Bonner Was the Top Jock in the 50s
E.B. was #1 with St. Louis teenagers even before rock and roll hit the local airwaves.
He began his ten-year-plus stint on local radio in 1951. It was a time when network radio programming was breathing its last gasps and disc jockeys had taken the place of the cancelled programs. Popular music of the day was performed by the likes of Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Mario Lanza, and Les Paul and Mary Ford.
And all the kids knew E.B., Ed Bonner. They heard him on KXOK from 1951 to 1958 and WIL from 1958 to 1962, but his work involved a lot more than his airshifts. It seemed as though he spent every spare minute with his listeners, doing up to four personal appearances per week.
After graduating high school in California, Bonner became a fireman. His first radio job came in Idaho Falls, ID, but wanderlust soon took hold and he went to a baseball tryout, ending up as a shortstop on a Chicago Cubs’ farm team. Pro baseball didn’t pan out, but another radio gig cemented his future. Bonner became a disc jockey in Lynchburg, VA. The broadcast career was interrupted again by a 27 month Navy obligation, after which he found himself in St. Louis. He was 28.
His daily shows were broadcast from the KXOK studios in the Star-Times Building downtown at 12th and Delmar, and there was always an open invitation to teen listeners to come down and watch him work. His first show on the station was “St. Louis Ballroom.” Later he was heard from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 to noon on Saturday. One of his fans, Wayne Brasler, is now a professor at the University of Chicago. “In the early ‘50s,” Brasler remembers, “Ed got a teenaged sidekick on his Saturday morning shows, Maureen Arthur of University City, who went on to being part of Ernie Kovac’s cast and then on to TV and film acting in Hollywood.”
The early 1950s were also a time of unrest in the nation. Men were being drafted and sent off to war in Korea, rumors of communists among us led to nationally broadcast witch-hunt hearings in Washington, and the nation’s Negroes were beginning a movement toward equality and against discrimination.
In Prom Magazine, reporter Mary Lou Matthews quoted an unnamed civic official who said “Ed Bonner has probably done more to make St. Louis Teenagers prejudice-free, responsible citizens than any other person in show business.” His personal appearance roster included the Catholic Youth Organization, Cancer Fund, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Red Cross and the campaign for the Y.M.H.A. He was remembered as a sharp dresser with a great voice whose appearance at a public event would guarantee the event’s success.
E.B.’s influence was felt by the record industry too. Al Chotin was a record distributor who was quoted by Post-Dispatch gossip columnist Jerry Berger remembering Bonner. Chotin said Bonner, whose nickname was “Monkey,” was the top disc jockey in St. Louis, and when it came to promoting records, “If you didn’t offer Ed the artist first, forget it. He wanted total exclusivity.” At Christmas, Bonner was always showered with gifts from local record stores, but it wasn’t payola. It was their way of recognizing his contribution to their business.
Bonner held down a slot on KXOK until 1958, when he moved his allegiance to WIL, which had studios in the “lower level” of the Coronado Hotel on Lindell across from the St. Louis University campus. Neither E.B. nor KXOK management would comment on the change in employment. He was given the noon to 4 p.m. shift. His short-lived replacement on KXOK was Buddy MacGregor. It seems E.B.’s listeners moved up the dial to 1430 with him. The 1959 Hooper radio survey showed him topping every other disc jockey in town, including WIL’s Dick Clayton and Jack Carney.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 3/03)