KSHE: Entering a Second Half-Century of Music
We didn’t really have any money, but some of that was by design; money was our parents’ thing. We hitchhiked to a lot of the places we went and shared most of the little we had. We didn’t have a flag or a salute, but we had the peace symbol and we stole WWII’s two-fingered “Victory” gesture and made it our own. We didn’t desire a lot of toys; a Frisbee would keep us entertained and help us clean the seeds from our herb. We didn’t have a uniform but faded jeans and a t-shirt were pretty close and we recognized each other upon sight. We loved black lights and incense and we felt at home in head shops and wherever else KSHE radio was played.
KSHE was, for those lucky enough to be in its listening radius, an emblem. It was an icon and a badge of honor to be among the hip that were hipped. Sweetmeat was our mascot and music was a sacrament, proof that someone else got it, felt it, knew that the world was changing.
Pop radio, which was AM radio at the time, made music the filler between commercials. It was a rotation of the Top 40, repeated endlessly all day, plus a lot of jingles, gimmicks, contests and DJ patter. It had provided a noisy but effective platform for music. But by the mid-1960s music was expanding, musicians were applying more art to their work and albums were becoming more than a collection of hits. The Beatles stopped concentrating on 3 minute singles, quit touring and focused on albums, many based on their experiences with drugs like LSD. Curtis Mayfield was making “People Get Ready” and “Superfly.” James Brown sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black and Proud.” That stuff’s not playing on AM. It’s just not. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were not censor-friendly.
Fidelity was important too, “headphone music” was on the rise and music was no longer necessarily suited for a 3 inch automobile or transistor radio speaker. Albums from the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, the Who and many others challenged the limitations of AM. Bob Dylan both called it and dealt it. His 1965 single “Like a Rolling Stone” clocked in at six minutes, over twice the length of a standard single. The song reached number 2 on Billboard but it was clear that long, angry diatribes were going to be the exception, not the rule for AM radio.
Something different was needed and the owners at KSHE found it, captured the zeitgeist and made St. Louis one of the early American cities that got it.
KSHE actually started years earlier in 1960, literally in a basement. Ed Ceries, a 20-year veteran of radio and TV, invested his life savings and built the station in his Crestwood, Missouri home. Keying off the SHE in the call letters, Ceries called the station “the Lady of FM,” hired all female announcers and played a classical music format. The teletype used to gather the news was next to the washing machine. Mrs. Ceries did her ironing in the room that also stored the record library and was the administrative office.
It was obviously a small operation but the connection with the audience was strong and listeners were known to bring their own classical albums to the home/station to suggest they be played. However, after about a year, Ceries succumbed to advertiser hesitance about the all classical format and began to play almost all middle-of-the-road music and there was plenty of that already. In 1964, Ceries sold the station to Century Broadcasting, headed by General Manager Howard Grafman.
Ron Elz, a giant in this story and in radio in general, was working with KSHE in 1967 and had recently been to San Francisco to hear what was going on there on the left coast, especially on KMPX FM. Elz, who has been in radio since the ‘50s and has worked under the moniker “Johnny Rabbitt” since 1962, is a certified radio legend and is inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What Elz heard in California struck him as important. Disc jockeys were playing deep album cuts, had eschewed the banter, had ceased talking over intros, were playing 3 or 4 or even 5 songs in a row without comment and, in some cases, were creating themes within these groupings. It was a revolution.
Also, FM was capable of much higher fidelity and could even transmit in stereo.
Elz convinced Grafman and Century Broadcasting to convert the struggling station to this new style and a year later Howard asked his brother Shelley to stop selling life insurance, which probably wasn’t a very difficult decision, and come to manage the station. Shelley, who had absolutely no experience in radio, took him up on it and then proceeded to hire staff. It is here that the genius or madness prevailed. Shelley hired high school students, or the very recently graduated, also with zero experience.
It could have failed. It could have gone down in blazing flames.
But it didn’t.
The time was right. We wanted to hear about our music, our culture, ourselves. We didn’t require that “radio voice” or banter. We wanted to hear someone who sounded like us: young, engaged, affected by the music and, most of all, hip.
And just like that a bunch of kids, all under the age of 21, none with experience in radio or broadcasting, along with Grafman as their leader, brought Album Oriented Rock radio to St. Louis.
The studios were tiny and were situated along the north wall of the “66 Park In Theater,” in Crestwood. The old tube transmitters took up most of the building’s space; they overheated and ditches had to be dug to drain water away from pooling at their base. The building was hidden but certainly was found by the faithful. Listeners learned that there was a window into the studio space, a very uncommon feature, and they came to talk, to request and actually steal records, especially the ill-placed “L” section that sat right beneath the window. Per DJ Mark Klose, “So someone would call up and go, ‘Hey, man, how about some Little Feat?’ No. ‘Led Zeppelin?’ No. ‘LRB?’ Do you get the idea? I got no ‘L’s, man. They stole all my ‘L’s!”
Sunday evenings from 7 pm to midnight brought us the Seventh Day, a programming concept that continues to this day, where the station featured seven albums from seven different artists played in their entirety.
Even the news was different on KSHE as the on-air personalities tossed away the tear sheets from the AP wire service and delivered the news in their own way, often with musical lead in that pertained to the content. Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” and the Lighthouse classic “One Fine Morning” led us into the news and other features. KSHE was cultish, not corporate.
Early successes brought KSHE to events promotion like the KSHE Birthday Party, kite flying, the Valentine’s Day Massacre, Super Jams, the Thanksgiving concerts, the Pig Roasts and many other activities. Plus the KSHE Schtuff!
Early advertisers were limited to record stores, stereo stores, waterbed stores, head shops and pizza. But as the number of listeners grew, so did the potential for other advertisements.
The station really found its groove in the early ‘70s. It just couldn’t have gotten much groovier. The jocks were the best and were encouraged to break new and local bands, playing more than just the hits everyone else was playing. Whole albums were featured by artists as diverse as the Who, Arlo Guthrie, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Firesign Theater and Iron Butterfly. Foreign bands like Germany’s Lake were featured, as were Midnight Oil from Australia and Split Enz from New Zealand. Local bands like Mama’s Pride, REO Speedwagon, Styx, Cheap Trick and Head East got play time that would have probably never happened elsewhere and their careers were off and running.
We spoke with Joe Turek, the bass player and vocalist of Mama’s Pride, about KSHE and how their steady airplay and concert promotions helped make the band successful.
“I joined the band in August of 1974 after an audition which went very well. I was playing in a bar band and waiting for the next semester of college to start,” said Turek. “We started playing at the River Rat on the landing, which was the precursor for Mississippi Nights and the owner loved the band and booked us opening for national acts. We connected with an agent out of Louisville and, as the story goes, we kept playing on the road, writing songs, getting more exposure as we went. Eventually, we went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record a demo of our original songs. The demo was a success and we were shopped to many recording labels including Atlantic Records who loved the band and signed our record deal in St. Louis in June of 1975.”
“Shelley Grafman was one of our biggest fans,” Turek said, “and we had a close relationship with him. KSHE played our test press of the first LP even prior to its official release. Our song off our first LP, ”Blue Mist,” is KSHE’s #1 song and Mama’s Pride is in KSHE’s Hall of Fame.”
There was an ongoing rivalry between KSHE and KADI, just a few points down on the dial. Turek remembered a story involving his brother-in-law, Ross Gentile (pronounced Gentiley), who started working weekends at KSHE in 1973.
“As the story goes, KADI had a fire in the station with firefighters on scene and Ross rolled into the station for his shift and began playing every song with fire in the title. Richard Miller, the owner of KADI, who later became a good friend of Ross’s, started a heated exchange with Shelley Grafman that led to Ross getting suspended for a week. But with a little smile on Shelley’s face because he thought it was incredible. At that time, it was one of the most outrageous things anyone ever did on radio. Ross was a teetotaler!”
Many of the DJs went on to other successes after KSHE. Gentile was hired out of the station by A&M Records and had a very successful career earning gold and platinum albums working with Styx, Head East, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Captain and Tennille, Supertramp and Peter Frampton. Peter Maer, a 1970 graduate from SIUE, worked at KSHE and went on to become the Senate and White House correspondent for NBC and CBS news. “Radio” Rich Dalton, whose face appeared on a Rolling Stone cover, migrated from KSHE to Internet radio. John Ulett went on to also be the PA announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals. Some went on to other adventures but, for most, their love of radio and music became their life.
As it goes, not all good things can last. By 1973 the number of FM stations in the U.S. had tripled but the corporate world caught up with Album Oriented Rock (AOR) and true, free-form radio was for the most part over. But not KSHE.
KSHE remains true to its AOR and progressive roots to this day, more than 50 years down the road. It, in fact, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Longest Running Radio Station with no change in format since 1967.
We love that we have such a piece of rock and roll history right here in our beautiful city and we would love for you to share your memories with us. Please share this article with your friends and share your comments about KSHE remembrances, the times, the music and the concerts.