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St. Louis loves talk radio. (AM/FM).

St. Louisans really love their talk radio. Truly, madly, deeply. It's now a fact--St. Louis listeners are the tops in the nation when it comes to talk radio. In the latest radio format study released by Arbitron and Scarborough Research, while 22 percent of Americans are tuning in to talk radio, a whopping 40 percent of all St. Louis radio listeners age 18 and up tune in to news/talk here.

So why do most St. Louisans prefer yakking to music? First, one must look at KMOX (1120 AM), still the market leader in news/talk/sports information. In its 76-year history, the station became a habit handed down through the generations.

Esteemed sportscaster Randy Karraker, former KMOX staffer who now is a major player in KTRS (550 AM) sports programming, said that habit has allowed talk radio to thrive here. "I think the reason so many more people listen to talk radio in St. Louis than in other places is that they were conditioned to it as youngsters," he said. "So many people in their 40s and older listened to Jack Carney on KMOX because their parents did, and they just became habitual listeners to talk radio. Cardinal baseball was a big part of that, too."

Even with KMOX's large market share, other stations have been able to create a niche for themselves. Given St. Louis' reputation as a great sports town, sports coverage is now spread around on the dial. "Now, with an all-sports station and KTRS, there are more alternatives for people, whether it be sports or more entertainment programming. So a culture that was started by Robert Hyland more than 40 years ago really has existed to this day. He always said, 'We may not have the younger generation, but eventually everyone listens to us.' I think that is the case with talk radio here. Eventually, whether it be for the Rams, Blues, sports or talk programming on KTRS or the Cards on KMOX, every St. Louisan comes in contact with talk radio," Karraker added.

The current alternatives have never been broader. For the past six years, there's been 24-hour talk on KTRS and its first home, WIBV (1260 AM). Then there's no-holds-barred WGNU (920 AM), also on the AM dial. On the FM band, there's KWMU (90.7 FM), the national public radio affiliate that also broadcasts local programming, and the most recent addition to the market, KFTK (97.1 FM), initially geared to women. There are also several interview and commentary programs on community station KDHX (88.1 FM), not to mention all-sports talk on KFNS (590 AM) and owner Greg Marecek's new station, The Sports Explosion, 1190 AM.

The sheer breadth of programming bodes well for the future, according to Paul Harris, a polished, erudite host who has been helming the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekday shift on KTRS for several years.

"St. Louisans obviously have a lot to talk about!" Harris said. "Actually, I think credit goes to the fact that the market isn't stuck with just one talk station. In many markets with nothing more than a single decent talker, the listeners' only alternatives to bland talk radio are limited to turning to a music station or turning off the radio."

Harris said the market's talk stations aren't copycat; therefore, people have a choice. "If you're unhappy with what you're hearing one talk show host do, you can always turn the dial and find someone talking about something else or in a different way. In other markets, if there is. an alternative, it's just another copycat talker leading listeners down the road to the same boring topics of politics, abortion, and gun control. Yawn. This town proves that, given quality choices and compelling hosts, talk radio can keep listeners entertained--and away from the dreaded other options (music and 'off')," he said.

Harris predicts that there'll be even more talk options in St. Louis and the rest of the country, "as radio owners and operators realize that we're the ones producing the most interesting radio, day in and day out."

Second-generation host John Carney, who is the late-night voice of KMOX these days but has worked in several local talk formats, thinks talk doesn't go out of style, unlike music tastes.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the usability of the format. People's taste in music change as they get older, but the need for information remains a constant," Carney said. "I also think that because at a talk station, we have more airtime and aren't locked into 'another 97 minutes of music up next,' listeners get to know us a bit better than a music jock."

Even though St. Louis was tops in talk, that doesn't mean programming should remain staid and status quo. There are always ways to freshen up stale programming.

Not that "Newsmakers" was losing steam on KMOX, but shifting Jaco from afternoon to evening allows one of the primo talkers to do long-form interviews and to reach a wider national audience. I'm of the "where you lead, I'll follow" school, thinking that Jaco's fans will tune in on non-Cards games nights even if he isn't on with the regularity of his former afternoon spot. The new spot will build upon those who couldn't listen during the day.

Several months ago, at a premiere party for the new KMOX line-up, Jaco said he was excited about the night move. "I'm not sure there's anything else like what we're going to try to do."

A former CNN reporter who has gained a reputation for his solid grasp of world and national issues, Jaco said he wanted to attract a new audience, to build more of a national reach. After all, in the evening, KMOX can be heard in 44 states and six countries. "I'm hoping it will be an AM oasis for the literate," he said.

While others wonder why he's ensconced in the Midwest when he could be globetrotting, Jaco said he's comfortable in the St. Louis market. "People are wonderful here. We're raising our grandchild here. I can't think of a better place to do that. I really enjoy the city, the attractions, the people. I love doing what I'm doing. I'm free to write books," he said.

Jaco is also working on a doctorate in international affairs from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, a situation that allows him to do a considerable amount of research from a distance.

In addition to noteworthy local hosts, St. Louis radio has many of the big-name syndicated broadcasters--Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Bill O'Reilly, Jim Rome, Don Imus and Howard Stern, in addition to NPR's acclaimed "All Things Considered," "Talk of the Nation" and "Morning Edition." Variety is the spice of local radio.

And it must keep evolving. Talk radio's new mandate will be not only to keep the loyal listeners but to attract new, younger listeners.

The Scarborough report also revealed that older adults are the largest group listening, with the median age of listeners 52, and nearly a quarter of news/talk listeners are ages 45-54. Adults between the ages of 55 and 64 are 47 percent more likely to listen to the format and seniors 65+ are 50 percent more likely to tune in.

On the flip side, younger adults are the least likely to tune in--only 3 percent of news/talk radio listeners are 18-24, and 11 percent are 25-34.

While St. Louis has the highest penetration of folks tuning in to news/talk, other metropolitan cities rank as follows: Milwaukee is second with 39 percent, Seattle and Tacoma third with 37 percent, and Boston and Cincinnati tied for fourth with 34 percent each. Chicago is only 28 percent and New York City only 17 percent.


New PM drivetime jock at The River (101.1 FM), Chicago native and Cubs fan David J has fallen in love with our city, he says. "I'm not blowin' smoke. This is a big town with a small town heart. It reminds me of Chicago's southside neighborhoods. People have a strong sense of community, pride in where they live and where their family is from," he said.

David J, who was born in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, has been at the station since March. "The people I've met at appearances I've done so far and my co-workers have made me feel very welcome to St. Louis," he said. "I am so proud and happy to be a part of this time. I can feel it in the halls and hear it on the air. The River's music format is the one I feel most passionate about. It is awesome to be able to come into work and have a hand in the music you listen to everyday."

He's spent nine years in radio, coming from WDBR in Springfield, Ill., as program director. And he's been a PD and afternoon talent in Rockford, Ill.


St. Louis radio fixture Mike Watermann is happily northern California dreamin' these days. In mid-June, he becomes the assistant program director/music director/afternoon drive jock at the oldies station KMGG (97.7 FM) in heavenly Santa Rosa, Calif.

"The station in Santa Rosa is owned by a small company that wants to upgrade its level of professionalism within the organization," Watermann said. "It appreciates my knowledge of the music and radio formatics, as well as my stability."

He's been out of full-time work since January, when Bonneville Communications cut staff at WSSM (106.5 FM) and The River, WVRV (101.1 FM) as part of organization restructuring. Watermann had been program director and drivetime jock at the Smooth Jazz station for 15 months when the axe fell. Prior to that, he'd spent 20 years here at K-HITS and KSD-FM in a 25-year career.

He's also a professional musician. For the past 18 years, Watermann has played drums in the popular band, Sh-Boom.

The Washington, Mo., native tried to stick around St. Louis, but with nearly every company having cutbacks, there have been few employment opportunities. So, he's loading up the truck and moving from St. Charles to Sonoma County with his wife Jane and three sons.

"It's tough saying goodbye to everyone, especially Sh-Boom, after 18 years," he said. "The challenge of a new market is scary and exciting, as well as revitalizing."


MORE COMINGS AND GOINGS: Another longtime St. Louis voice is heading south. Bo Matthews, who spent 14 years at WIL (92.3 FM), has moved to Orlando, Fla., where he will be part of a morning show.

Production guru Paul Arca has landed at Emmis Communications after leaving KTRS as creative services director earlier this spring. He's filling in on weekends and is a utility guy for K-HITS.

The love 'em-or-hate 'em liberal duo of Onion Horton and Mark Kasen are back on WGNU, simulcasting their radio show from 7-10 weeknights.

Steve Hammond, aka The Gatekeeper, who lost his evening shift at KSHE to voice-tracking in February, is moving back to his native state of Ohio to work for WONE "The Home of Rock & Roll" on the weekends and as a fill-in. Hammond will also teach at a local broadcasting school and do some free-lance voice-over work. He was on the short list for the 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at K-Rock, but the station promoted from within instead.


NEW DIGS: Bonneville has moved its St. Louis operations into one complex, in City Place 2 in Creve Coeur-11647 Olive Blvd. The new studios and offices house The River, WVRV (101. FM), WIL (92.3 FM), WSSM (106.5 FM) and WRTH (1430 AM), which Bonneville International Communications bought in 2000. I'm told it's a sparkling state-of-the-art facility and Bonneville spared no expense. The River had been operating downtown in the old Sinclair complex with KDNL (Channel 30) while WIL and WRTH were in the old Heritage Media digs off Manchester Road.

Correction: In last month's column regarding the NFL Draft coverage, I stated that KTRS, a Rams affiliate station with KLOU, covered it up until a St. Louis Blues hockey game that Saturday. That was incorrect.

The sports staff at KTRS was very much involved with draft coverage in its entirety. After the hockey game and post-game show, the team of Randy Karraker, John Hadley (who is the chief researcher for CBS's coverage of college football and basketball) and Howard Balzer came back to Rams' Park and broadcast for three hours in the evening. They also had Mike Martz's press conference after each pick and interviewed first-round choice Robert Thomas. Then, on Sunday, it was the only radio station at Rams Park from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and did updates during Blues' pre-game coverage. The station had live interviews with the second, third and fourth-round picks. That evening, they did a draft wrap-up show.

Lynn Venhaus is a St. Louis free-lance writer.
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Author:Venhaus, Lynn
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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