On Thursday I attended a lunch hosted by the St. Louis chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It’s a regular event: a chance to meet and mingle with fellow journalists at Carmine’s Steak House downtown and hear from an interesting speaker.
Frank Absher was the featured guest Thursday. He’s the founder and executive director at St. Louis Media History Foundation, and has published a book called KMOX: The Voice of St.Louis (Arcadia Publishing).
Absher knows of what he speaks; he cut his teeth as a newsman at KMOX radio and later worked at the station’s official historian. He’s the curator of a website devoted to the history of St. Louis radio, which features a Hall of Fame and is a compendium of such facts as call letters through the years, frequency history and the names of radio personalities.
When radio ruled
The book is a real treat: a pictoral history of the voices that rang out from KMOX and reached around the country, thanks to the station’s 50,000 watts.
KMOX is no slouch today, but in the 1940s and 1950s the station shone in a way that can only happen in a gilded age. Pappy Cheshire, Frankie and Skeets, Jane Porter and her KMOX Magic Kitchen: they don’t make performers like them anymore. As the photos in Absher’s book show, glamor was king. Anyone who was anyone stopped by the KMOX studios when visiting St. Louis, Elvis included.
Glory days v. modern times
Absher’s book paints a picture of KMOX as first a high-powered national media outlet that reached far beyond St. Louis, and later as a flagship CBS station–a jewel in the network’s crown.
In today’s media environment, flagship radio and television stations are pretty much tied to their networks and rooted in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago–with Atlanta in the game with CNN.
Today, Arbitron ranks metro St. Louis as number 22 nationwide in terms of radio listeners.
Metro St. Louis is 21st in the Nielsen rankings of media markets by number of television households.
Not too shabby by any means. Advertisers are still buying airtime; stations are still making money. But, St. Louis can no longer claim the crown it held when KMOX was king.
Nostalgia and reality
After allowing myself a bit of nostalgia for a time I never knew, I reflected that when it came to the entertainers on KMOX (and no doubt on rival radio stations) the lineup was comprised of white people for a very long time. On page 30 of the Absher’s book you’ll find a photo of the Wade Ray Band. Smack in the middle is a man in blackface.
Talking about the early days of KMOX, Absher told a great story about a janitor named Sol Williams who may well have been among the only black voices on the air “back in the day.” In the late 1930s he was roped into serving as a fill-in expert on France Laux’s sports show when the scheduled guest didn’t show up. The listeners liked what they heard and he became a recurring fixture on the show. In 1975 Miriam Blue, got a similar “big break” on Jack Carney’s show.
Ah, yes… Those were the days.