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For KXLW, the Early Road Was Rough

Guy Runnion made a name for himself as a broadcaster in St. Louis reading the news on KMOX, but he had higher aspirations. On January 1, 1947, he left the CBS powerhouse and signed his new radio station, KXLW, on the air. Later he probably wished he had stayed at KMOX.

There was plenty of publicity prior to sign-on, thanks to Runnion’s second-in-command, Edgar Mothershead, who is listed as the company’s vice president. Mothershead had been an editorial writer for the Watchman-Advocate, and his contacts in the city’s print media allowed him to get plenty of exposure. The Globe-Democrat, on the day of sign-on, wrote, “The station will present a varied program of music, news, sports, food talks, fashion hints, agricultural and outdoors information.”

The first day’s broadcast was similar to many other inaugural broadcasts here. After an invocation by Rev. Dr. Frank Hall of Central Presbyterian Church, Clayton’s mayor Kenneth Thies welcomed KXLW to the airwaves. Studios were located in the brand new Plaza Building at 8135 Forsythe (the “e” was later dropped from the street name).

The station was limited in its coverage, having been assigned 1,000 watts of power at a frequency of 1320 Kc. Programming began at 6 in the morning with a farm almanac show. At 10:00 KXLW had a show for women, and there was an hour of news and sports at noon. Runnion quickly found that disc jockeys were popular with his listeners, and, since he had no network to provide programs and the production of local dramatic and live music shows was expensive, he took the inexpensive, easy way out.

There were stories of a pending move to new studios, but that never happened. Runnion was served with notice that he could no longer broadcast from the tower he had erected without a permit at the corner of Warson and Old Bonhomme in Olivette. He had spent $6,000 to put it up. The case would be tied up in court for the next several years.

On December 6, 1948, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers set up pickets at the KXLW studios and at a new tower site in Brentwood in a wage dispute. Just over a month later, the station was silenced, and Runnion accused the engineers of sabotaging the transmitter. “Two wires on the lightning arrester were grounded out sometime Saturday night…causing some of our equipment to burn out,” he was quoted as saying. “The damage could have been done only by someone familiar with such installations generally and with KXLW facilities in particular.” The Post-Dispatch quoted IBEW spokesman Robert Stetson: “Any inference that our men caused this damage is ridiculous. Our men prize their Federal Communications Commission licenses too highly to risk them in any such undertaking as this.”

The new tower finally arrived at the Brentwood site, but steelworkers who were hired to erect it refused to cross the engineers’ picket line. Olivette officials continued to pressure Runnion, and things came to a head there when County Police arrested him and two of his remaining engineers just as he was about to make a broadcast from his Clayton studio. He was charged with violating an Olivette ordinance regarding the tower. There were more arrests. In another episode, five staffers were arrested as they tried to enter the tower facility for a broadcast. Runnion told a Globe-Democrat reporter, “The malicious series of arrests seems to indicate pretty clearly that the officials of Olivette are trying to silence the station permanently, rather than simply trying to enforce zoning ordinance covering the 16-acre hog farm where the transmitter was put.”

There was obviously pressure from his co-owners as well. A shareholder filed suit in February of 1949 asking that the station be placed in receivership, alleging Runnion had “grossly mismanaged” KXLW. Runnion, meanwhile, filed a legal complaint against two marshals, charging them with trespassing and willful and malicious oppression in connection with the recent staff arrests.

In April of 1949, Runnion threw in the towel and an agreement was announced that would allow him to save face. His controlling interest in KXLW, along with the shares held by his wife Gladys, was sold to Lee, Silas and T. Virgil Sloan. Runnion would stay on as general manager, they said, and all other employees would keep their jobs. The marshals were found not guilty of the charges he had filed. In August of 1949, Runnion resigned after having reached agreements to settle the strike and completing construction of the new tower on Bomparte Avenue in Brentwood.

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 07/02)