Harry Eidelman Reflects on KCFM
It was 15 years ago or more when I decided to put a radio station on the air. I was in the high fidelity business at Jefferson and Olive. Somewhere along the way I got the brilliant idea that if I put a radio station on the air I could advertise my high fidelity business and get lots of customers, because I would have a captive audience.
Without really checking into anything, and not knowing any better, I started looking around and bought an FM transmitter. At that time they were easily available because just about everyone in the country believed FM was dead. St. Louis even felt that way because I believe the only noncommercial FM station on the air at that time was KFUO. But nothing bothered me. I was determined.
I scraped up the money for the down payment and applied to the FCC for a license to operate a station at Jefferson and Olive. It was my intention at that time to put a small tower on the building there. I got the license and the list of available call letters. I liked the sound of KCFM and chose that one. Since then I’ve had reason to wonder why. People keep thinking it’s a Kansas City station.
Then the fun really started. I found an engineer t help me get things started. The first thing he told me was that with a small tower on a building at Jefferson and Olive I wouldn’t get a signal out 30 feet. He said I needed a larger tower with some height. I started looking around and found an old tower on top of the Boatmen’s Bank Building that was used by an old Transit Radio Company. I found out they were paying $5000 a month on lease, and would like to get out from under it. So we negotiated a reasonable deal for them, pretty high for me, where I got the tower for half price, payable in advance. Again, I scraped up the money. The great day arrived
My engineer and I hooked it up, turned it on, and strangely enough we got phone calls.
People loved he station with all of the classical music. Being naïve, we went full steam ahead. I was operating with free help. People loved the idea of glamorous radio and wanted in on the ground floor. For the first month everything was fine, and lots of volunteers came in to get in on the fun and help run KCFM.
These were truly dedicated people who believed in FM. They played the records, made the announcements and cleaned the equipment. But after a few weeks the novelty wore off and I would get calls from this unpaid help saying their mother wanted them to cut the grass, or one would call up sick, or one would have a big date. Before I knew what was happening I found myself running the transmitted and the turntables, day and night, and neglecting the high fidelity business. Glamorous it wasn’t.
It was inevitable. I had to start salaried people. Even though the salary rate then was around $1 an hour, we were on the air 19 hours a day, and no revenue was coming in. The electric bills were coming in though, and there always seemed to be a $700 tube that would pick a bad time to burn out. Things really got rough.
We practically bankrupted the Hi Fidelity Co. to keep KCFM on the air, and it was getting discouraging, particularly when we couldn’t sell a 5 cent piece of advertising. Nobody believed we had a big enough audience that would buy. I was beginning to believe they were right. It hadn’t helped my high fidelity business in sales.
But a few dedicated people and I marched on, and we weathered two hectic years. During that time I found out that among my other duties at KCFM, I would have to do some selling on my own. One of the accounts I sold was a banking institution.
The president of that bank claimed we didn’t have any listeners. So I got our announcers to ask everyone listening to KCFM at that time to drop us a post card with comments. The replies filled a bushel basket, which I promptly took into the president’s office and dumped on his desk.
The post cards and letters covered his desk and spilled over on the floor. That was one of our finest sponsors for quite a while.
Advertisers still weren’t breaking down our doors though, so I decided to get into the background music business to help carry the freight. I went to the people who had all of the transit radio receivers and bought them all for $1 a piece. That night my partner and I sat down and started rebuilding them to make them work for background music.
We played easy-listening music during the day and whenever a commercial came on, we pushed a button which shut off the commercial so the background music customer couldn’t hear it.
Unfortunately there were times when our system didn’t work, and the customer in the store would be listening to soothing music and suddenly the commercial would come on loud and clear and tell him to go to that customer’s competition.
While we were fighting this problem, the FCC came up with a ruling that we couldn’t use this system. We had to go into what they call multiplexing, which was a scrambler built into the transmitter which scrambled a separate program and for which you needed a special receiver.
This was a very fine idea with one minor exception. It didn’t work. But, we got the equipment anyhow and started ironing out the bugs. In one year we debugged it sufficiently to get ourselves into the background music business on a small scale.
Among the other impressions that multiplexing made on my – I found that I liked the sound of the word, and so our background music service became “multiplex music.” Multiplex music not only helped the overhead, it carried the entire overhead for a while.
Time marched on, and we decided to get out of the location we were in because we needed larger facilities. We rented a large warehouse on DeBaliviere and put up a small tower, right through the roof, and moved our equipment in.
To say the roof fell in is putting it mildly. Our signal at this location was not getting out the front door. After many phone calls to the company that made the antenna we were using, with many suggestions from them that didn’t work, they sent us a new antenna.
The men on the staff at that time, along with yours truly, climbed the tower that very day, at 2 a.m. We started making the necessary changes and taking measurements. It wasn’t funny that cold morning, but now it seems pretty comical.
Here we are, freezing on that tower in the pitch black night, and all of a sudden two policemen come up the ladder with flashlights and guns drawn and want to know what we are doing there. My answer was, “What do you think we’re doing in zero weather a couple hundred feet off the ground?”
Things finally got it shape. We got a signal out. We had a sales staff. Our problems seemed to be diminishing. Then one week later I got a call about midnight from the announcer on duty who said the place was full of smoke, what should he do? I gave him to only advice I could come up with at he moment. Call the fire department and get the heck out of there.
I got dressed and started out for the station. When I got within a mile of the place I could hear the sirens and see the flames. The tower was down, lying across the National Food Store next door, and there was nothing left of the building that had been KCFM. DeBaliviere looked like the fourth of July. Within an hour every member of the staff was standing in the street looking at the ruins.
The next morning we gathered at the ashes and tried to decide where we could go with KCFM now. We could take the insurance money, which would not pay off one third of our bills and fold up. Or we could try to rebuild something. The consensus of the entire staff was “let’s go forward.” They even offered to go without their paychecks until we were back in business, but that didn’t become necessary.
Through the courtesy of Channel Nine, we put a small antenna on their tower at Boatmen’s Bank. We took the antenna out of the ashes and fixed it up, took an old transmitter and rebuilt it and carried it down to Boatmen’s on a Sunday, up the elevator and hooked it up ourselves.
(By Harry Eidelman 11/30/1969)