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

Jan 5, 2000 at 4:00 am
"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.

NO REST FOR THE WICKED, THE GOOD OR BIONDI: You're the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, S.J., president of St. Louis University. You've just had knee-replacement surgery. You're in the hospital, flat on your back, the day after surgery. What do you do? Write a fundraising letter, of course. The letter, dated Nov. 25, begins with "Yesterday, I had knee replacement surgery"; Biondi then admits that when he remembered he was in the hospital for Thanksgiving, "for a moment I felt sorry for myself." But the good padre remembers all he has to be thankful for and how so many are less fortunate. After Biondi schmoozes the recipient about how much good the "St. Louis University family" does for the community, he delivers the punchline in paragraph five: "During this season of giving and thanksgiving, please consider supporting Saint Louis University by sending a gift in the enclosed envelope." The amounts listed, with boxes to be checked beside them, range from $100-$1,500. If sympathy for the recuperating president is supposed to make the donor reach deeper, just think if Biondi undergoes coronary-bypass surgery.

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: There he was again. Last week, KMOV was teasing viewers about Vince Schoemehl's running for mayor one more time, advising viewers to stay tuned. Jamie Allman interviewed the thin, tan, rested ex-mayor, but few declarative sentences were spoken: Yes, he's looking into it. No, he won't decide until late this year. As reported in this space in November, a Francis Slay poll has the aldermanic president beating Mayor Clarence Harmon one-on-one in a primary but losing to Harmon if Schoemehl enters the race. But relax -- it's a long way to 2001.... Ed Golterman, the man with a plan (go ahead -- ask him), called to complain that we made a mistake last week when we gave him the Andy Kaufman Award because he challenged the Blues' Mark Sauer and the Fox Theatre's David Fay to a wrestling match. Golterman has a point: He had challenged the pair to a boxing match, not rasslin'. Sorry, Ed. But Golterman did refer to Sauer and Fay as "bastards"; that much we had right. Golterman has split from the group he helped form to reopen Kiel Opera House, but that hasn't stopped him from coming up with a new plan to reopen the venue. There's one small hitch in his plan: It asks Civic Progress, Bill Laurie and the city to ante up millions of dollars, up front.... The NFL front office can't be too thrilled at the prospect of a Rams-Titans Super Bowl. They could rename it the "Greed Bowl." The Tennessee Titans were formerly the Houston Oilers, but owner Bud Adams vamoosed when Nashville offered him a better deal than Houston. And the Rams -- well, we know all about that deal.

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