Thomas Patrick Convey - St. Louis Radio Pioneer
In the earliest days of radio in St. Louis, a young promoter from Chicago hit St. Louis and proceeded to make his mark building radio stations. Thomas Patrick Convey first came to St. Louis in 1916 to stage a housewares show at the Coliseum. He returned in 1925 to stage a radio exposition, which was common in the United States at that time. The event brought together manufacturers to show their latest products to the general public.
Legend has it that Convey was inspired to stage such an exposition after his son begged him to fix a broken radio receiver at their home in Des Plaines, outside of Chicago. Convey supposedly was so taken by the reception of his radio exposition here that he uprooted his family and set out to get involved in the local broadcasting industry.
In the words of one obituary, “He interested St. Louis men in his idea and in three months had secured $250,000. Thus KMOX came into being.” He was manager of KMOX for about a year until he had a falling out with some of the investors. Out of work and with no money, he set out to buy another station. Pawning a watch that had been given to him by his previous clients - the radio manufacturers - Convey put earnest money down on KFVE, a station based in University City that was off the air.
The station was given the new call letters KWK and signed on the air on March 19, 1927. In its first year of broadcasting KWK had a gross income of under $10,000, which meant Convey had to handle as many jobs as possible at the station and bring in family members to help. Son Robert went on the air as “Bob Thomas,” the elder Convey was “Thomas Patrick,” daughter Charlotte was ukelele player “Juanita,” and his wife Grace also took her turn at the microphone. Convey set up the studios on the ninth floor of the Chase Hotel and traded advertising time for rent.
Thomas Patrick, as he was known to his listeners, was an operator in the truest sense of the word. When WIL petitioned the Federal Radio Commission to take over KWK’s frequency, Convey took to the airwaves to enlist his listeners in the battle. Day and night he pleaded with them to send letters, sign petitions and organize mass meetings to fight WIL. His radio exhortations would run the gamut from sobbing pleas to ranting and wailing. It was a battle he would eventually win.
Convey was also involved in a bitter lawsuit against his former radio station, KMOX. During a news event at which both stations were broadcasting, a KMOX employee (Graham Tevis) cut one of Convey’s cables, knocking KWK off the air. Convey had the man arrested, and the KMOX worker sued him for $75,000 in damages. Convey counter-sued for $100,000. The eventual out-of-court settlement involved no cash, but Convey was granted equal broadcast rights for the next season’s baseball games.
It was his play-by-play work that his fans remembered most. Convey was a fixture at local ballparks for several years. Another obituary noted, “Convey was a human dynamo of energy, impulsive,tenacious when he was sure he was right, and uncompromising in a fight.” His final fight was one he couldn’t win. He was at his home in Kirkwood at the site of the KWK transmission tower when his appendix burst. By the time he arrived at Dr. L.B. Tiemon’s hospital in Pine Lawn, blood poisoning had begun to set in. A week later he was dead at the age of 47.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 11/1998)
Tom Convey - St. Louis Promoter and Radio Pioneer
Thomas Patrick Convey couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, but when he moved to St. Louis, he began a career that would keep the Convey name in St. Louis radio for decades. The road, however, was often a rocky one.
Legend has it that Convey, a Chicago promoter, traveled to St. Louis to stage a radio exposition bringing together radio manufacturers from around the country to show their wares. He later told a reporter that he was so taken by the public reaction to the expo that he uprooted his family and relocated. He then set out to find a job in St. Louis radio.
Convey was instrumental in organizing a group of St. Louis’ biggest business names as investors in a super radio station. KMOX, under the ownership of their partnership, signed on in December of 1925, with Thomas Patrick Convey as their manager. By August of the following year, there was a falling out, and Convey was let go. He had no money.
Pawning a watch and a diamond ring that had been given to him by the radio manufacturers in appreciation for the successful expo, Convey rounded up $500 and bought a station that had been dark for several months. KFVE was based in suburban University City. He was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch later as saying, “I started a broadcasting station literally without a dime.” New calls, KWK, were eventually assigned, and the studios were moved to a prestigious location, the ninth floor of St. Louis’ Chase Hotel, on March 17, 1927, a place it would call home for 22 years. At this point KWK truly became the Convey radio station.
A REAL MOM & POP STATION
In addition to the adoption of his air persona “Thomas Patrick,” Convey enlisted the other members of his family to do on-air chores. Son Robert became “Bob Thomas,” daughter Charlotte became ukulele player “Juanita,” and wife Grace also took an occasional turn at the microphone under the air name “Peggy Austin.” She was listed as the station’s program director.
Several times, Convey demonstrated the ability to get his way with the Federal Radio Commission. When the FRC juggled frequency assignments and forced St. Louis’ WIL and KWK onto the same frequency, Convey made frequent on-air pleas for help from his listeners.
The Washington Post reported 1,900 St. Louisans donated a total of $3,000 to send a forty-person delegation to Washington to protest to the Commission. Signs were posted in yards all over St. Louis: “Hands off KWK.” It worked. Within three weeks, WIL was assigned a different frequency so the two stations no longer had to alternate broadcast days.
To celebrate KWK’s first anniversary the station leased the Odeon Theater on March 17, 1928 for a special stage show. A year later in celebration of the station’s second anniversary, a huge production was staged at the city’s largest building, the Coliseum. The program featured 36 acts, 24 of which were performed by the station’s entertainment staff. A reported 18,000 people attended.
In 1929, Convey ran an ad for KWK in the city’s Chamber of Commerce newsletter in which he extended a unique invitation: “You are invited to visit our studios and offices on the ninth floor of the Hotel Chase, where every facility has been provided for the expert handling of radio programs. Our staff of twenty-one people is especially trained in radio broadcasting.” The station had come a long way from the early days when the staff consisted almost entirely of Convey family members.
FEISTY COMPETITOR IN THE MARKET
Never one to take a back seat to the competition, Convey decided to provide his listeners with live coverage of a major aviation story in spite of the fact that his former employer (KMOX) had negotiated exclusive broadcasting rights. Things got tense on the scene of the event at St. Louis’ Lambert Aviation Field, and as the arguing heated up, a KMOX engineer cut KWK’s microphone wires during the broadcast.
The resulting lawsuits were settled out of court, with KWK getting shared broadcast rights to the next year’s St. Louis baseball games.
In another 1929 confrontation with a station employee who was moonlighting at a nightclub, Convey ended up in front of a police magistrate. Prohibition was still a way of life, and when asked in court if he had been drinking the night of the incident, Convey replied, “Well, I wouldn’t consider it drinking. I had a bad cold and was taking spiritus frumenti prescribed by my doctor. I think it was in a pint bottle, but I don’t know because I’m not used to carrying bottles.”
Convey made the most of his baseball broadcast rights, encouraging the ladies in the audience to come to the ballpark and enjoy the special Ladies’ Day promotion. An example: In the era immediately following the stock market crash, women were admitted to the ballpark for a 25-cent service charge.
A few years later the Cardinals banned radio broadcasts in the belief they were hurting attendance, so Convey sat atop the North Side YMCA across the street from Sportsman’s Park and, with the help of a good pair of binoculars, related what was happening to the home team.
The experienced promoter continued to take advantage of opportunities to pump his station. In January of 1930, a scant three months after the stock market crash, Convey announced the addition of 10,000 square feet of studio and office space, along with “a complete line of new furniture … in keeping with the futuristic decorations which have been included in the improvements.”
Convey was also working diligently at improving KWK’s signal strength, tweaking the FRC with on-the-air diatribes at every opportunity: “With each application for an extension of the license - you know the law requires this be done every three months - we make the request that station KWK be granted increased power. So far our pleas have been unheeded, but if we are given permission one of these days we will … give St. Louis the best we can possibly give in high-grade radio features.”
The St. Louis Star reported Convey sent petitions to the Federal Radio Commission containing over 96,000 signatures in support of the power increase. Those major expansion plans were finally announced in November of 1930 when KWK arranged to take over the original transmitter site of KMOX in suburban Kirkwood.
They also bought a 5,000 watt transmitter, Convey stating the entire acquisition exceeded $100,000 in value (although only $30,000 actually changed hands). It was a purchase signaling a step toward the good life Convey had envisioned for his family, but it also contributed to his early demise.
A STAFF PARK
The suburban transmitter site gave the Conveys a new home in a relatively rural area. Ever the promoter, Thomas Patrick Convey announced in 1931 that he was converting the grounds around the towers and his home into a country club for his station’s employees. But that was not all - the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported: “Two large, modern soundproof broadcasting studios will be constructed on the present site of the broadcasting plant of station KWK.
“According to Convey, the new studios are being erected to accommodate the artists at times when the weather conditions are such that cooling breezes would be particularly desirable and to provide fresh air to all who wish to ride out to the Kirkwood plant … [he] contemplates improving the four-acre tract, to be turned over to the employees of KWK as a recreational center … with a swimming pool, regulation tennis courts and a summer playground for the children of the employees.”
Late one Sunday night in May of 1934, Thomas Patrick Convey suffered a burst appendix while at his home on the KWK Country Club grounds. Unfortunately, the residence was so far removed from the closest hospital that he was mortally ill by the time a doctor was able to begin care.
Convey died five days later at Dr. L. B. Tiernon’s hospital in suburban Pine Lawn after peritonitis set in; he was just 49 years old. In the obituary that ran in the Post-Dispatch, Thomas Patrick Convey was described as “a human dynamo of energy, impulsive, tenacious when he was sure he was right and uncompromising in a fight.”
His son Robert T. (Bob) Convey immediately took over the job of managing KWK. Only 21 at the time, he continued as the manager, expanding KWK into a large operation employing 75 people, until the family sold the station for over $1 million in 1958.
Although his radio career only lasted about ten years, Thomas Patrick Convey made his mark on St. Louis. The stations he set up are still there; KMOX is a Midwest “powerhouse,” now owned by Infinity. KWK went through some major crises over its life; it went dark twice, had its license revoked once, and was rescued from bankruptcy by Doubleday Broadcasting. Today, the station continues to exist as KSLG, 5,000 watts at 1380 kHz.
Few St. Louis radio listeners today have ever heard of Thomas Patrick Convey, but it was his enterprising spirit that left a legacy of a station deeply committed to St. Louis, speaking to and with the community it served.
(Reprinted with permission of Radio Guide. Originally published 1/2005)