BY Cheryl Taylor
Unlike his frontier predecessors who spun tales around the campfire, Dr. William F. Strong’s storytelling venue is the radio – and more recently, the podcast.
No longer are listeners of Strong’s “Stories from Texas” bound to random catches on the radio. They now can pick and choose what and when to hear his stories as NPR podcasts at National Public Radio, and on iTunes and Google Play. Stories are archived on these venues after airing on Texas Standard, a news network of 28 NPR stations in Texas.
Strong draws upon his deep Texas roots to deliver his folksy collection of yarns, and in the classic signoff to his program – via podcast or radio – he tells his listeners, “I’m W.F. Strong,E and these are Stories from Texas. Some of them … are true.”
“I love radio because there is a certain magic that is achieved by a single voice creating a whole world within your mind,” said Strong, professor in the Department of Communication at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “It has always been a medium, for the storyteller at least, that is more mesmerizing than television. It is theater of the mind.”
The seed for “Stories from Texas” was planted decades ago, when Strong was growing up in Falfurrias, Texas, in a book-filled home with his mother, a librarian, and father, an educator passionate about Texas history and a teller of Texas tall tales.
“With my love for Texas literature – and wanting to share these beautiful stories, books and accumulated folklore – I came upon the idea for ‘Stories from Texas’ to be broadcast by radio,” Strong said. “I thought I might stir up people’s curiosity by sharing stories, that listeners would enjoy them and some would seek out more books and writings that pertain to Texas and the Texas mystique.”
Strong’s upbringing, his chosen vocation in mass communication, and being gifted with a classically resonant radio voice, all contributed to the inevitable outcome: A still-growing collection of three-to-four-minute “Stories from Texas” that first hit the airways about six years ago on Rio Grande Valley Public Radio, 88FM.
“Chris Maley (the program manager) and Mario Muñoz (the news producer) were receptive to this idea since the beginning, and have nurtured my style along the way,” Strong said.
His stories are as diverse as Texas itself, including one that admits, “Sure, Texas is Big – but it Used to be Even Bigger”:
The northern boundary of Texas in those days stretched all the way up into what is today southern Wyoming. It´s true. In those days, the northernmost town in Texas was not Dalhart, it was Rawlins. You think it’s a long way from Brownsville to Dalhart now – at 860 miles – try 1,400 miles to Rawlins. In 1845 a trip like that would have been measured in seasons, not days. We’ll leave in early spring and get there before winter sets in.
STORIES SPREADING LIKE WILDFIRE
Expressing the mythical, the actual and the universal, Strong’s stories have burst beyond the state line, with reports of them having popped up on radio stations in New York City and San Francisco, and on Sirius Radio via the PRX Remix Program. One public radio station in New Jersey has purchased 20 stories for airing.
Apparently, folks in the Big Apple and the City by the Bay enjoy subjects such as the back story of “Dr. Pepper: The Story of Texas’ Favorite Soft Drink.” Or, they might be amused to hear Strong’s three-and-a-half-minute ode entitled “The Story Behind Texas’ Favorite Butter,” or the myth-busting “10-and-a-Half Frightening Facts About the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” or the endearing story of a boy who loved Christmas in “Jack Sorenson’s Paintings Capture the Simple Joy of Christmas.”
Country music fans from Terlingua to Terre Haute will enjoy “Homesick for Texas: Songs & Tributes to the Lone Star State,” complete with audio enhancement; and anyone touched by the characters in Texas writer Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” will appreciate “The Real Texan Who Inspired Captain Woodrow F. Call.” Another story drawn from an iconic Texas novel is “The Time it Never Rained,” its central character Charlie Flag, a “tough old rancher from a bygone era who refuses to take government aid to survive the drought.”
“STORIES FROM TEXAS” DEVOTEES
“Stories from Texas” followers are a disparate, loyal and passionate group.
One avid fan, Nicole Englitsch, is a transplanted Texan who took a communication class with Strong when she first lived in Brownsville as an exchange student.
“Dr. Strong’s class was perfect since we discussed cultural differences and it encouraged me to reflect on my own culture and the culture I experienced here in Brownsville,” Englitsch said. “He played a few of his Texas stories for us, and I just loved them.”
After returning home to Vienna, Austria, Englitsch listened to the stories and shared her online audio tracks with friends.
“I really enjoyed my exchange semester, and the stories made me feel like I was back in Texas,” she said. “I believed listening to them would help me get a Texan accent, and Dr. Strong just has a great voice that I could listen to for hours.”
Englitsch is proud to have contributed to one of the stories: “Rattlesnakes.”
“Dr. Strong reached out to me and asked me what word or item I connect with Texas or what people from Europe think of when you tell them you study in Texas,” she said. “So I told him: rattlesnakes. We don’t have any dangerous snakes in Austria and coming here and seeing signs to be aware of rattlesnakes made an impression. I visited the King Ranch, and there were so many rattlesnake signs, and lots of rattlesnake items to buy in the souvenir shop.”
Englitsch appears in the first paragraph of “Rattlesnakes:”
If you could put all of Texas culture into one football stadium, which would be a good place to put it, you would need to reserve a large section for rattlesnakes. After all, rattlesnakes have always loomed large in Texas legend and lore. A friend of mine from Austria tells me that when Europeans think about Texas, they think of cowboys and cattle and rattlesnakes.
Englitsch’s favorite story, however, is “Trying to Talk Texas? Let Your Words Lean into Each Other,” which begins:
A nice lady wrote to me not long ago and said that she was happy to have a son with a good, solid, two-syllable Texas name. “His name is ‘Ben,’” she wrote.
Another “Stories from Texas” aficionado, freelance writer Alan Oak, streams Strong’s tales via Texas Standard as he travels the country in his RV with his faithful Chihuahuas riding shotgun.
“I’m always curious about the story behind the story, and ‘Stories from Texas’ feeds that,” said Oak. “My favorite one to date is ‘What It Means to Be a Texas Gentleman,’ a notion that seems out of favor nowadays.”
Oak said he is a long-time active member of the “Stories from Texas” community on Facebook, where he looks forward to the memes and links posted by the fans and Strong – and adds a few himself.
WHERE TO FIND STORIES… AND MORE
“Stories from Texas,” recorded by the UTRGV Media Services video production team on the Brownsville Campus, can be heard on Rio Grande Valley Public Radio, KJJF 88FM any day of the week at random times. They are also available, listed under Arts and Culture on the Texas Standard website, archived as NPR podcasts at National Public Radio, and on iTunes and on Google Play.
In addition to “Stories from Texas,” Strong collaborates with colleague Dr. John Cook, associate professor in the UTRGV Department of Communication, on “Good Books Radio,” also on KJJF 88FM. “Good Books Radio” airs from 9–10 a.m. on Saturdays and twice on Sundays, from 6:30–7 a.m. and 2:30–3 p.m.