(KSHE GM Shelley Grafman)
In 1967, Tom Donahue made waves in California with a radio format unlike anything heard before. A St. Louis disc jockey who was without an on-air gig helped import it to the Gateway City, and a legendary station was created.
Donahue was quoted as asking “How many…times can you play Herman’s Hermits and still feel good about what you do?” He began his first show on KMPX, Los Angeles in April of 1967 saying “This is Tom Donahue, and I’m here to clear up your face and mess up your mind.”
In St. Louis, Howard Grafman knew he had to do something with the FM radio station he had purchased. It had started out, under different ownership, playing classical music. That morphed into a conservative middle-of-road format, including “The Lawrence Welk Show” and a weekly German-language program. Few sponsors were buying ads.
Grafman hired a West Coast man named Harvey Sheldon as station manager, bringing him to St. Louis to turn the station around. Sheldon is portrayed as disliking the idea of changing to a rock format. Nonetheless, that was the job he was given. He was familiar with the work of Tom Donahue at KMPX in San Francisco and Grafman gave Sheldon marching orders to make the format work here.
Enter Ron Elz, who had been running a school for radio announcers in St. Louis. He visited in San Francisco, listened to KMPX, and returned to St. Louis with a blueprint on how to introduce the format here. Grafman wanted a gradual change, saying “We can’t afford to lose our audience that we have now right away.” He also told Elz there was no money to buy any records.
But Elz persuaded local record distributors like Al Chotin, Record Merchandisers and Roberts Records to help him build a station music library.
KSHE also hired new disc jockeys to appeal to its new, younger audience. Richard Palmese, a student of religion at St. Louis University, was given the air name “Brother Love.” Elz’s air name was “Johnny B. Goode.” Lee Coffee was “The Musical Pumpkin,” and Ron Lipe became “Prince Knight.” Don O’Day and Jack Davis rounded out the staff.
There was also a new hire at the top. Grafman brought in his brother Sheldon to manage ad sales. Within a few months, Shelley was essentially managing the station and its playlist. His wife remembers some lean times when the only way the family could eat was on the trade coupons local restaurants had used to pay for advertising on KSHE.
Those first announcers recalled phone calls from angry listeners upset with the music change, but it was also obvious young people were discovering KSHE. Word of mouth was spreading among those kids who saw themselves as part of the counterculture movement.
Radio historian Michael Keith wrote about the national movement in “Sounds in the Dark: “Underground radio’s raison d’etre was in step with that of the growing counterculture. It resented the mainstream gestalt of the day regarding countless social issues (war, drugs, race), but most of all it detested formula radio with its 2-minute song cuts and hyper jocks.”
The gradual format change continued at KSHE. Listeners were asked to vote on which artist they preferred - Frank Sinatra or the Rolling Stones. The Stones prevailed.
There is disagreement among station veterans on the exact date of the format switch, but one memory is very clear: The first song played on KSHE to signal the completion of the format change was “White Rabbit” by the Jefferson Airplane.
(Reprinted with permission of The St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 1/10).