Art Ford really wasn’t sure what he’d do for a living, but he probably didn’t envision union busting. After getting a degree in journalism at the University of Missouri in the 1940s, he ended up working at a newspaper in Evansville.
But when he learned his wife was pregnant, he left that job and they moved back to St. Louis to be near family.
Ford quickly landed a job at the INS wire service, and it wasn’t long before a friend suggested some extra money could be made by doing weekend work at a local radio station, KSTL.
That inauspicious beginning in the broadcast business in 1953 led to a career that spanned four decades.
KSTL wasn’t a particularly glamorous place to work in 1953. The studios were located in a quonset hut on the east side of the Mississippi just under the MacArthur Bridge. The station had been put on the air by Grove Laboratories in 1948, but it was licensed for daytime only broadcasting. After about a year-and-a-half on the air, Art Ford was bored, and one of his managers suggested he move over to the sales side of the radio business.
That also meant a physical move across the river. It seems the station’s sales offices were at co-owned UHF KSTN-TV at the corner of Hampton and Berthold. It wasn’t long before circumstances evolved that catapulted Ford to a position of making radio station management decisions. This was when the real challenges began.
Running a daytime radio station in a major market can be extremely challenging. There were union contracts to fulfill and overhead costs to cover, but the limited power and number of hours of airtime meant there weren’t as many ad availabilities.
Ford says he got around this in two ways: The mornings were filled with religious programming which brought in enough money to cover operating costs. In the afternoon, Carson’s Furniture Store bought a daily time block and put country disc jockey Johnny Rion on the air to represent them. This allowed KSTL to turn a profit, although the Carson’s sponsorship forbade any ads for competitive products like furniture and jewelry. Rion was never actually an employee of the station. He was paid by his sponsor.
In the late 50s rock and roll swept into the market and Ford thought it would be a good idea to counter-program with “good music.” He hired the market’s only black disc jockey, Spider Burks, to do his jazz show from 1:30 - 3 and then brought in TV personality Chuck Norman to deejay until sign-off. “We had the best music programming in the city,” says Ford, “but the fact that we were a daytimer really hurt us.”
In 1965, Art Ford was made the station general manager, and country music soon returned. Jenny Jamison, a singer who had a couple of successful country records, was added to the on-air staff. KSTL became the top country station in the market, and the station’s studios were moved out of the quonset hut and into an office on Laclede’s Landing.
1975 was a rough year in the history of the station. The owners had sold their FM frequency three years earlier, but the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers insisted that the company maintain its full engineering roster.
This meant keeping four full-time engineers on the staff to operate one daytime AM station, a station that was limited to 9 ½ hours of daily broadcasting during the winter months of November, December and January. Ford says he brought this up each year during labor negotiations, even offering to find another job for one of the engineers, but after three years of negotiating, the union threatened to “walk” if the contract was not signed. “I said ‘I’ve worked with those guys for years, but if they walk it’ll be the saddest thing they ever did,’” Ford remembers.
That’s when the going got rough. The engineers walked out and management continued operating without them. There were charges and countercharges. Management hired a consulting engineer and continued operating. In the end, the union lost their battle and KSTL went on without their services. Art Ford, the former newspaperman, eventually moved on to manage WGNU and later retired from the business.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 11/04.)