Taking a Radio Show On the Road
In the 1930s and 40s, dueling furniture stores in St. Louis created a unique situation in programming, the true travelling radio show.
Uncle Dick Slack sponsored several shows on KMOX that featured full hillbilly bands, complete with staff comedian. The competition, Carson, Union, May, Stern had to do something on the radio to compete. They created their own hillbilly band, variously known as the Carson Cowboys and Carson’s Melody Roundup. But KMOX already had all the hillbilly music it wanted, and Dick Slack wisely maintained that monopoly. Carson’s had to find another broadcast outlet for their band. They chose three different stations.
This was fine with the stations. KSD, WEW and KWK were glad to get the advertising income. WEW even ran the show Monday through Saturday, but KSD and KWK wanted only Saturday morning broadcasts. This is where the fun began.
Pat Pijut has firsthand memories of the Carson Cowboys, having performed on the show in 1942 and 1943. She was eleven years old at the time. Her sister, who was also a regular on the program, was eighteen. “I had been to the radio stations and watched her on the show with my parents when I was younger. I assumed later that Grandpappy Jones (the bandleader and program emcee) had talked to my mom about me coming on the program,” she said.
The performers had to do three different shows on three different stations every Saturday morning. “Those who were on the first half of the show would arrive at the Chase Hotel at about 5:30 in the morning,” says Pijut. There was little rehearsal or preparation. “We would find out what song we’d be performing when we got to the KWK studios. My sister and I would go over into a corner or into another studio and go through the song a couple times. For some reason they would only let me sing hymns on KWK because I was so young.”
At 6:00 the KWK show began and the staff who would be performing on the second half arrived - usually. As soon as the first half of the program was finished, that group of musicians would hop into a taxi and rush up Lindell to the campus of St. Louis University and the studios of WEW. There, new songs would be assigned and, if there was time, there’d be a quick rehearsal, and they were on the air again. More often, says Pijut, “we’d get there, somebody would start the theme song, and we’d be on.” The first program on KWK wrapped up, the second staff would rush to WEW.
The piggyback staffing would take place again, including another rushed taxi ride up Olive to the KSD studios at the corner of 12th and Olive in the Post-Dispatch Building. It was a long, hectic workday for the twelve or so members of the group, but when the broadcasts ended, there was a chance to pick up some extra money in outside personal appearances. Pijut says the youngsters weren’t involved in those. They were, however, part of the staff on the daily broadcasts on WEW for awhile. She says her teacher at Mount Pleasant School would let her out of class a little early so she could get to the studios in time to go on the air.
For all her work, Pat made $10 a week, which was welcome income for her family in South St. Louis during the early years of World War II. But after a couple years her folks decided it was too much for the youngster.
Today she has pleasant memories of those times as one of the few remaining veterans of the furniture store radio wars.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 07/2001)