Online radio show is 'World Wild West'

January 18, 2010 4:13:33 AM PST
It's 7 p.m. when Ralph Hampton dons a headset and starts the show. "We're coming to you live from sparkling San Augustine, Texas, from the second floor of the Hightop Feed and Seed," the 53-year-old says into a small microphone.

This is "Ralph's Backporch," a connection from a small, East Texas town to Western and cowboy culture lovers the world over.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, Hampton and Tamara Boatright, 42, host two hours of conversation, Western-style music and cowboy poetry broadcast by way of Internet radio.

The Backporch has hit the Internet every week since October 2007, reaching a few thousand listeners throughout the nation and in Britain, New Zealand, Brazil and about 20 other nations.

Their broadcasting booth actually is a table at Zippy's Pizza, Wings and Things, a small Hampton- and Boatright-owned restaurant situated between the doughnut shop and liquor store along U.S. 96.

Hampton is a burly man with a graying mustache and a baritone voice made for radio. He speaks before he thinks at times. Boatright keeps him in line and works their laptop to engineer the show through a program designed by Blog Talk Radio, the site that runs their show.

"It's just doggone cold here in East Texas," Hampton said during the Wednesday night show, starting his weather update. "The Piney Woods are blanketed with a fine layer of frost tonight."

His well froze Tuesday morning, but it's nothing compared to listeners who send in their weather updates through the show's chat room. From Kansas and the Black Hills, listeners tell the duo about single-digit temperatures and tall snowdrifts.

Then comes a song, "Buckaroo Tattoo," telling a story about a cowboy falling in love with a tough cowgirl.

Their show began two years ago, when Hampton and Boatright ran a classified ad Web site for Deep East Texas. Their site used interviews with businesses and local residents selling their goods.

"We got to interacting with people," Hampton said. "Honestly, they would call in and say, 'Y'all are boring, you should do something else."'

They began playing Western music that one of their advertisers mailed them. Playing the music led to interviews with the songwriters, several of whom were working cowboys. Then, cowboy poets started calling in to tell stories and read poems.

Their guests have included songwriters Michael Martin Murphey and Don Edwards and National Public Radio contributor and cowboy poet Baxter Black.

In November, they won the Western Music Association's Best Radio Station award.

Ralph's Backporch plays the music that commercial radio stations won't touch, Boatright said. Since a few corporations now own almost every commercial radio station in the nation, she said, most mainstream country music stations play the same small list of songs.

"It's music of the heartland," Hampton said. "Whether you are a farmer, a working cowboy -- or some guy who grew up going to the movies and seeing Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and now you wear a suit and tie and get stuck on the freeway every day -- it's something they can listen to and relate to."

Their listeners have become a small community. On Wednesday's show, Tamara read a prayer request from a listener whose son has cancer. Then she read birthday wishes.

The show has resonated with a segment of the world that longs for bygone days when families sat on the porch, talked and listened to the radio.

"A lot of listeners don't have televisions," Boatright said. "The Internet has become their entertainment. Instead of sitting down to watch a popular TV show, they sit down at a computer and listen."

Ralph's Backporch has about one advertiser per episode, usually a Western clothing store. Advertising dollars pay for Boatright and Hampton to travel to a few events each year, like the Western Music Association awards and the Fort Worth Livestock Show.

At 7:30 p.m., Oklahoma cowboy poet Jay Snider calls in. He's a working rancher who "tries to make a small living for a large family," he said on the show.

They talk about horses and growing old.

Then Snider reads his poem about a wild-eyed colt named Ole Snake who bucked off every rider who sat on him.

A few more songs play -- "Texas, 1947," a train song by Guy Clark, and the "Talking Veterinarian Blues" by Corb Lund. Next is Dave Carter's "Hey Conductor," another old train song that Hampton said is "as cool as the center seed of a cucumber."

The whole time, listeners type in comments and requests. They talk politics and argue a little, which Hampton and Boatright refuse to do on the show.

With about 45 minutes left on the Backporch, "little alien gremlins" crawl into the computer, Hampton says. It disrupts the show, and after their Internet voice connection dies, Boatright sets Hampton up to announce the show's remainder by way of a "1995 WalMart telephone."

They talk less because of the hardship and play a handful of cowboy and train songs until about 10 minutes before 9 p.m.

"Did you have a good time tonight? I hope you have," Hampton says into the phone. "We thank you for stopping by and visiting with us on the Backporch.

"The old clock on the wall says we have to say goodbye tonight. So, good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite."