The grand experiment that was KDNA in the 1960s appears to be part
entrepreneurial, part pie-in-the-sky and part fun. It didn’t work, mainly because voluntary donations from listeners couldn’t overcome the station’s red ink.
Ostensibly the brain child of Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam, KDNA-FM went on the air on February 8, 1969 on a commercial FM frequency, 102.5 mHz. The two men had met in Seattle at a similar type of radio station with the call letters KRAB. Lansman had dropped out of Clayton High School here and gone to radio school.
Milam reportedly put up $50,000 to start KDNA, but it was several years before the Federal Communications Commission granted the duo a license because there was a competing application for the frequency from the First Christian Fundamentalist Church. There were even charges that the radical group Students for a Democratic Society was behind the station’s founding, a charge Lansman denied.
KDNA developed a loyal audience among students at both Washington and St. Louis Universities. Staffers were paid, albeit not much, to do their programs, and Lansman told listeners he wouldn’t sell ads so long as their voluntary contributions covered costs. Studios were at 4285 Olive in Gaslight Square in an old house. Lansman, his wife Cami and their young son lived upstairs, and rooms on the house’s third floor served as a dormitory for some staff members.
Some might call the programs wonderfully “free-form.” Music seemed to have no sense of format except that the songs heard were those the disc jockey wanted to play. Listeners were treated to unexpected monologues espousing personal opinion or discussions of social problems. There were on-air conversations with Jeannie, the affectionate name for the station’s transmitter, sometimes chastising her for allowing the frequency to wander. The St. Louis Symphony’s Leonard Slatkin would drop in every Thursday afternoon to spin records.
But there were detractors.
These were the late 60s and early 70s, and anti-war tensions ran high. People with long hair were deemed the enemy by many.
Police raided the KDNA studios on a drug search. Lansman and two staff members were charged with violating the state’s drug laws. Lansman said the drugs had been planted. The charges were later dropped. A very vocal challenger appeared in the person of evangelist Bill Beeny, who sought to have KDNA’s license assigned to himself and lawyer Jerome Duff.
They ultimately failed, and so did KDNA. The writing was on the wall for the station’s demise when it began a “pledge drive” with a goal of $400,000 and collected only $20,000. Lansman had said he would use the donated money to cover the station’s debt and buy out Milam’s half. The remainder, he said, would be used to form an umbrella group to oversee community radio in St. Louis. The group’s name, he said, would be Double Helix Corporation.
Lansman sold the station to Cecil Heftel for $1.4 million in 1972 and the call letters were changed to KEZK. Proceeds of the sale were split 50/50 between Lansman and his partner Milam.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 10/97)