You gotta know that Larry Weir, Bob Reuter and long time volunteer Sandy Ellberbach would be--and are--very, very proud!
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"When you get a Kresge grant, they are so diligent about vetting their donees that other foundations will say, 'They've already done their homework, so you are good with us,'" Hacker explains. "It's really a hands-off grant. They just say, 'We did our homework; we think this is a great project, and here's your money.'"
On the heels of that Kresge grant, the station received many additional donations in the $10,000 to $100,000-plus range. The rest of the money came in much smaller amounts.
These large donations could cause some to question the station's prized status as an "independent" radio station. When KDHX received a quarter-million-dollar grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2007, one of the first things the nonprofit did was bring in a media sociologist to see what people valued most about KDHX. One of the most commonly given answers was its "independence," but as it turned out, different people had different definitions of the word. To programmers (who host their shows without pay), it means they have the freedom to play whatever music they wish without anyone exerting control over content. To the station's board of directors, it is in decision-making — the lack of corporate ties allows the station to be more nimble in its business dealings. To the listener, it simply means no one is telling the station how to run itself.
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For Hacker, independence is all of these things. "We get to do radio in a way that used to be really important, and it's not done anymore. We get to take advantage of the passion and the knowledge and aesthetics of our programmers. We were able to move into the digital world so seamlessly because we've always been crowd-sourced."
KDHX first went on the air as a nonprofit community radio station in 1987, but its origins extend further back than that. In the late 1940s a man named Lew Hill started the Pacifica Foundation. A pacifist during a time of war, Hill believed that the voices of ordinary Americans were being shut out of broadcasting. To remedy this he sought to establish radio stations funded through "listener sponsorship." It was Hill who essentially pioneered the very concept of community radio. A protege, Lorenzo Milam, did the work of figuring out the logistics and traveled the country to help educate groups of people on how to follow suit and acquire noncommercial radio licenses. Many of the stations Milam helped get off the ground still exist today.
On February 8, 1969, Milam and a man named Jeremy Lansman, a Clayton High School dropout with an interest in radio, launched KDNA, a counterculture station, which broadcasted on 102.5 FM. Facing insurmountable problems with funding, the venture lasted only three years. But out of it was born the nonprofit Double Helix Corporation, whose goal was to get back on the air with both a TV and a radio station. The group acquired a contract to run public-access television for St. Louis on cable during the mid 1980s, and in October 1987 it made its return to radio after acquiring 88.1 FM.
The vibe inside KDHX's Magnolia Avenue studio on December 15 was something akin to what parents must feel when sending a kid off to college — hope tinged with a bit of sadness. Staff members and volunteers gathered around to share stories, hug and pack a few remaining furnishings. Ed Becker, the DJ for Sunday morning's Songwriter's Showcase, was last at the helm inside the old on-air studio.
"It was an honor to do the last show," says Becker. "A lot of the people that had been there a long time wandered in, and when we ended the show there were probably 25 people there hanging out, just wanting to come down and say goodbye to the old bakery."
He concluded the set with Rodney Crowell's "'Til I Gain Control Again," a country tune from the early '80s which, not coincidentally, was the last song Larry J. Weir played on the same show before his untimely death. "We brought a bottle of Champagne, had it outside the air room, and did a little toast before we all left," Becker adds.
Across town, John Hartford's 1971 bluegrass classic "Turn Your Radio On" was the first tune to hit the airwaves from the new location, as chosen overwhelmingly by the station's listeners. As it played, the wide-open, office-less area outside of Hacker's office teemed with activity. Nothing — not the music, not the staff — skipped a beat.
The biggest question now is what the future holds for KDHX at its shiny new outpost.
"It gives us much more visibility just physically," says Hacker. But it's more than that. The new building and its club venue offer KDHX the opportunity to be a community gathering space, as well as a community radio station. And the more people that pour through the doors, the more likely its listener base will continue to expand.
"Our theory has always been that if we can bring them in, we can keep them," says Hacker.