Tuning in to community-radio station KDHX

Feb 2, 2000 at 4:00 am
The radio. Have two simple words ever held such tragically unfulfilled potential? It's free, it's everywhere, it plays music 24 hours a day, and it sucks.

It shouldn't be this way. There's enough great music in the world to fill the airwaves on every station from now till doomsday, but commercial radio gives us only the narrowest slice of it. Even the catalogs of giants like Otis Redding and the Kinks get hacked down to their two or three most demographically appealing numbers. Along with such meager rewards, of course, the commercial stations serve up loads of crap that isn't fit for human ears. For every "How Soon Is Now?" and "Paranoid," there are a dozen turds: "Young Girl" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Ordinary Average Guy" and so on into infinity. Why are these people making us listen to these songs?

The dumbed-down aesthetic applies to new stuff, too. It's been a long time since commercial radio played any appreciable role in uncovering exciting, vital music or shaping an important new style. In the minds of most musicians, radio airplay is a distant and therefore unimportant prospect. No musical visionaries these days are going to turn to radio to spread their particular gospel, and Big Radio is perfectly happy with that -- more room for Billy Joel and Sixpence None the Richer.

Such a powerful medium being used for such shabby little purposes. Depressing, isn't it?

All the more reason to sing "huzzah!" at the sense of renewed purpose that has come over our town's radio alternative, KDHX (88.1 FM). Clued-in listeners around town are abuzz over the community-radio station's steadily improving programming. The days of "blues, folk and not much else" are gone. Over the past couple of years, KDHX has grown into its mantle, becoming exactly what a noncommercial station should be: adventurous, knowledgeable, intelligent, populist and ear-strainingly diverse. It has reaffirmed its status as a musical lifeline to isolated listeners scattered around the bi-state sprawl.

The station's not-for-profit status, of course, is what makes idiosyncratic programming possible. The station is overseen by a 14-member board and employs seven paid staffers, along with a fluctuating number of volunteers. Board, staff and volunteers are all represented on the Programming Committee, which makes the decisions about what goes on the air. KDHX is fully independent of any government or corporate entity, although it does receive some support from those quarters. The bulk of KDHX's finances comes from its listeners in the form of membership dues.

And if those dues figures are any indication, its listeners agree that KDHX is changing for the better. According to station manager Bev Hacker, the number of KDHX members has doubled in two years, from 2,500 to 5,000. "And the next pledge drive should be even better," Hacker says.

The improvement isn't accidental, says KDHX staffer Tony Renner. Renner joined the paid staff of the station as music director in 1998. This came after nine years in the job as a volunteer. He says that when he and a few others became full-time staffers, they brought a new energy to their jobs.

"The old philosophy was "Whatever happens, happens,'" Renner says. "There was never a sense that we can really control this.

"The new philosophy is the opposite."

What this means in practice is an aggressive approach to seeking out new music, new shows and new ideas. As an example, Renner cites the way Fred Friction's Fishin' with Dynamite show got onto the schedule.

"At a meeting, (programming committee chair) Bob Putnam and I got to talking about how we needed an alternative- country show," Renner says. "But who would we get to do it? Bob said, "What about Fred Friction?'

"So we asked Fred. He said, "Well, I've never been on the radio before.' We told him, "You'll pick it up.'"

Renner attributes the improvement in the station's programming to staffers and committee members' "being willing to actually go out and look for something rather than wait for an application to come in."

Hacker, another longtime volunteer who joined the station's paid staff in 1998, has been an important motor behind the station's renaissance.

"When I started here, we were going in a particular direction," Hacker says. "Our demographic tends to be in the 40- to 55-year-old range, and we felt we had to cultivate a younger audience."

One strategy was more intelligent scheduling. The old KDHX schedules were often haphazard, with little regard for the listening habits of the people who were most likely to be tuning in at a given time of day. Now, the station's "strip programming" approach bunches similarly inclined shows at similar times of day throughout the week: Roy St. John's popular morning show, followed by folk and country. Blues rule the afternoons, with talk in the evenings and rock at night. The weekends are heavy with ethnic music and dance genres such as reggae and hip-hop.

"You can hear a show and listen the next day at the same time and hear the same genre," says Hacker. "The schedule is much more user-friendly."

Renner agrees. "Some of what happened when I came here is that stuff that was on overnights has been moved to more audible time," he says, "like Rocket 88, a good accessible rock show. And Rob Levy's Juxtaposition was brought out of retirement. Rob does an excellent job playing new modern rock, the kind of thing The Point should be playing." And that's why we have community radio, isn't it?

Hacker and Renner agree that KDHX's renewed vigor comes from a return to the station's original mission, which they sum up similarly.

"I think our role is, first and foremost, to present things you won't get anywhere else," Hacker says.

"Education and exposure," Renner says, "particularly with new stuff. That's the one thing we can do better than anyone else. You should be able to pick up a magazine and read about something and say, "Wow, I want to hear that. I can hear that on KDHX.'

"We have the music, and if we don't, we can get it."

Some of KDHX's most interesting shows were born under Renner and Hacker's watch. Along with the aforementioned Fishin' with Dynamite, the last two years have brought the excellent rockabilly/ swing show Greaser's Lunchbox and the punk archaeology of Scene of the Crime. Indeed, many stripes of fringe rock have found a home alongside the station's venerable blues-and-folk lineup, in a town where the airwaves have rarely been receptive to anything fast and loud.

Another intriguingly conceived new show is René Spencer Saller's Suffragette City, which focuses on female vocalists regardless of genre, era or stance (though she's recently started mixing in music made by the other gender, too). "I'm really proud of her show," Renner says. "She really loves music, and she conveys it. She does an excellent job."

"One of the unique things about us is that our programmers really know their music," Hacker says. She cites the station's ethnic-music shows, particularly John Uhlemann's Music from the Hills, as a good example of what the station does best.

As someone who takes both words in "community radio" seriously, Hacker has been particularly focused on increasing the involvement of KDHX in the St. Louis community. "We had a program where we contacted local not-for-profits and told them we wanted to present their (public-service announcements)," she says. Now, all of the station's PSAs are locally produced and deal with local issues.

Renner and Hacker agree that the station is fulfilling its mission -- turning people on to great music -- better now than it did two years ago. "We're making progress," Renner says. "We're putting a new system in place where every show will have a promo spot that will run at random. You'll be listening to a blues show and then hear the promo for Scene of the Crime. You know, time has passed. People who are in their 40s now were in their 20s during the punk-rock years."

In a profit-driven society, it isn't easy for a community-based radio station to survive, let alone excel. Somehow KDHX is pulling it off, without kowtowing to corporate sponsors the way National Public Radio has. "There's always been sort of an undercurrent that we ought to be able to pull in corporate dollars," Hacker says. "But we are a station for the listeners." Both Hacker and Renner say that sponsorship issues never affect programming decisions.

It's a miracle that a radio station in a small building on Magnolia Avenue on the city's South Side has assumed such capable guardianship of a vast musical heritage and also stayed on top of what's new and fresh. "We're the country station that still has twang," Hacker says. "And we're the only blues station. Even if you look at the stations that are supposed to be new rock, they still don't do what we do."

"I went through the '80s, when there was no good radio," Renner says. "I know how important radio is to people."