Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When you think of markets that have become FM-dominant, it’s easy to think of Washington or Phoenix or Miami. But consider St. Louis: with the exception of CBS Radio’s venerable KMOX (as seen here last week), the major corporate-owned clusters in the Gateway City boast no significant AMs at all. Clear Channel has one small AM, black gospel KATZ (1600), in its lineup, but the cluster studios we’ll see in this week’s installment from our 2012 visit had no AMs, period.
We start west of downtown, 31 blocks west of KMOX and the Arch to be precise, down where Market crosses Compton Avenue and intersects I-64. It’s on a small (but high-profile) triangle of land there that we found the other half of CBS Radio’s cluster, its FM duo of KYKY (98.1) and KEZK (102.5).
This cluster studio is the oldest of the three we’ll profile this week, which helps to explain why it was in its last months when we stopped by in the summer of 2012. By then, KYKY had been in this building for a little over two decades. It was the original occupant here when EZ Communications built this facility in 1990, and it’s had different partners here over the years as the clusters in town have been shuffled. EZ entered the duopoly era in 1993 when it bought KUSA (550) and KSD (93.7) from Gannett, restoring the historic KSD calls to the AM and moving both stations in here with KYKY. The AM left in 1997 (it’s now independently-owned KTRS), amidst a huge reordering here in which EZ was sold to American Radio Systems, which was then merged in with CBS and Infinity. That’s when KSD(FM) moved out, spun to Clear Channel along with CBS Radio’s KLOU (103.3, the old KMOX-FM), and when longtime EZ/ARS sister station KEZK moved in from its previous home at 7711 Carondelet Ave., a few miles to the west in Clayton.
In 2012, KYKY (hot AC “Y98”) and KEZK (AC “Fresh”) each occupied big rooms in the studio cluster just behind the front lobby here. Hemmed in by Market Street on one side and the busy interstate on the other, there wasn’t room for any expansion to the office or studio space in the compact building, and that’s part of what prompted CBS to move KYKY/KEZK from this location and KMOX from One Memorial Drive into shared space in the Park Pacific Building downtown just a few months after we stopped in.
And while CBS initially said it would keep the Y98/KEZK building as a backup and storage site, it appears to have had a change of mind – this building, or what’s left of it, can be yours for less than $2 million.
From the oldest cluster studio in town, we head way out westward to suburban Creve Coeur, out along the I-270 beltway, to what was then the newest cluster studio in town. The CityPlace development on Olive Boulevard is home to retail, restaurants and office space, and the three stations Hubbard had recently acquired from Bonneville are found on the second floor , just behind that pretty fountain and just upstairs from a nice cafe where we enjoyed lunch with several Hubbard staffers.
This cluster represents roughly half of what was once a larger cluster in the hands of River City and then Sinclair, before Sinclair exited radio to focus on dominating the world of local TV. The three stations here are unusual in that they’re all “W” callsigns in what’s mostly “K” territory: country WIL (92.3 St. Louis), sports “101ESPN” WXOS (101.1 East St. Louis IL) and adult hits “Arch” WARH (106.5 Granite City IL).
The studios for all three stations are nicely laid out along the front of the building, lined up behind big windows that run across a curving hallway. Perpendicular to the studio hallway, another hallway that runs back to the office areas goes past a well-equipped rack room, so well equipped in fact that it boasts a “Christmas Story” leg lamp, proudly displayed on a rack shelf. (Someone clearly won a major award here…)
There’s a strong focus on multimedia here, too, with a spacious studio equipped for video shoots, including a set for a partnership that put WXOS personalities on CBS affiliate KMOV (Channel 4).
How did Bonneville end up with half of what had been the Sinclair cluster? It happened back in 2000, when Emmis paid $220 million for Sinclair’s radio stations, only to follow that up with a big swap with Bonneville. Emmis got KZLA (93.9, now KXOS) in Los Angeles, and Bonneville got 92.3 and 101.1 from the old Sinclair group along with what had been Emmis’ 106.5, then WKKX. (Bonneville also got an AM in the deal, WRTH 1430, which reverted to its old WIL calls, but it spun the AM off again a few years ago, before the sale to Hubbard.)
Emmis had been in the St. Louis market since way back in 1984, when it acquired heritage rocker KSHE (94.7 Crestwood). A few years later, KSHE moved from its longtime dumpy (but beloved) studios out in Crestwood to new digs in the Union Station complex on Market Street just west of downtown – and after Emmis added the remainder of the old Sinclair stations, it moved them, along with KSHE, into new space in the “Powerhouse” building at the back of the Union Station development.
We enjoyed a late-night tour of this facility (after the Crestwood FM transmitter tour we featured here not long ago, as well as a stop for Ted Drewes frozen custard!), and here’s what we saw:
There’s no question which station is the flagship here – the lobby features big windows looking right into the compact KSHE studio, which anchors a row of studios that run perpendicular to the front of the building.
Recently reworked with Axia networked consoles, the KSHE studio features a wall of CDs on one side and banners adorned with “Sweetmeat,” the station’s pig mascot of many decades’ standing, on the other.
Down the hall are the studios for the three stations that came to Emmis from Sinclair.
KFTK (97.1 Florissant) was KXOK-FM when Emmis took over. Despite a rimshot signal from a tall tower way out to the west, “FM News Talk 97.1” is giving KMOX a run for its money these days with a lineup that’s rather more politically charged than the venerable AM station.
Down the hall is classic hits KIHT (96.3), the one former Sinclair FM that Emmis left largely unchanged, and alternative rock KPNT (105.7 Collinsville IL), which Emmis was in the process of moving in from its old rimshot status down south in Ste. Genevieve, relocating it to the Crestwood master FM site with a downgrade from C to C1.
Running parallel to the studio hallway is a two-story office area lined with guitars and other rock memorabilia. Some salespeople work upstairs in a sort of loft area overlooking the main cubicle floor here. (And look very carefully below that guitar on the right to see a little FM antenna that provides an in-office feed of KFTK, which would otherwise be unlistenable inside the building here; Emmis also puts KFTK on KIHT’s HD3 to give another choice for in-city listeners.)
That’s not quite the full spectrum of St. Louis radio studios – we didn’t get to the relatively new cluster studio of Clear Channel’s one AM and five FMs, off I-64 just south of Forest Park, nor did we make it to Radio One’s pair of FMs out in Creve Coeur or to any of the many noncommercial FMs and smaller AMs that dot the market. But that (and the promise of more Ted Drewes custard) is all the reason we need to come back for another visit sometime soon, right?
Thanks to CBS Radio’s Mike Waldman, Hubbard’s Kevin Robinson and Kent Sterling, and Emmis’ Sam Caputo for the tours!
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Next week: From St. Louis Across Southern Illinois