Sheldon Davis and his partners paid too much for his radio station in St. Louis. It had a lousy signal and half the market couldn’t pick it up. But for his employees, it was a helluva ride.
Davis bought a station in 1985 from Robert Skibbe and Janet Gorecki that was licensed to Jerseyville, Ill., so that’s where the broadcast tower was located. Even with licensed power of 50,000 watts WJBM-FM’s broadcasts couldn’t be heard in South St. Louis or Jefferson County.
Davis’ plan was to produce a station, marketed to St. Louis, that played country music. He wanted to give local powerhouse WIL-FM a run for its money, which would be no small feat, given the limits of the broadcast signal.
Thus was born WKKX-FM, “KIX 104.”
But there was a lot about the business that was beyond Davis, so he hired consultant Rusty Walker to put together a staff and guide the operation. Walker’s hire as the local program director was John King.
“John and I ‘imagineered’ KIX at the trivia machine in the bar at Tony Roma’s next to the hotel where we were staying,” Walker says of the station’s beginnings. “Neither of us took any notes - we were just ‘jamming’ and kept it all in our heads.
“The next day at the unfinished studio facility (concrete floors and card tables), we had to recreate everything we’d done the night before. I’m not sure how much we actually retained.”
Buddy Van Arsdale, “Bud Man” on the air, has similar memories.
“When I got there in September of 1985, the office and studio space on the tenth floor of West Port Plaza were pretty empty. John King had us tracking down music from the old Jerseyville station library or buying what we needed from record stores.”
King’s goal was to give country listeners something different. “The point was to be a pop sounding station that happened to be playing country music,” he remembers.
To that end, Van Arsdale recalls increasing the speed of the records slightly to brighten the station’s sound.
The first on-air line-up featured Mark Elliot and Diana Rivers in morning drive with Jack Warnick handling news; Bud Man from 9 - noon; John King 12 - 3; Scott St. John 3 - 7 (whose shift was taken over by King fairly quickly); Michelle Kent 7 - midnight; and Al Richardson overnights.
Staff turnover among sales personnel was so frequent that newsman Warnick said there was no use trying to remember their names until they’d lasted on the job for a minimum of six months.
Even the erection of a new broadcast tower in Godfrey during the station’s first year of operation failed to overcome signal problems. Mike Anderson, a former announcer, remembers a remote broadcast from Arnold in which the station’s broadcast team at the shopping center couldn’t even pick up the station.
After a year of operation, company president Shelly Davis admitted to an Alton Telegraph reporter, “We’re prepared to lose several million dollars and right now we’re doing a good job of it.”
There may not have been a lot of money, but the staff was young and competitive. Michelle Kent has fond memories of a concert sponsored by rival WIL. KIX jocks stood outside the Arena handing out their bumper stickers to ticket holders. When a WIL guy told them to leave, they did, but not before they “papered” the WIL remote van with their stickers.
“We all were working for a common goal,” she says, “the success of this start-up.”
Anderson remembers KIX as “kind of like a thrill ride at an amusement park. It was the station that always seemed to be climbing the hill but never got to the top. Every achievement was made against seemingly impossible odds.”
Commercial success never came. Consultant Walker says the staff experienced late payrolls, and jocks were shorted on talent fees. He himself worked for two years as a consultant without being paid.
Within six years the station was sold to Zimmer Broadcasting for slightly more than the original purchase price. There had been a lot of red ink, and a lot of fun.
Walker looks back on WKKX as “the most successful unsuccessful station in the history of country radio.”
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 10/08.)