Award-winning jazz station KZJZ gets religion, leaving the AM band bereft of jazz; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

"Too good to be true" usually means it's not really that good or, if it is that good, it won't last. KZJZ (1380 AM) turned out to live up to the latter version of reality. Playing jazz and only jazz, real jazz, on an AM station got KZJZ a Marconi Award last year for Best Jazz Station nationwide. But, as local radio historian Frank Absher says, the station wasn't "churning the money." That's eventually fatal. So KZJZ is now a gospel station, playing gospel music via satellite, beamed in from afar -- what could be described loosely as white Southern-gospel music. That means there are no local on-air personalities or expenses to mess with for station owners. Per usual, there are subplots: Emmis Broadcasting had given the station -- "dumped" is another description -- to the New Horizon Seventh-day Adventist Church, headed by the Rev. B.T. Rice, head of the black Clergy Coalition. The church has a lease-management agreement with an entity called Unity Broadcasting, run by two attorneys, Lee Platke and Stu Berkowitz. The first format under this regime was "black talk radio," but that was yanked by Unity, or the Rev. Rice, and on-air hosts Mark Kasen and Onion Horton sued. The lawsuit continues. One theory is that the format flip was done so that if Unity loses the suit it'll be easier to flip formats away from a satellite feed than it would from an award-winning format with about 10 employees. Either way, AM jazz is dead. The only AM music around is older oldies such as Dean Martin on WRTH (1430) and WEW (770) and blues on WESL (1490). Buzz Carlson, who was news director and did weekend and fill-in shifts for KZJZ, got the ax and now does news for WEW. He says many doubted the AM-jazz experiment's chances: "I had a lot of people from the beginning tell me, "You don't think that's going to work, do ya?' I said, "Time will tell.'" Carlson says the product was good but not widely known. "If they had spent a little money advertising the station," he says, "they would have had numbers to go along with it. They didn't advertise the station." So now St. Louis has an AM station, owned by a black minister and managed by two lawyers, airing country-gospel music. And a pending lawsuit could change all that in the next few months. What a wasteland.

ERIC VICKERS STOPS TRAFFIC, THEN GETS FLATTENED: 1999 was a big year for Eric Vickers, up and down. In July, he was the straw that stirred the drink on the minority-participation controversy on state contracts. Vickers was the prime mover in getting the folks together on July 12 who blocked traffic on Interstate 70 in North St. Louis. The demonstration was the most momentous event of the year in that it received scads of media attention, it was unusual and it actually achieved something worthwhile. If the state poured concrete or fixed overpasses in African-American neighborhoods, then the state needed to make a better effort to employ people from those neighborhoods, Vickers said. Gov. Mel Carnahan listened and consented -- or caved in, depending on your perspective -- to requests/demands for more contracts for minority firms and a training center for minority workers.

But before Vickers could escape the year a hero, the Missouri Supreme Court in December took away his law license for 90 days for failing to diligently represent his clients. There were six counts against Vickers, including the case of Dr. Raphael Williams. Vickers was paid a $7,500 advance fee to represent the periodontist in a racial-discrimination claim against a dental-insurance company. But the suit was frittered away, with Vickers failing to respond promptly to requests for discovery. At one point, Vickers first sent discovery requests to Williams nine months after they had been delivered to Vickers. Seven months after that, the trial court granted a summary judgment against Vickers' client. The dental-insurance company demanded $5,000 for attorney fees, and that fee was imposed on Williams. Vickers appealed the judgment, against Williams' wishes, and things got uglier. Williams says Vickers "orally threatened" him and an exchange of letters followed that included further threats. In a letter by Vickers, he wrote to Williams: "With respect to your other threat of physical harm, while I am sure the streets of St. Louis equipped you to be able to handle yourself, let me remind you that I am from East St. Louis. And, I too have friends who protect my interests." By way of explanation, Vickers told the disciplinary panel that his comments were not a threat but that he "wasn't going to let him just punk me out." Vickers further stated the letter was not written in anger: He said he "was trying to be lawyerly." Maybe Vickers could take a tip from another attorney known for social activism: Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma was big on civil disobedience, but he also was a detail man in his work. And it's hard to imagine the Mahatma telling a Brit he wasn't about to let someone "punk me out."

LOOKING FOR A CADRE, HEADED FOR A CUSP: There's a perverse attraction when you find out that Cole Campbell, editor and public-journalism savant of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is on the air. There's an urge to tune in just to see what goofball comment will be uttered -- it's as if William F. Buckley and Don King were meshed; Campbell's public persona is a combo of vague notions described in an arcane manner and delivered with irritating behavior. It all produces decidedly mixed results -- just look at the paper. But now that the P-D and KMOV-TV (Channel 4) are melding for a Sunday-morning video version of the "Imagine St. Louis" section of the Sunday Post, there's Cole, the Wiz behind the curtain of your daily paper. Here, briefly, is what he had to say about the future of St. Louis, which was this week's Imagine topic: "I think we could be on a cusp of a renaissance.... We do not yet have a cadre of leaders that know how to engage the citizens.... If you're happy with the way things are, then you're not alert to the threats that face you or the opportunities that may present themselves. At some level, we need to be a little more discontented." This last comment was directed at the public at large, not the P-D staff.

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