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When The Union Gave KSD A Kick In The Pants

When KSD signed on in 1922, the Pulitzer family proudly touted their new radio station in the pages of their newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Then other stations signed on in St. Louis, and other newspapers gave them plenty of publicity. By the time KSD affiliated with the NBC Radio Network, the local station had assumed a low profile, from which it would not emerge for several years. What happened?

There is no actual documentation available to explain what happened, but scattered newspaper accounts and a first-person memoir of engineer Robert Coe shed light on the subject.

Coe was instrumental in putting several St. Louis stations on the air. He credits the uniqueness factor with creating the early excitement among the public when WEW and KSD, the city’s first two stations, signed on. In 1921 that anticipation and excitement helped him get a job hosting public demonstrations of radio, picking up amateur broadcasts. “It is no real mystery the radio audience grew so rapidly even before there was much attempt at regular planned programming,” he wrote.

So when KSD began its experimental broadcasts they were trumpeted in advance in the paper. As soon as the station was licensed it began regularly scheduled programming, which was arranged by the station’s program manager, Virginia Jones. Since there were only three or four stations in St. Louis at the time, listeners were very interested in knowing when broadcasts were available. During KSD’s first few years, radio stations came and went in St. Louis. The station’s paid staff consisted of three engineer/announcers, one program director/announcer, a secretary and an office boy.

Then late in 1925, the city’s power brokers built a powerhouse station, KMOX. The only real competition among the stations was for broadcast time, since frequencies were often shared and only one station could use the frequency at a time.

But on Nov. 15, 1926, something major happened that changed the local broadcast landscape. The National Broadcasting Company, NBC, debuted, and KSD was on the list of 24 initial affiliates.

Before the network came into being, KSD’s programs were much like those on other stations: Live music concerts, dramatic presentations and lectures, all featuring local talent. The NBC affiliation allowed the St. Louis station to offer much more variety and big-name stars because most of the shows originated from New York.

Robert Coe wrote: “The mystery and fascination of just hearing a voice or a phonograph record over the air was not enough to sustain audience interest…Amateur talent and production was not enough and, more and more, the professionals demanded pay.”

Now KSD was carrying live broadcasts of the Rose Bowl, the Metropolitan Opera and the National Farm and Home Hour. While this was celebrated for its uniqueness, there were soon two other networks doing the same thing on local stations, and KSD fell into a rut. They had closed their local studio operation in 1926, employing only two engineer/announcers and one office girl.

Throughout the late ‘20s, network programming accounted for virtually all of KSD’s airtime. A change came only after the newspaper’s business manager was visited by a committee from the American Federation of Musicians. They pointed out the fact that all other local stations had contracts with AFM and had musicians on their staffs. The AFM reps told Pulitzer that, if a contract was not signed, pickets would go up outside the newspaper offices.

A signature was forthcoming, and musicians were hired. So were more staffers to handle the responsibilities of locally originated music shows. The three-piece band evolved into a twelve-piece orchestra with vocalists, new announcers, news and sports broadcasters followed, and KSD was back in the business of producing programs in its studios at 12th and Olive.

The local publication, Radio and Entertainment, hailed the change in its issue of Nov. 26, 1932. Columnist Fleet Smith wrote “KSD is giving more attention to local programs.” That was it - one line.

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 7/09).