It’s probably a part of life for many teenagers. One day while listening to the radio, there’s that exclamation to one’s self: “I could do what that disc jockey’s doing, and I could do it better.”
While there may be a lot of truth to that statement today, it’s a sentiment that’s been around as long as there’s been radio. In the very early days of the industry, people were literally taken off the street and put in local radio studios to help fill air time as piano players or singers. Within a few years, each station had its own stable of talent, but managers were still interested in what the public had to offer.
Regular auditions were held by stations looking for more talent. Here in St. Louis stations provided on-air exposure for amateurs. KSD ran a show called “Stars of Tomorrow” which the station called “A radio broadcast given entirely by boys and girls of the St. Louis vicinity who are not more than 16 years of age.” One of the top performers on this show in 1933 was 12-year-old Marshall Zwick, who appeared several times playing Sousa march music on the xylophone.
Radio & Entertainment, a weekly equivalent of today’s TV Guide, even ran a two-page feature story encouraging people to audition, but noting in the headline, “You have three chances out of 500 to become a radio star, if you have talent.” One can imagine a weekly cattle call of people, all of whom think they have what it takes to be a star. And since many people were stretching to make ends meet during The Depression, some were willing to do whatever it took to put food on the table.
Studio auditions were held at KWK each Friday morning. Amateurs had to perform before a screening committee made up of members of the station’s musical and on-air staffs. At WIL, program director Franklyn MacCormack was the decision maker, often offering advice on how applicants could perform better. KMOX pianist Margo Clark handled all musical auditions at the station, which was only fitting since she herself had obtained her job through the same process several years earlier.
KMOX even held an audition on the air each week, which was a tradition at the station for years. Over 30 hopefuls were given a tryout on the airwaves and feedback came in from listeners. It was through this process that KMOX hired its chief announcer Woody Klose and one of its well-known hillbilly stars, Roy Queen.
Not that all the applicants were star quality. One local man showed up at his audition saying he could play 14 different instruments, and he had made each one of them himself out of soap and cigar boxes.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 6/06)