KXOK Was St. Louis' "American Graffiti"
In the decade of the 1960s, one radio station stood out in St. Louis, and an assessment some 40 years later finds that it still stands out in the memories of many people. Anyone who lived through those years understood the later premise behind George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti.” The radio - or more importantly one specific radio station - played a big role in the lives of teenagers in just about every market. Everyone listened to that station, and the disc jockeys were real people who became friends to the listeners. In St. Louis, that station was KXOK.
KXOK was owned by Todd Storz as part of his chain of AM stations known for their rock and roll formats. A stroll down memory lane, compliments of station vet Dick Ulett, who now owns Clayton Studios: Mort Crowley, Danny Dark, Ron Riley, Peter Martin, Robert R. Lynn, Bob Shea, William D. Rogers, Dan Allison, Johnny Rabbitt, Don “Stinkey” Shafer, Richard Ward Fatherly, Nick Charles, Bruno J. Grunion, William A. Hopkins, Big Ears Bernard, Steven B. Stevens, Bobby Shannon, Delcia Corlew, Chickenman, News at 55, Radio Park, “The station with the happy difference.”
Ray Otis was the station’s program director, coming to St. Louis in 1962 at the age of 24. Manager Bud Connell had “opened” the station, and it was Otis’ job to move it through the next stages of evolution. “There was magic at KXOK like no other place I’ve seen,” he says.
“Everything just fell together. The synergy was incredible.” The station was located in a small grove of trees at 1600 North Kingshighway, which it dubbed “Radio Park.”
Across the street was the old Parkmoor. There was an old house on the property and the studios were built as an addition, with the a room in the house serving as the reception area and the rest being used for storage. Out in front, facing Kingshighway, were the 3’ high green letters “KXOK” which had graced the side of the building it had previously inhabited, the old Star-Times Building downtown.
Jim Bafaro, a former radio journalist here and now working at Boeing in public relations, remembers being confused as a five-year-old: “As a kid, I heard the term ‘Radio Park’ and assumed there was some little park somewhere with a big microphone in it.”
Richard Ward Fatherley was KXOK’s production director, and he often did substitute work by doing dj shifts on the air. Like Ray Otis, Fatherley joined KXOK at the age of 24, coming to St. Louis in 1964. “In 1966,” he says, “The Pulse radio ratings research group completed its ranking of the nation’s top five most-listened-to radio stations. Two of them were in St. Louis; KMOX, the CBS-owned “At Your Service Station,” and KXOK, the Storz-owned Top 40 station.
“This ratings battle between two differently programmed radio stations signaled the beginning of the end for the reign of the AM “Rockers” and a green light for the AM “Talkers.”
Both Fatherley and Otis remember how KXOK capitalized on the construction of the Gateway Arch, tying in its dial position with the monument’s dimensions (630 Kc, 630’ high, 630’ wide). Fatherley notes the station “took advantage of every opportunity to embrace the structure in its sales brochures, business cards, promotional pieces and listener contests.”
Otis remembers the day an audition tape was played featuring the work of a young entertainer named Don Pietromonaco. “I’d never heard anything like it. We had a fairly rigid framework for our jocks, but when we brought in Don and made him ‘Johnny Rabbitt,’ things loosened up. Todd Storz used to say some guys need the framework of a format. Others don’t. The proof is in the ratings. We turned ‘Johnny’ loose, and he owned nighttime radio in St. Louis.”
And then there was the time a guy drove up to Radio Park towing a speedboat behind his car. Lou Cooley told the station’s manager he’d like to make a deal. If KXOK would allow him to paint the station’s call letters on the side of his boat, he’d win a high profile boat race. He kept his word, and an interesting relationship was born. “Lou ran a laboratory shuttle service,” Otis says, “and he had a telephone in his car. He’d phone the station with traffic reports and we’d put him on the air.” Otis also put the station’s janitor on the air. “Eddie Simpson, the janitor, lived in the house behind the studios. Sometimes when he’d be cleaning in the studios I’d sit him down at the mic and we’d talk.”
Robert R. Lynn, who was news director in those years, has fond memories of his experience there. “We were actually gatherers, writers, editors, not just news readers like many other stations. The newscasts were full of gizmos, echoes and beeps so they’d fit the format. It was a bunch of people having a good time.”
And those good times sometimes took the form of pranks. Lynn remembers a psychology student at Washington University who sent the station a press release. The student had constructed a body-length black bag (cutting out two holes so he could see out) and he wore it all over campus, recording reactions of other students. The young man scheduled a press conference in which he would detail his findings. “Steven B. Stevens’ mom sewed up five more bags and five of our guys went to the campus wearing them. Each of our guys held a press conference claiming to be the student, blowing away any chance he had of getting attention.”
Then there was the time Fatherley came back from vacation and had to do an air shift. He conducted the station’s “Bingo” game without reading all the instructions, giving out six numbers at once instead of the usual single number. As Lynn tells it, hundreds of “winners” blew out the phone circuits and other multitudes drove to Radio Park, gridlocking North Kingshighway. For the rest of his St. Louis stint, Fatherley became the target of Ray Otis’ ribbing, enduring shouts of “Bingo” at unexpected moments.
A young lady who began her on-air stint as a sponsor’s spokesperson has fond memories of KXOK. Delcia Devon (later Corlew) was the voice of Famous- Barr beginning in 1964. She remembers the brilliance of Don Pietromonaco, who was known to his listeners as Johnny Rabbitt. “I would be recording my commercials in the production studio and Don would come in to record his Bruno drop-ins. He’d just sit down and start talking in his Bruno voice, doing wild tracks. Later, when he was on the air, he’d carry on a conversation with those recordings. I was amazed how he could remember what he’d said on the tapes.”
Everyone interviewed for this article gives the credit for KXOK’s success to one man, Bud Connell, the operations manager. “He pulled the right strings and brought in the right people,” says Robert R. Lynn. Ray Otis says “Bud was the best market opener I’ve ever seen.”
Connell came to St. Louis from Miami. “Storz gave me carte blanche,” he says. Arriving in July of 1961, he monitored the market for a month. “KXOK had 4% of the market while WIL had over 20%. KXOK’s jocks were Ken Reed, Peter Martin, Jack Elliott and Don Shafer. Bob Shea and Robert R. Lynn were the newsmen. My first job was to brighten the sound and beef up the news. I brought in Shad O’Shea and Danny Dark as jocks and David D. Rogers and Steven B. Stevens for news. Our news department had four of the biggest voices in radio.”
“It was a bunch of people having a good time,” says newsman Lynn, “and the jocks made as much on the side from personal appearances as they did on the air.”
Connell says he brought in outstanding people, but his main criterion boiled down to a simple requirement: “I looked for a capacity to entertain and the intelligence to entertain without using bad taste. The big stars in radio today wouldn’t even have been considered for jobs on KXOK. Don Pietromonaco, for example was the ultimate Johnny Rabbitt; the defining Johnny Rabbitt. He was an absolute entertainer.”
The veterans of KXOK all say it was the finest job in their careers. “In a word,” says Robert R. Lynn, “it was fun!” Delcia Corlew says “It was unique, exciting. There was a lot of discovery in it, a chance for all of us to learn about ourselves and our listeners.” Connell says “My nickname around the station was ‘Mr. Kx-OK. Those were heady days for a young man who loved playing radio. I am convinced the old KXOK would blow away all of today’s broadcast wunderkind, including those in the smut-filled control rooms of the present day audio-porn purveyors. And wouldn’t it be fun to do it all over again?” The comment by Ray Otis says it all: “In retrospect it was almost euphoric. I’d go back in a heartbeat.”
(Reprinted with permission of the St.Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 5/01.)