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An Inside Look At KWK's Golden Days

In 1946, GIs who served on both war fronts were being assimilated back into society, and they were spending money freely, priming the nation’s economic pumps. Radio was in the final years of its golden age, and here in St. Louis, many well established broadcasters were enjoying an economic boom of sorts.

KWK, owned by the heirs of long-time owner Thomas Patrick Convey, had its studios on the ninth floor of the Chase Hotel on North Kingshighway. In 1937 the station became part of the Mutual Radio Network, which was formed when Chicago’s WGN decided to loosely affiliate with several other stations to provide an attractive national sales package to advertisers.

While Mutual never gained the status of the other radio networks, they nonetheless provided some programming to affiliates, and one of those shows originated from St. Louis. The rest of the broadcast day for those stations was filled by local programs.

A study of production reports written by Thad Shore of KWK provides some insight into the problems encountered in those days as stations produced daily, live shows. On March 26, 1946, Shore expressed his dissatisfaction with the 7:00 a.m. “Rich Hayes” show: “Am recommending to continuity department that [a] more interesting ‘build-up’ be incorporated in opening over theme.” That day in the local “Shady Valley” show: “Joe Randall was a bit under the weather and did not come up to his usual standards.”

Thad Shore was obviously a senior staffer in that he was given production responsibility for many of the station’s programs, sometimes spanning a 12 hour period in one day. On March 26 he was generous with his comments: “The commercial delivery on this show is improving as Billy Knight avoids straining his voice and cracking in shouting the commercials.”

Nowadays, disc jockeys take their amenities for granted, but in the year following the war, things were different. On April 3, Shore began work at 7:30 in the morning and finished at 10 that night. His notes from two of the shows indicate it might not have been a pleasant day: “The general spirit and life we usually have was lacking. This I attribute to the closeness and heat of the studio… the entire company is to be commended for their efforts and cooperation in spite of the adverse temperature and humidity of the studio.”

And talent often had to be handled: “A passable show but Jackie [Hill] was not in as good form as usual. He arrived precisely at rehearsal time, ten minutes before the show, and apparently had not settled himself after hurrying to make it.”

As for the assumption that things in a large market like St. Louis were somehow better than in smaller stations: “The engineer informs me that the microphone which went bad [during the show] had apparently been bumped or knocked over the night before. Preliminary tests had indicated that the microphone was working but it did not prove to be of broadcast quality when we went on the air. We were able to shift to a working microphone in time to preserve the commercial quality of the show.”

And there were days when a staffer wasn’t happy with his assignment. In some cases the staff member was correct: “Announcer Bruce Hayward desired to substitute third person pronouns in copy that he thought appeared to lend personal endorsement in the first person.”

Again on April 22, the weather caused problems: “With outside temperature in the 80s the cast found it a bit hard to keep on their toes in the heat of Studio A.”

 

In the following days, it appears nerves were a bit on edge. Shore wrote that the “Coon Creek” hillbilly music show suffered from “a pointless script that was not funny… Too much copy was spent on setting the locale of the situation and not enough on comedy development. This, I believe, stems from the tendency to burlesque situation and character rather than use the situation as the basis for pointed comedy, satire, wit, or frustration comedy.”

By May of 1946, Mr. Shore knew there was a problem with the Shady Valley show that was fed live on the Mutual Network each morning at 8:15. “We find ourselves using more and more of the material as written. However, while we retain the comedy material we often continue to revise or substitute for the musical introductions. Often we do not use the written material simply because an ad lib sequence has developed of which we take the best advantage. Of course, in this case it’s a matter of time that eliminates the material. We also eliminate gags that reflect adversely on the character of the performers. On the whole we find it an advantage to have the script to follow but take many liberties with it to keep the show alive.”

Things did not get better. On May 14: “Script, which can make this [‘Rich Hayes Plays’] more than just a pop organ recital is lagging again after a short trend toward improvement.” His next show that day, ‘Shady Valley,’ was a bit rough. “Jackie Hill was absent because of illness. His mother called. Texie Hollie missed this broadcast. He called in at 8:05 (The show began at 8:15 a.m.) and reported that his car had broken down on the way from Alton.”

And as the day wore on, Shore’s frustration grew. “[Script] Revisions [from continuity] were not satisfactory so I rewrote the opening and following introductions. These were not gems of creation but improved on the continuity provided. In both this show and in ‘Rich Hayes Plays,’ the writer, Dave Chopin, seems to fail to see the creative possibilities inherent therein.”

July was also a rough month at KWK. On Saturday, July 20: “Regarding the reported noise in the speech portions of ‘Easy Listening’ noted in Mr. Traxler’s report, microphone changes have been made to correct this condition somewhat. The noise is, of course, from the street since this program originates in the announcers’ booth because of tight studio scheduling.” On July 25: “For the second morning, during the program, moving of furniture or floor trucks above the studio was audible.”

Within a couple years, KWK began going a different direction in its programming. A young man named Gil Newsome became one of the market’s most popular radio personalities, and he did it by sitting in a studio and playing records for St. Louis’ younger generation.

Listen to Shady Valley Gang on KWK, in 1945

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 02/01)