Dateline: Nov. 7, 1967. Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic homage to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “White Rabbit” hits the St. Louis airwaves on 94.7 FM.
Fifty years later, the 1960s rocker still occupies a worthy spot on the same station’s “Real Rock Radio” playlist.
KSHE 95, the 2017 NAB Marconi Award winner for “Rock Station of the Year”, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year of continuous rock music programming playing across the city of St. Louis. The station, a property of Emmis Communications, became one of the first radio stations in the country to spin records tied to the rock genre on the FM broadcast band.
Other stations have either switched music formats or went bankrupt over the last fifty years, but the chain-smoking, headphone-wearing pig dubbed “Sweetmeat” lives on thanks in large part to cunning innovation and a loyal fanbase.
“You have to give credit to our listeners,” Long-time KSHE personality John “U-Man” Ulett said to Fox 2’s (KTVI) John Brown in a recent interview. “They’ve just grown up with the radio station, they are dedicated to the station, they know just about everything about the station, and they want the station to succeed, they want it to succeed just as much as we do.”
A couple of years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, KSHE traveled to the unknown frontier of FM Radio armed with the music set to ignite a revolution. The station catered to the likes of long-haired hippies and tie-dye shirt outcasts eagerly turning the dial in search of a Hendrix riff instead of an overplayed doo-woop tune. The renegade rock outlet tossed aside the mainstream Top 40 hits in favor of album-oriented music attracting an untapped audience of die-hard music enthusiasts. Kids and young adults who were avid fanatics of guitar-driven songs inspired by the rebellious angst at the time soon found a place to call home forever.
The music relentlessly serves as the heartbeat of the station as it did during its heyday. Sure, you have your rock standards like the Rolling Stones and a daily dose of Led Zeppelin roaring every day, but it’s the ever-popular “Klassics” pumping the rock and roll blood keeping this station alive and relevant. Bands like Head East, Mama’s Pride, Mason Proffit, & April Wine get mentioned in the same breath as The Who and Black Sabbath when music lovers around this town refer to groups containing the rawest lyrics and sound throughout the annals of rock history.
KSHE became the vital launching pad for the anxious up-and-coming artists/bands looking to cut their teeth in the wild jungle known as the music industry. There was a California group Linda Ronstadt once employed as her backing band (The Eagles). A Detroit singer who perfected his “Night Moves” under the Arch (Bob Seger), and a charismatic blonde frontman headlining Montrose who gave us a powerful sample size of his greatness to come with “Space Station #5” (Sammy Hagar, duh).
In order for these artists/groups to showcase their fiery presence on stage, KSHE delivered by concocting legendary concerts and promotions. The Kite Fly concert at Forest Park not only provided a sunny spring afternoon escape but formally introduced fans to a band led by a young paint-faced Starchild and Demon on the rise. The SuperJam gatherings at Busch Memorial Stadium evolved into the social event of the summer with groups like Styx and REO Speedwagon producing countless memories note by note. The legendary Birthday Party concerts booked notable acts like glam rock pioneers T. Rex and southern rock legends The Allman Brothers Band to celebrate the station’s recognition of rock music’s never-ending spectrum.
Of course, the disc jockeys, past and present, personify KSHE’s signature style of hard rock attitude and talk show brash. From the freeform trailblazers to the storytelling icons, the list goes on. Listeners grew up tuning in to familiar characters such as “Radio Rich”, “Byrd”, “Smash”, “Johnny Rabbit”, “Favazz”, “U-Man”, & a dude named “Mama.”
The station also prides itself by introducing female DJs who didn’t just read news bulletins but possessed the coveted gift to grab an audience and accompanied them on an endless wild ride through the land of rock and roll. They include the comedic stylings of “Joy in the Morning”, “Lern” with her charming on-air sarcastic wit, the “Totally Cosmic” grandmother of rock Ruth Hutchinson, and Katy Kruze, the first voice I heard associated with the St. Louis staple of rock (By the way, I still have a bumper sticker she signed for me when I was nine-years-old).
The segments and features within each memorable decade are pop culture institutions in the Gateway City. Who needed a helicopter pilot when a guy called “Thumbs” patrolled the streets of St. Louis riding his 10-speed bicycle broadcasting real-time traffic reports? A candid film review courtesy of a famous St. Louis “Intern” reassures movie buffs if the feature presentation is truly worth the price of admission? The “Morning Zoo” crew encouraged the jokesters in the back of the class the future was full of endless possibilities outside of becoming a lawyer or accountant. “Hands Across The Water” & “American Woman” helped bring to the forefront the British Invasion factions and the ladies who knew how to jam with a swagger unmatched by any of their male contemporaries.
If KSHE was, in fact, the ship to explore the vast mystery surrounding FM radio, Shelley Grafman was the right person to captain the vessel to the new and uncharted territory. An insurance salesman by trade, he was handed the reigns to run the operation by his brother, the general manager of the company running KSHE at the time. Grafman hired local high school students with little-to-no radio industry experience to man the operating boards and select tunes on their own accord or by visitors’ requests via the legendary “drive-thru” window at the Crestwood, Mo studio.
“I remember him being intimidating to me in the beginning,” Ulett recalls in his “U-Man’s Favorite Memories” piece on the KSHE website. “I really respected his position and influence on the St. Louis and U.S. rock scene. He loved KSHE very much and HE laid the groundwork that made KSHE the institution it became.”
“Shelley did the unthinkable. He hired kids and let them actually run the place,” former DJ Ron Stevens said in an interview with Tom Stockman of We Are Movie Geeks promoting his new film Never Say Goodbye-The KSHE Documentary. “No rock station or ANY radio station dared to do this. He trusted and respected us. He recognized our talents and nurtured them. He made sure our voices were heard. He took chances that today would scare the holy crap out of any radio station manager.”
In the end, the radio station is just alright.