Correction to This Article
A Sept. 28 Sports article incorrectly identified Frank Absher as a journalism instructor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He is an instructor at St. Louis University.

Questionable Reception

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By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- The tower at night is a magical thing, a husk of girders that climbs into the midnight gloom before reemerging as a pulsing blue light 476 feet above the Illinois flood plain. And when the light flashes, it fills the fog with a gauzy azure glow. Then, as fast as it clicks on, it blinks off and everything is still again.

There is something potent in this glow, with 50,000 watts of one of America's most powerful radio signals booming across the heartland at the peak of its force. In the distance, just across the Mississippi River, the lights of downtown St. Louis twinkle, but the nocturnal sounds of KMOX also fill radios set to 1120-AM in places as far away as the Mediterranean and New Zealand. For the past 52 years -- and parts of the decades before -- the signal has brought the St. Louis Cardinals with their nine World Series championships to Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Iowa and beyond. It created so many Cardinals fans, winning them away from closer teams across the Midwest, the South and even upstate New York, that the club's venerable announcer Jack Buck used to love walking through the parking garages next to Busch Stadium before the game simply to count the out-of-state license plates.

"It's death, taxes and KMOX," said Tim Sullivan, a 54-year-old retail store manager in St. Louis.

In a city that clings hard to its civic institutions, there was always a comfort that two of its biggest -- KMOX and the Cardinals -- would be married forever.

But there has been a divorce in the family. And last month, when the Cardinals announced that, starting next season, they would be moving from KMOX to a smaller radio station, KTRS, the gasp could be heard from Edwardsville to Kingdom City. It was such big news that two local television stations broke into their programs to carry the news conference live.

The consternation lasted for days. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran front-page stories. Television stations carried post-mortems. Bernie Miklasz, a Post-Dispatch sports columnist and a talk show host on KMOX, simply opened the phone lines and for hours the calls poured in. "I understand that attachment, it's like a family bond," Miklasz said.

In any other city the local baseball team changing its radio station would not be a big story, it probably wouldn't make the front page even once, let alone for weeks. But this isn't any other radio station.

"KMOX is the hub, if you will, of middle America," said Curt Smith, who has written two of the most definitive books on baseball broadcasting.

And this isn't just any other city.

The Littlest Big City

As far as big cities go, St. Louis is a small town. Not in a Mayberry sense but in the way that everybody seems to be your neighbor. There is always a connection: a friend, a cousin, a fifth-grade teacher.

"You know the six degrees of Kevin Bacon?" said Tim Dorsey, the president and general manager of KTRS, speaking of the trivia game that links otherwise unrelated celebrities by their mutual screen appearances with Bacon. "We're two degrees in St. Louis."

But the closeness also breeds an insecurity to prove to the rest of the world that St. Louis can be as big and as important as all those cities on the distant coasts. So it lines up behind its baseball team, which has won more World Series than anyone but the Yankees, and the Anheuser-Busch brewery down by Interstate 55 and the radio station that can boom its signal halfway around the world. Lest you forget, there is always someone from St. Louis to remind you just how big, how perfect, how special it is.


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