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"Many decisions were made at the bar at the Way Out Club," recalls former music director and assistant station manager Tony Renner, who quit seven months ago, fed up with the organization's idiosyncratic whims and relative stagnancy. "I guess now they're being made at the bar at Frederick's."
Broadcasting at 43,000 watts since 1987 from the leftward portion of the dial customarily reserved for noncommercial radio stations, KDHX boasts 87,000 weekly listeners who are 61 percent male and 94 percent Caucasian in a city whose population is half black. According to a recent listener survey, all but 2 percent of those who tune into 88.1 on a regular basis are either gainfully employed or enrolled in school; 28 percent hold advanced college degrees beyond the standard bachelor's. Unlike the average commercial station, where morning-drive time reigns supreme, KDHX serves up its strongest numbers in the afternoons and early evenings, anchored by a weekday slate of blues shows that pull in the station's most conservative and affluent listeners.
As of August, the radio station had generated more than $450,000 in revenue for fiscal year 2003 (which ended September 30), nearly $340,000 of that through donations from KDHX's 5,000 members. Of approximately $500,000 budgeted for station expenses, $171,196 is allocated toward staff salaries. Double Helix's highest-paid employee is Hacker, whose $50,000 salary is split between the budgets of radio and television. Operations manager Larry Weir and studio engineer Sara Finke are next on the earnings totem pole, pulling down wages in the low $30,000s. All of the station's board members and on-air personalities are volunteers who receive no monetary compensation.
While KDHX airs a smattering of talk shows on topics as varied as gardening, gays and aldermanic politics, it is, "above all, a music station," says Hacker. And a music station that seeks to placate a fickle audience with dizzyingly diverse tastes in tunes, at that.
"I think they're doing an all-right job, because they have to please so many niche people," says Frank Absher, a local radio historian and former on-air personality at both KDHX and AM behemoth KMOX (1120). "The passionate ones will engage in 'appointment radio' -- if their show is coming on at 2, they'll be there. They're also willing to forgive the sins of a less professional approach to radio."
As Absher gently alludes, KDHX's all-volunteer on-air crew is less than polished at times, often fumbling for phrases that are second nature to their well-heeled commercial counterparts to the right on the dial. But what each host might lack in the banter department, he or she more than makes up for with sonic acumen. Nowhere else can a St. Louisan hear Apollo Sunshine, Mötley Crüe, Joe Jackson and De La Soul in the space of one Thursday-afternoon hour; or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Clem Snide, Guided by Voices, the Rolling Stones, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Outkast and Rufus Wainwright on the same Monday late-night haul. At times the eclectic selections of hosts like Frederick's Music Lounge co-owner (with Stark) Fred "Friction" Boettcher, Cat Pick, Randall Roberts and Doug Morgan transcend the boundaries of modern radio, occupying a perch of aural ecstasy normally reserved for live musicians and ace club DJs who spin till the sun comes up. (Roberts is a staff writer at Riverfront Times.)
Fans of Headshop, which provides listeners with "a trip through neglected avenues of rock & roll" (including, but not limited to, death metal), might forgive host Lee Whitfield for a little casual imbibing before his night-owl show, which airs weekly from 2 until 4 in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Not Bev Hacker, however, who suspended Whitfield for allegedly being drunk on the air the morning of September 14. Whitfield, who's also a member of KDHX's board, claims otherwise and maintains that Hacker ignored personnel procedures in her handling of the incident, which was brought to her attention via a phone call from another member of the board, said to be Paul Stark, who hosts the station's Ska's the Limit program every Friday. (Stark declined to comment for this story.)
In a letter of resignation (since rescinded) that Whitfield e-mailed to the masses on September 18, the 32-year-old head-banging host took dead aim at his alleged accuser.
"Granted, I am no saint, but if you're going to make an example out of me, then you need to make an example out of everyone else," reads Whitfield's missive. "Thanks to all who came down to the station and hung out with me and got a little rowdy on the air. I'm sure that raised Paul Stark's eyebrows as he reached for the Bible with the whiskey flask inside."
Sara Wooldridge was with Whitfield in the hours leading up to the fateful broadcast.
"We had all been out drinking, but I wouldn't say he was, like, hammered," says Wooldridge, who accompanied Whitfield to Pop's and the Way Out Club before his shift. "Let me just say that we've been up there many a night and have been way more drunk. The only thing that was maybe out of control that night was he might have said 'fuck' on the air. But I've said that before too."
Wooldridge, a 23-year-old interior-design student at Patricia Stevens College, says she received a call from Stark warning Whitfield "not to sound drunk on the air" following a period of dead air wrought by the host's inability to get a certain CD to play. Shortly thereafter, according to another companion, Jason Hilliker, Hacker burst into the studio and told Whitfield, "It's done tonight."