from an Alexa smart speaker, we want your experience with KULP to have a comfortable, familiar feel — like pulling on a favorite pair of broken-in boots. Yes, we have to keep up with the times and explore new ways of reaching folks. But our core values of super-serving the local community will never go out of style. That’s KULP’s secret sauce.”

While the media landscape in 2023 would be virtually unrecognizable to KULP’s founders back in 1947, it’s a safe bet that they would recognize and applaud the station’s unwavering commitment to its local roots and rural identity. By cultivating authentic connections, both on-air and in-person, KULP has achieved something increasingly rare: not just listeners, but a genuine community. As the station embarks on its next 70 years, some things will undoubtedly change with the times. But as long as there are farm reports to announce, touchdowns to cheer, and neighbors to make welcome, KULP’s live and local heart will keep beating strong.