Michael Hibblen: A reporter returns to roots, ties up loose ends and turns to teaching
In the southeastern corner of a modest Little Rock public radio station, he sits — adding a few details and cutting a few more — preparing for the just-after-noon broadcast. He started the day in a suit, which he is obligated to do while appearing on local Public Broadcasting Station’s Arkansas Week, an hour-long television broadcast in which he is a panelist discussing the prominent regional issues of the day — the big one today: Big River Steel. Michael Hibblen, a longtime broadcast journalist and Little Rock metro native, loathes wearing the tie above all.
Hibblen, who returned from a 12-year Miami stint in 2009, spends the majority of his waking hours in that corner and others in KUAR public radio station just south of campus, where he has worked as news director for just over three years. While in Miami, and many places before the previously referenced stint, Hibblen functioned in a variety of capacities and for an array of reputable sources.
Born just west of the Mississippi River in the small southern town of Eudora, he moved with his family to North Little Rock, where Michael later graduated from high school in 1990. But even before his graduation, his career in the industry had begun to blossom. Starting in 1988 as a junior in high school, Hibblen got his first break — small as it was — as a disc jockey at AM radio stations in the Arkansas towns of Benton and England. But he remembers feeling the “magic” long before that, during a second-grade trip to a small Arkansas station.
“That is where the infection began …,” Hibblen said. “That was the nail in the coffin.”
A few brief years later, after about two years at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, he caught his first big break at an Arkansas State Capitol event for then-presidential aspirant Bill Clinton in 1991. During the event, he bumped into an editor of C-SPAN’s radio division, who hired him for an internship in Washington, D.C., just two years later.
“It was sort of the bug that bit me,” he said about his experience in Washington. “ I never really thought about leaving Arkansas until then. After that, my goal was to get to a bigger market.”
Hibblen returned to Little Rock and enrolled at UALR in 1993, but the tick on his journalistic clock had already become that of a feverish war drum. That May, he was hired by local radio station KARN, just as the Whitewater Scandal was blowing up.
“I never finished my degree the first time I was at UALR, and it was partly because I was skipping class to go cover stories,” he said. “My final semester here — and I think I pretty much failed everything — was when the Whitewater trials were going on with the Clintons’ old business partners. I just felt like I was learning so much more going out and covering stories.”
So Hibblen left UALR to work full-time at KARN, but another door was beginning to creak open. Staying in touch with contacts, he soon found himself pitted between two competing radio stations in Miami, one of which won the war and hired him in 1997. During his time in Miami, Hibblen got married, divorced, hired, hired again, wrote stories for the legendary Miami Herald and worked as an anchor for their CBS-affiliated radio division, and lived the life of a Floridian.
“That’s where you learn and that’s where you really have the excitement … to be part of the big pack of reporters chasing the politician down the hallway and all of that.”
But in 2009, creeping up on his forties and living in a strange, strange land, he decided that the prodigal son should return home; if for no one else, his parents.
“I never intended to stay in Miami forever,” he said. “I wanted to get back to Arkansas. But being in news you can’t beat being in a market like that ….”
So he migrated westward, back to the land of his younger years, and was eagerly hired by KUAR, UALR’s public radio station and NPR affiliate. Not long after returning, he began to move up the ranks and was offered the news director position. But there was one problem: he still hadn’t graduated from college.
“Not having a degree never really stopped me,” he said. “It wasn’t really an issue not having a degree until I came back to Little Rock.”
KUAR told him when he returned that if he wanted to work full time, he needed a degree, so he soon began to finish his bachelor degree in journalism.
“It was contingent with my contract here that I would have to finish my degree in two years in order to work full time with the station,” he said. “So this is really the first time not having a degree for me has been an issue.”
Hibblen said that although the news director was the position he always sought after, he still misses chasing stories and being a part of the excitement. But rather than revert to those more thrilling years as a street reporter, Hibblen said that he has decided to take on the task of imparting his knowledge to a new generation of reporters — by teaching.
“I would like that to be the next step in my career,” he said. “After 25 years now in radio, I think that teaching would be interesting. I’m at the point where I don’t see myself being a reporter forever. I love being news director, and it’s what I’ve wanted to do as long as I’ve been in radio, but I don’t see myself doing it until I’m 75.”
Hibblen said that to accomplish his next goal of becoming a college journalism professor, he plans to work on his master’s and perhaps Ph.D. after he finishes his bachelor’s this semester.
He said that his high school radio teacher, who instructed the students to create newscasts and operate equipment on a 5-watt radio station, taught him way more practical knowledge about the field than anyone else. So Hibblen, who has had quite the career, strives to be an educator cut from the cloth of experience and field information, rather than the cold academics he claims to have a “beef” with.
“That makes all the difference,” he said. “That is what, in the best-case scenario, I’d like to try to use my skills with … is just sharing my real-world knowledge and using connections to, you know, share that with students.”
“You have to be a self-starter to really make it in this business,” Hibblen said.
In his spare time, which he said is rare these days, he likes to ride his bike, spend time with his daughter and go train-watching. He also spends a lot of his free time in photographic endeavors — his minor, in fact, is photography.
The logic behind Hibblen’s next planned career move is that he would finally have the chance to impart the many things he’s learned along the way: how to break into the business, cover stories on a variety of topics and media and, most of all, how to make a living doing what you love.
Since his radio debut in the late 1980s, Hibblen has covered some major news events in Arkansas, Washington and Miami. Beginning with the Whitewater trials of the early 1990s, he worked on and covered more political scandals, controversial executions, five presidential elections, gubernatorial snafus and much more. He has also interviewed literary legends of the Beat Generation, such as David Amram, Diane di Prima, Michael McClure and the late poet Allen Ginsberg.
“I’ve worked in radio my entire career, but I’ve worked in places that aren’t known for radio — like the Miami Herald or when I was at C-SPAN,” Hibblen said. “But the greatest thing to me about the Miami Herald was … I enjoyed the radio aspect, you know, I’m proud of that … but it was great when I was able to write for the paper too. I probably wrote three or four dozen stories, and I had at least once a 1A story, and it was great to see my name on the front page of the Miami Herald.”
Hibblen said that most of the stories he wrote for the Florida newspaper were focused on topics of interest to him — radio and trains, mostly.
Hibblen said that for many of his vacations, he would take would take Amtrak trips around the South and Midwest, many of which he wrote about in Herald pieces. “So that’s a great thing about it, being able to sort of pursue your own interests and write about it.”
“You have to be able to do everything now; and in 10 years, it’ll all probably be one thing. You’ll go out there, shoot a video, have to be part TV reporter, part newspaper reporter … it’s all merging into the same thing, and you just have to be a journalist capable of adapting.”
“The fact that you can do everything on an iPhone now is amazing to me,” Hibblen said.
“People have to be able to do a bit of everything now; that’s a key thing I try to impart to journalism students.”