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Radio Park Was One Of A Kind

“Radio Park.” It’s a name that prompts a variety of visual images, which is why it was a perfect home for a radio station that relied on theater of the mind. Listeners usually had a much different mental image and many were somewhat disappointed when they saw it, but that didn’t change the way they felt about the station at Radio Park.

The real estate was purchased from Florence Eilers, widow of St. Louis patent attorney Roy Eilers, in July of 1955. Elzey Roberts, Jr., and Chet Thomas announced they planned to move their radio station, KXOK, to the two-and-one-half acre tract of land at 1600 North Kingshighway between Warwick on the south and Aldine Place on the north. Buildings on the land totaled 10,000 square feet. The move took place Sunday night, Aug. 28, 1955. By the time they opened for business that Monday morning, all 110 employees were in place at Radio Park.

The work atmosphere at KXOK had been strained over the previous couple years. Original owner the St. Louis Star-Times had ceased publication in June of 1951, but the station’s studios remained in the newspaper’s building at 12th and Delmar. In 1938. when the station signed on, the studios were the best money could buy, and the operation was designed to work in tandem with the newspaper’s staff. There were many locally originated programs and a large broadcast staff to put it all together.

By the late ‘40s, KXOK had become little more than a plug and play ABC Radio affiliate, running all the national shows and supplementing with local news. By then, the radio business was changing, and a station that relied solely on network programming was headed on a downhill track. Management hired some prominent disc jockeys and used the move to Radio Park to establish the image of the “new” KXOK.

And anyone who drove past 1600 North Kingshighway remembers that sign in the front. It was the first impression young Bud Connell had when he arrived to begin his job programming the station. “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 12-foot frame that appeared to have permanently grown from the block-long grounds known as Radio Park.”

 

Entrance to the studios at Radio Park.
Entrance to the studios at Radio Park.

Those who worked at Radio Park in later years have many pleasant memories, due in part to the fact that the radio station was not a sterile, business environment. The grounds were filled with huge oak, elm, mulberry and pine trees. Next to the building a walled patio provided a break area for employees. Author Robert Hereford wrote, “Three huge trees rise from the brick floor of the patio…Flowers, ferns and creeping ivy add to the Spanish motif.” Former newsman Robert R. Lynn remembers, “We often did our newscasts with the door to that patio open and the birds singing outside.”

KXOK occupied a newer two-story building, which was attached to an old former residential structure that the station used for storage. There was a small house behind the station where the caretaker lived with his family. There was even a hand-carved totem pole on the grounds.

Entry to KXOK was from the south on a circular drive. Most offices were on the second floor, studios on the first. Walking past the receptionist, who operated the old-fashioned patch cord switchboard, visitors went down a couple stairs, passing the door to a very messy newsroom (the opinion of Steven B. Stevens) into a viewing area to watch the disc jockeys at work. The main studio was about 1,000 square feet, and at one time, there were seats for a live audience.

In its earlier years, KXOK fed the ABC network signal to all affiliates west of the Mississippi from a master control room on this level. The echo that gave KXOK its full, rich on-air sound came from a wall in this room. There, housed in a plexiglass box, was an echo amp designed by corporate engineer Dale Moudy. It came from an old Hammond organ and consisted of three tubes and springs.

Another large studio on this level was used for commercial production. It housed the massive Ampex 300 reel-to-reel machines. Richard Ward Fatherley, who became the station’s production director, remembers “a lonesome, aged grand piano hugging the studio’s south wall, a testimony to radio’s good old days.”

The newsroom was eventually moved behind the main studio, and as Steven B. Stevens remembers, “the worst part of that was that those who needed to use the rest room (a facility described by Robert R. Lynn as ‘acoustically perfect’) behind the newsroom would go there and think up things to do. One trick was to come out with a large soda bottle filled with water and pour it slowly into a bucket of water during a newscast so it sounded you were broadcasting from the KXOK toilet.

“More than once I had my script lit on fire by a jock cruising by; I would simply ad lib my way on through the newscast.”

The magic of a place called Radio Park was summed up in the words of programmer Bud Connell: “Radio Park was an image, indelible in our minds and hearts, and in our loyal listeners – and it will never be repeated. It will be sadly missed by those of us who were fortunate enough to work there.”

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 6/08)

The video link below is to an 8 mm film shot by Richard Ward Fatherley while he was an employee of KXOK in the early ‘60s. It shows the grounds of Radio Park and a KXOK All Stars ballgame at nearby Forest Park.