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TEXAS COUNTRY REPORTER: LET'S "HOP IN AND TRAVEL" THE LONE STAR STATE by Dave Friant


Unless you’re a recent newcomer to Texas, chances are you’ve seen an episode(s) of Texas Country Reporter (TCR) and visually met Bob and Kelli Phillips. They host the weekly television broadcast that highlights the existences of some “ordinary folks often times doing extraordinary things” in this immense state of ours.

The half-hour show (over 2,800 since inception in 1972) can be viewed nationally on the satellite/cable channel RFD-TV and in all 22 Texas media markets. Each contains three always soul-nudging and engaging installments that most often take place at rural locations throughout the state. Potential candidates for segments (several hundred during any given week) provide a touch of their realities. A select group from TCR then discuss the possibilities and make the decisions as to who will be featured each week.

TCR is the longest running independently produced program in the nation, with over 2 million miles having been logged during its duration. Upcoming soon is the 50-year celebration of serving the fortunate viewership. A half-century. Beginning during a time when the Watergate break-in was the impetus for Nixon resigning and M*A*S*H began its 11-year run with the hilarious antics of “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Hot Lips” Houlihan.

Bob Phillips is the mastermind behind this well-oiled machine that currently finds its way to 1 & ½ million viewers weekly. It’s affectionately referred to many followers as the “TCR cult.” Having turned 70 years of age earlier this year (yes, he’s officially one of us), his calm but still engaging approach to stories and the folks that make them special lends itself to connectedness. He graduated from Bryan Adams High School in 1969 and proceeded with educational pursuits at SMU where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and a Master’s degree in Liberal Arts.

His career in the communications business originated during a time when he was a college undergraduate student. Phillips was initially a dispatcher at CBS affiliate KDFW-TV (Ch. 4) before being re-assigned to photographer after 3 months.

He traveled with the Dallas Cowboys as their photographer and once sustained a short-term “upper body injury” due to being hit with a full can of soda tossed by a Philly fan. Not exactly a mystery in terms of intent given the reputation of Eagle fans.

Duties for the station photographer became enhanced one day during a possible drowning in March of 1970. No reporter was available. Phillips took to the air as a “one-man band” and presented the story. Management appreciated the way he handled the matter and as time went on gave him the latitude to do weekend “ordinary people” stories. A half-hour televised weekly presentation of features (initially known as 4 Country Reporter), for which he was the principal interviewer/journalist, was born in October 1972.

Phillips received a call in the Fall of 1973 from his mentor, Charles Kuralt, who hosted the CBS On the Road with Charles Kuralt weekend show. Kuralt had an approach to meeting and interacting with “ordinary people” throughout the country which was identical to that of Phillips. Kuralt mentioned that Phillips “presented the best copy of what I do that I’ve ever seen.” The two did numerous station promotions together and additionally enjoyed devouring several chicken-fried steak dinners.

In 1986, Phillips left KDFW and established Phillips Productions. Continued was syndication of the program with its new name becoming Texas Country Reporter. Three specific stories constitute each half-hour episode. Approximately 78 stories a year are shot during the non-summer months which equates to 26 shows. Each show is shown twice during a given year. Summers are spent by staff executing the writing and editing portions of the production.

Phillips has produced numerous TCR video series and authored several books. The latest of the key-tapping efforts is A Good Long Drive: Fifty Years of Texas Country Reporter, released in September of this year. Along with being a Silver Circle inductee within the Lone Star chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, he and the show have been additionally honored for work quality including more than 30 EMMY awards. Phillips continues to teach communication courses (since 1987) as an adjunct professor at Amberton University. Together as the down-home dynamic duo, the Phillips’ work with numerous charitable organizations throughout Texas. Additionally, they have hosted a TCR Festival for 25 years in Waxahachie. This year, the gathering takes place on October 23 with a variety of food offerings, arts & crafts, and music.

Kelli (Lee) Phillips has been a predominant figure on stage and in front of cameras since the age of 14. She appeared in commercials and ads while residing in Corpus Christi. Her first television position was as co-host of “Evening Magazine” in San Antonio at the age of 18. The female phenom was hired by KENS-TV while still a student at the University of Texas, and additionally worked with KTFM and KTSA in the Alamo city. Kelli moved to Beaumont in 1989 where she worked for several radio stations for a number of years before taking a morning news person position in 2003 with KFDM-TV. She took to the rungs of the career ladder and continued upwards through her promotion to anchor on the evening news broadcast.

It was during her employment with KFDM that Kelli and Bob exchanged their “I do’s” through marriage in 2007. Kelli had two college-age sons attending the University of Texas at the time and Bob came into the union having been single since the age of 40. The two had a home together in Beaumont (no longer the case) and also one in Dallas where Bob continued to live during the week while tending to the hosting of TCR. Bob would commute back and forth on weekends to strengthen the marital bond. It was not until 2016 that he convinced his bride to leave the station and become co-host of TCR.

As indicated by her co-host, Kelli is a welcome addition to the broadcasts. “The demographics of the watching audience has changed, and her presence is a great fit. She has a special way of empathizing. People are drawn to her and trust her,” says the maestro with the calming voice.

“I’m inquisitive about people in general. . . want to know what makes them tick. I do nothing to make them look bad,” says the female portion of the twosome. When asked why she feels viewers love the show, Kelli notes that “everything is positive and nothing controversial or political. People are looking for that approach in today’s world.”

So what’s the “secret sauce” that permeates the entire production . . . the elements that hoist the show into 30 minutes of enjoyment for viewers?

“Kuralt told me early on to ‘shut up and listen’ when considering how to deal effectively with people. Active listening is a means of allowing people to keep each other balanced,” says the eldest of the Phillips combo. “Seeking out people who are passionate about life in general, and then being passionate about telling their stories is the intended goal of the program. Living more in the moment and not worrying too much about tomorrow,” adds Phillips. Both characterize the effectiveness of the show in one small phrase. . . “people watching people to find out more about themselves.”

Tapped during the episodes of TCR is the uniqueness and so often sought-after calm associated with common folks. The ladies in Sweetwater who crochet the mats for the homeless. Maurice Jackson in O’Donnell who provides full-service for all (to include running tabs) at his gasoline station. The work ethic and easily noticed favorable character traits of Chito in Del Rio. So many more. These and others provide the stories that lift viewers out of the occasional funk that creeps into everyday lives. Clear and simple glimpses into existences where contentment breeds happiness and the therapeutic nature of talk becomes evident.

Settle in for some well-guided excursions by the Phillips duo into the lands of normalcy – stories sharing slices of humanity at its best. Areas where enthusiasm about life is commonplace and stress is routinely overcome by friendliness, humility, and acts of goodness.

Charles Kuralt would be so proud!


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