Radio Park Cast Its Spell on Employees Too
In early July 1961, I approached 1600 North Kingshighway in St. Louis. After my nine year career in modest radio facilities crammed into small buildings or tucked away in corners of high rises and hotels, I was greeted by a massive all-weather sign announcing the famous call-letters, KXOK. Each big green letter, more than five feet tall and a foot thick, was mounted on a heavy, imposing, twelve-foot frame that appeared to have permanently grown from the block-long grounds known as Radio Park. I drove part way around the circular driveway through stately old oaks and elms, passed by the curved station entrance and parked in front of an old home that was attached to the modern offices and studios. The black asphalt driveway was well-kept and freshly topped.
As I walked up three steps of the expansive front portal and into the lobby, I sensed that I had entered a famous place, a station with a rich history, a station that had hosted many famous people, well-known newscasters, and fabled sports teams. KXOK, 630 on the AM dial, had cast a long and celebrated shadow in radio history. Now, I was taking over the programming for the new owner, Todd Storz, with the intention of making the station the dominant Top 40 operation in the Midwest.
The lobby, about thirty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide, proffered sofas and chairs, unobtrusive doors to men's and women's rooms for the comfort of newly arriving visitors, and a large rectangular receptionist station featuring a tall black telephone switchboard left over from the 1940s. A tangle of cords patched the outsiders to the insiders, and the switchboard operator took one call after another as I waited for a break. A few moments later, a small young woman with short dark hair asked, "May I help you?" I gave her my name and announced that I was there to meet the general manager. The young receptionist nodded and patched a black cord into the switchboard and passed along the information through the mouthpiece on her old-fashioned headset.
I took a seat and looked around. The lobby could have used a little touch up, a few new tiles, and new sofa and chairs... but it all felt right; Comfortable, lived in. A stairway by the front door led up to a second floor, which would eventually become an office suite for me and my programming staff. Next, I noticed the door on the far wall behind the receptionist desk. I surmised that it led into the old house, and I wondered what the old house held inside. The old house was nothing more than a museum of all discarded equipment, furniture, recordings, and files, no longer needed or wanted in day-to-day operations.
A few minutes passed and a smiling, gray-haired gentleman with a well-smoked pipe clinched between his teeth, broke my thoughts as he approached with hand outstretched. "Welcome, Bud Connell. Welcome to Radio Park!" Chet Thomas certainly knew hospitality and I immediately felt at home.
After introducing me to the receptionist, he took me on a tour and pointed out every nuance of the famous old station while peppering the conversation with names of famous people who had graced the studios and halls. I learned that KXOK was the Midwest switcher station for one of the major networks in the 1930s and 40s. The obvious fact loomed that the station once held many more station employees than it presently had. A cavernous hallway echoed our footsteps as we passed by a row of abandoned desks with empty offices along one side. I asked, "How many people worked here when KXOK was a network affiliate", and Chet Thomas answered proudly, "A hundred and ten."
Exiting the hallway, we entered an enormous room that would have easily held thirty desks. There were only four desks, three occupied----the controller, the traffic manager, and the traffic manager's assistant. The controller and traffic manager worked with pencil and paper. The only typewriter was hard at work as the assistant typed the next day's programming log. The sales promotion manager occupied a small office in the corner and a stairway led up to the general manager's office three-room office suite and conference room.
The next room on the right, about 20 by 20, initially functioned as the newsroom; however, I had the news department moved closer to the front of the station, and we turned the old newsroom into a break room with coffee and drink machines, and places to sit.
After the break room, we entered another massive room after a slope step down. This became the DJ's lounge, a place filled with desks, files, and personal items belonging to the entertainment staff. During the Cold War, this windowless room became the Fall Out Shelter, and the flat roof was more than three feet of sand and other supposedly radioactivity absorbing materials.
Off the break room and next to the DJ Lounge, we exited to the Don Carlos Patio, complete with a fountain and sitting areas, a place where station executives could entertain visitors with outdoor cocktail parties and buffet lunches.
Moving back toward the front, we exited the Break Room into a sound lock and then into the main on-air studio, a large rectangular soundproof room of more than 1000 square feet. At one time, this studio held a live audience of one-hundred, although the theatre chairs were long since removed. At this time, the studio accommodated the DJ's desk, the newsman's desk, and the platter turner. The platter turner was the last vestige of the American Federation of Musicians, and the half-dozen or so on the KXOK staff were the last remaining members of the former studio orchestra. In 1961, I negotiated an end to the A F of M contract, and the records (platters) were transferred to self-cuing cartridges and jurisdiction was given to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, our studio engineers.
In front of the big on-air studio was a long glass window, and the studio engineer looked down into the studio as he handled tapes of the music and commercials as called for by the DJ and station programming log. Behind the on-air control room, we walked into the production area, which housed the massive Ampex 300 reel-to-reel machines. To the right, another control room looked down on an even larger studio, formerly known as Studio A, which could accommodate at least a hundred-strong studio audience. A few of the original theater chairs remained along with a black concert grand piano and myriad microphone setups.
Between the production area and the aforementioned cavernous hall, the enormous and famous control board that once connected network affiliated stations all over the USA to their favorite network shows still glowed brightly as the sound of KXOK pumped through it on the way to the station transmitter.
In April 1964, Chet Thomas left us as General Manager and was replaced by Jack Sampson.
This old facility promoted creativity, even prompted it from us as long as we were there. Radio Park was an image, indelible in our minds and hearts, and in our loyal listeners----and it will never again be repeated. Most of all, it will be missed by all of us for the rest of our lives----sadly missed by those of us who were fortunate enough to work there.