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WEB Was One of the Early Power Players

They were pretty heady days for radio. The mid-1920s were a time when the stronger stations were gaining a foothold in popularity. Lesser stations - those whose owners had jumped on the 1922 bandwagon when everybody tried to get a station -were beginning to fall by the wayside. In St. Louis there were nine different stations, although six of them were paired off in shared frequency agreements, which meant that the two sharing stations had to coordinate broadcast hours on their single frequency.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had its own station, KSD. A competitive newspaper, the St. Louis Star, didn’t own a station, but they entered into an operating agreement with Benson Broadcasting which allowed the paper to build studios in its building and promote the station as “The St. Louis Star Radio Station.”
And the broadcasts originating in those local studios were something. Looking at the evening of February 2, 1925, the Star described the “typical” scenes in the eighth floor studios. The portrait painted in the paper is one of a local radio station trying hard to impress, visually as well as aurally.
“While the radio fan is glancing at his clock, as the hands near 10 p.m., all is activity at the studio in The Star Building, a pretty gray room with softened walls and muting draperies. Within it voices sound echoless. There are stencilled decorations on the walls, a new grand piano in the center, overstuffed lounges, and on the wall, over the microphone, a gilded horseshoe.“Billy Knight, the Little Ole Professor, flits from studio to reception room, where the evening’s entertainers leave their coats and clear their throats. One of the earlier arrivals asks that the horseshoe, sent by a fair admirer and which hangs on the wall for luck, be turned prongs up according to tradition, and Billy fixes that, with many other things.
“It is ten, lacking a minute. The Professor has finished a telephone conversation [with the engineer two stories up]. [Pianist] Bud Fox has smoothed out his long black hair, and Miss Toots Thurman, a good looking girl with auburn hair and a dress the color of burnt ochre, is standing before the microphone, the bronze ear of all those listeners out in the cold, distant world.
“‘Now, everybody quiet,’ says the Professor. The piano starts, followed a few seconds later by the words of ‘Roses of Picardy.’ Up in the operator’s room, the needles on the dials are swinging, measuring the voice modulations and sending them on their far flung circuit.
“In the studio, the most striking thing is the interest of the performers in their appearance. No shirt sleeves here, but pearl necklaces, satin slippers, careful marcels. Each singer has his or her pet habit. One digs the heel of her shoe into the thick carpet, another fingers his watch fob, while Bonita Frede, a child blues singer, is assured by her mother that it will be quite all right for her to bend a knee in time to the music and roll her eyes, too, if she wants to.”
These were the days before radio networks took hold, so the programming originated locally. Broadcasts were not continuous. In fact, many local stations would go silent one night a week to allow listeners to tune in distant signals on the same frequency. The “stars,” if that is what one would call the performers, ranged from Lieutenant Felix Fernando and his Havana Orchestra, Jack Ford and his Peacock Orchestra, and Bud Fox (the studio pianist) to Miss Ruth Mitchell (contralto), Miss Edna Deal (blues singer), and Mr. Fred Otte (Swiss yodeler). While these may not seem to be a big draw by today’s standards, one must realize that every station in town was filling time using talent like this, and a two hour broadcast would usually consist of eight to ten different acts. A lot of listeners obviously thought this stuff was worth staying up for.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 11/1999)