words: Marla Cantrell
Images: courtesy Rham Cunningham
It’s a quarter to noon on a sunny Wednesday in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Rham (pronounced RAM) Cunningham is walking toward one of the biggest offices inside the Richland Group. Once inside, he greets four of his co-workers at the marketing firm, before addressing Dr. Benny Gooden, the superintendent of Fort Smith Schools, who, just two days before, announced his retirement, effective at the end of this month. At Dr. Gooden’s side is his dog, Sir Winston, who appears to be enjoying the treatment he’s getting, including a trip to a water bowl that’s been set up especially for him.
In a few minutes, Rham will sit down in one of two chairs that are positioned in front of a green screen, where computer generated graphics will soon roll. He will look into the Canon camera that’s in video mode, and that sits on a tripod beside a laptop that holds the script he will read from. Co-worker Hannah Jay will mind the camera. Co-worker Allison Kyrouac will scroll through the script as Rham reads, and Sir Winston will sit with every muscle flexed, a lovable sentry at Dr. Gooden’s feet.
When Hannah cues Rham, he transforms into the anchor of The Video Wire, Dawson Meadows, the character he created on the fly in August 2014, when he was asked to play a reporter in an indie short film one of his friends, Jeff Carter, was making. Even today, Rham is mystified by where the name came from. “The camera was rolling, and I stood before it and I opened my mouth, and these words came out, ‘This is Dawson Meadows, and here’s what’s out there!'”
Two weeks later, he rolled out the character again, playing Dawson to promote the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair.
It seems the exact right name for a certain kind of reporter: quick with a corny comeback, equally in love with mirrors and cameras and hair gel, the guy who’s eager to volunteer to skydive/bull-ride/stomp grapes at the wine festival, if it will push his story to the top of the newscast.
When the idea of The Video Wire came about in January 2015, Rham knew his Dawson Meadows character should anchor it. The parody-laden, five-minute, weekly online newscast is an offshoot of the Things to Do in Fort Smith website, another one of Rham’s creations that he developed four years ago after hearing yet another person declare Fort Smith a dead-end town. “I was hosting a barbeque, and one of my wife’s friends brought her then-boyfriend, and he was one of the naysayers. He was saying that Fort Smith was a black hole with nothing to do and that he wanted to move. And I said, ‘You really don’t think there’s anything to do in Fort Smith?'”
Later that night, Rham set up a Things to Do in Fort Smith Facebook page, and later added a sister website. “I was doing every bit of it to spite this guy, to show him what we had going on. And then it kept growing, with me listing more and more events, and I realized I had something.”
When he came onboard with the Richland Group, he found the support he needed to grow the project to include a weekly email and The Video Wire, the show he is, at this very moment, in the midst of recording.
During this cast, he riffs on the City Directors who are reviewing records to see if there’s enough diversity in the city’s workforce, and Rham pretends a producer is talking to him through his IFB, correcting the story even as he’s telling it. He then transitions into the news of Dr. Benny Gooden retiring, a move that created a buzz in the town where he’s been in charge of the schools for thirty years. Rham delivers this news in a speech that’s equal parts adoration and playful jabs on his age—Dr. Gooden is seventy-one. As he’s wrapping up, the superintendent walks into the frame, with Sir Winston in tow, and hands Rham an application he’s filled out to work at The Video Wire. The two laugh easily, Sir Winston plants a kiss on Rham’s lips, and the segment ends. Rham finishes the cast by highlighting upcoming weekend events in the city, and even makes his own music by pinching one of his nostrils closed and humming loudly. “My talent is the nose kazoo!” he says, and smiles wide at the camera.
Being the epicenter of funny comes naturally for Rham. As a kid, he was the class clown, and in high school the late comedian, Chris Farley, was his idol. He grew up in Mena, a town of approximately 5,600, eighty miles from Fort Smith. His dad owns a body shop and the family owns a campground. His mom is an RN. He grew up with an older sister, whose goodness is a beacon for him. “She’s an RN like my mom, and has three boys and she’s fostering a two-week-old boy. She’s an amazing woman.”
At school, he collected friends, sometimes perplexed teachers, and always made the people around him laugh. He tells the story of his tenth-grade year, how he broke his collar bone after doing a belly flop on the gym floor. He hadn’t thought it out, hadn’t anticipated the possibility of injury. All he could imagine was how funny it would be. And even though it cost him a good deal of pain, it’s one of those stories he carries with him, sharing it when the subject of adolescence comes up, of those days when we felt as if nothing but the sun could touch us.
Rham, a.k.a. Dawson Meadows, a.k.a. Mr. Fort Smith, is doing his part, promoting this place and making people laugh, sometimes at themselves, and always at him.
After high school, Rham moved to Fort Smith to attend Westark Community College (now UAFS). He thought he was going to be a nurse, like his mother, but one day he walked into the KISR radio station and asked for a job, and they hired him on the spot.
It turns out that a class clown with a quick wit was a good fit. He learned to play the microphone like any other musical instrument, his voice making theater out of simple sentences. He could persuade with that voice; he could make words sing. And most weekends, he was broadcasting live, making connections and emceeing from local festivals, business openings, and community events.
While he was making a name in local radio, he was also falling in love with Fort Smith. When he thought about his future, it was always in this town. He started volunteering at the Little Theatre, finding another place where a great voice and hard work paid off. He started to do stand-up comedy at local venues. Eventually, he began sitting on the boards of more than a dozen non-profits and became a mentor at Spradling Elementary.
And then one day, while at the Little Theatre, he met a girl named Brandy, a therapist who came to Arkansas from New York. Fireworks went off. His heart beat faster. And Rham fell in love. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes. And a few years later, they decided to start their family. Today, they’re the parents of Sophie, not yet two, who was born on Rham’s dad’s birthday. If Rham ever worries, it’s about her.
At thirty-six years of age, Rham’s life is so close to perfect, he can’t imagine how it could get any better. He loves his family. He loves his job. He loves Fort Smith. “You could call me Mr. Fort Smith,” he says. On weekends, he often mountain bikes, a sport that’s earned him a few medals. He golfs. He hunts and fishes.
And then there are his friends from every arena: politicians, business owners, those in the media, neighbors, co-workers, fellow Fort Smithians. He shakes his head at his own good luck. But this life has a lot more to do with hard work than chance. “My dad is not college educated, but he’s the smartest man I know. He taught me the value of hard work. Sometimes I’ll go down to Mena just to work on our land, just to clear brush, or to collect firewood, just to sweat.”
He points to a wall in his office that’s peppered with photos. Many are of Sophie. This little girl has changed his life. And one day he wants her to look at Fort Smith and feel the same grounding he feels.
He’s sure she will. Who, he wonders, wouldn’t love this place, where so many good people live, where so many good people reach out every day to make the world a brighter, better place. Rham, a.k.a. Dawson Meadows, a.k.a. Mr. Fort Smith, is doing his part, promoting this place and making people laugh, sometimes at themselves, and always at him. Because this comedian do-gooder lives for that laughter, for that moment when all the cares roll away, and there is so much happiness you can’t help but pass it on.
Learn more about Rham and Dawson and Fort Smith at thingstodoinfortsmith.com.