By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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Tiny but determined, WEW-AM and KNSX-FM ride the rough surf of St. Louis radio
By Randall Roberts
With just a few companies now owning most commercial radio stations in the city, and one company, Emmis Broadcasting, perhaps owning all of St. Louis' big rock stations — The Point, The Rock, Extreme Radio, K-Hits and KSHE (and successfully cornering the market on stupid names for radio stations) — now's a good time to highlight a couple of Davids competing for Goliath's share of the market. Their reception is fuzzy, their overhead low and their tastes occasionally suspect, but both the morning show on WEW (770 AM) and the 24-hour station 93X (KNSX, 93.3 FM) are trying to fight the good fight and win a few additional listeners to boot.
Most likely if you know WEW, it's because it's your grandpa's favorite radio station. Most of the day's programming is dedicated to big-band and lite rock, with World Wide Magazine's Pete Parisi controlling the mic in the evening, playing music from the 1920s and '30s. For the last few months, though, the station's morning-show hosts — b>Steve Mosier, Mark Coleman and Bob Williams — have been playing some of the most wide-open and adventuresome songs to be found on the dial anywhere except maybe KDHX.
"We're really trying to push this show to be the only alternative in St. Louis" says Coleman of the WEW morning show. "The response, between e-mails and phone calls, has been pretty good. There's so much that we want to do to make this show an alternative to every station in town. We want people to come into town and say, "Hey, what's the cool station to listen to?' and have people say, "There's a show in the morning that will play a Loretta Lynn song followed by a Trotsky Icepick song.'"
The show's variety is pretty astounding: The hosts move from Peter Tosh to Gang of Four to James Brown to Belly with a sense of reckless abandon; break in for some typical morning-show banter — at times a tad annoying (this coming from someone who prefers not to be spoken to before, say, 1 p.m.) — along with the standard traffic and weather reports; then move on to a set of Stones songs.
"It is still pretty much a rock-based show," says Coleman. "We play modern rock, and we still play classic rock like KSHE, stuff like that. But then we do play a lot of country, reggae, spoken word, jazz and blues, ska music. Basically anything we have in the library is all of our music — Steve Mosier's music, and my music that I bring from home. And if somebody calls up to request something, if we have it, we will play it in really no sort of format. Our philosophy is, people will listen to two songs, but they probably won't listen to three if they don't like any of them. We want to throw in something they know and something they don't know. I guess we're trying to get to the classic-rock audience but then expanding on that."
The trio's version of recognizable songs often includes some bruisers — one whole day was ruined for me recently when they played Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle"; it lodged itself in my psyche and proceeded to torture it nonstop. And their choices can be downright baffling — in the Stones set they played "Rocks Off" (fantastic!) followed by "Where the Boys Go" (oof!) from Emotional Rescue — of all the Stones' songs. As far as playing adventuresome new music goes, they're limited; they seem to have hit their peak record-buying moments somewhere in the late '80s and early '90s.
But any commercial-radio show that features both Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits in its sets has more going for it than against, and if you can handle the chance that a KSHE classic may get lodged in your head for the day, it's worth the effort. Check it out, 6-10 a.m. weekdays. (Oh — sorry if "Cat's in the Cradle" is now in your head. It's in mine again. Anyone know how to perform an exorcism?)
On the other side of the region, way out west on the dark side of St. Charles (as if there's a bright side), lives perpetually rebellious 93X. The last you probably heard about the station was a few years ago, when a light plane slammed into its antenna. The antenna's still bent, and 93X's signal, a respectable 50,000 watts, still suffers. The playlist, however, isn't suffering nearly as much as those of the commercial rock stations in the city.
"We've found a niche in the market where we can play really truly new rock," says 93X owner Randy Wachter. "The whole station is run off of a computer hard drive, and it's preprogrammed a week in advance with all the new songs, and just because it's a computer in the morning we don't have a morning show. We just play music."
Whether 93X plays "truly new rock" is debatable; the playlist so closely resembles your typical alt-rock station's that it's truly frustrating. There's little overlap between the stations, but like their competition, they seem to rely solely on major-label rock, the two exceptions in their recent playlist being huge indies Epitaph and TVT. Says program director Ruth Choate, "We play a lot of stuff like Dido. Dido is doing very well nationally but hasn't been played here in St. Louis. The Chemical Brothers sold 500 CDs in St. Louis the first week it was out, and we're the only station playing it — (Surrender's) "Let Forever Be." Pennywise, "Alien" (from Straight Ahead) — I think we're the only ones playing that. Pound — I think Extreme came in on Pound a couple weeks ago, but I've been playing it for two months. Vertical Horizon — I'm the only one on that. Oleander — they finally came out on that and I've been playing it for five months. There are so many things that do well nationally that will never get played. Here's a great example: Fatboy Slim. Do you know how long I've been playing that here before it was ever added in St. Louis? Over a year!"