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. (Published 10/1/2005)
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.
"I think there are some things that if you're from St. Louis you have an inferiority complex about," said Mark Lamping, the Cardinals' president, who grew up in the southern part of the city. "We don't have the great residential condominiums of downtown Chicago or we don't have the number of Fortune 500 companies as we used to have.
"But there are those things we think we do really, really well, like the Cardinals and KMOX and I think we take great pride in those things."
The link was always baseball. It passed from fathers to their children. It would begin at Busch Stadium and it would be told in a vivid story line that started with Dizzy Dean winding down to Enos Slaughter's mad dash to home plate in 1946, to Stan Musial, to Bob Gibson to Whitey Herzog. And the story was told by Dean who begot Harry Caray who begot Jack Buck, and their voices beamed at 50,000 clear channel watts from under the blue light atop the tower on the flood plain in Illinois until everyone spoke a common tongue that seemed foreign to anyone who didn't have their dial set on 1120-AM.
It was a language that could be summed up in a single phrase, five words uttered by the placid Buck on the improbable event of shortstop Ozzie Smith's first left-handed home run. A shot that just so happened to come on the last pitch of Game 5 of the 1985 National League Championship Series. A minor detail Buck declined to initially report as he instead shouted: "Go crazy folks! Go crazy!"
Times are different now. The brewery, which bought the Cardinals in 1953, sold them in 1996. Buck died in 2002. And Busch Stadium, a dated relic from the 1960s, will be torn down this fall to make way for a new, all-brick, red-seated stadium that is already rising behind Busch's south walls. The Cardinals might go to the World Series again this year, but the world is changing fast in a place where nothing used to change at all.
In the early 1970s a journalism student at Syracuse University would tune his radio to the giant signal, listening to the Cardinals games that came in so clear it seemed the tower was just down the street. When someone told him KMOX was looking for an announcer to broadcast the games of St. Louis's new American Basketball Association team, he sent a tape, landed an interview and, in a coup for someone so young, was given the job. Which is how Bob Costas took his first steps toward our living rooms.
And it is how Costas first came in contact with Robert Hyland. In those days Hyland was a giant in St. Louis, almost as big as Gussie Busch, the brewery scion who owned the Cardinals, which made sense because the two practically ran the city together. "If Bob Hyland had a crazy idea he would call Gussie at 3 in the morning and Gussie would take the call," said Frank Absher, a former KMOX newsman who is now a radio historian and a journalism instructor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Perhaps because of the gargantuan signal he inherited, Hyland was obsessed with building the biggest and best radio station in the country. Many in the business credit him with inventing the talk radio format. In fact, hanging today in the KMOX offices is a note Hyland wrote extolling the talk radio potential of an aspiring broadcaster from rural Missouri named Rush Limbaugh.
At Hyland's KMOX no story was too big. When President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, Hyland ordered all programming and commercials scrapped, costing the station thousands of dollars, to instead go with continuous coverage. If the secretary of agriculture came to town to give a speech, the talk was carried live, not because it would draw listeners but because he thought it was the right thing to do.
And essential to his KMOX's success was sports. There was a time when the station carried everything that was important -- the football Cardinals, the Blues of the NHL, the University of Missouri and most significantly, the baseball Cardinals. To do this, he found the best announcers with Caray and then Buck on baseball, Costas doing the ABA and then Missouri. Dan Kelly, the Blues play-by-play man, was considered the best in hockey. Former football Cardinals player Dan Dierdorf became a KMOX broadcaster before eventually moving to ABC's "Monday Night Football."
Hyland "would do things like this: Say it was October of 1967 and the Cardinals were in the pennant race and the Cardinals game would get rained out, he would have the Phillies game piped in and then later catch the last three innings of the Mets and Dodgers," said Costas, who still lives in St. Louis. "It would be one in the morning and something would come over the wire, say Jackie Robinson passed away, I guarantee you within five minutes Pee Wee Reese or Leo Durocher would be on KMOX. Stuff like that happened all the time."
This was not lost on the audience. In the mid 1970s, when radio station ratings were first tabulated, KMOX had a 25 share of the market for listeners over 12 years old, which in a sense meant that one in every four radios at any time in St. Louis were tuned to 1120.
"KMOX was the New York Times of St. Louis," Costas said. "KMOX had more prestige in St. Louis than the television stations and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Something was not official until KMOX said so. The consensus of opinion in St. Louis was always summed up by KMOX."
There are many who say that upon Hyland's death in 1992, the great station began a long march toward normalcy. They point to its new owners, Infinity Broadcasting, which operates out of New York, but in doing so fail to mention that in Hyland's day the station was owned by CBS, also based in New York.
They decry the addition of Limbaugh's show in the 1990s, not because of Limbaugh's political tilt but because it was the first time the station took on a show that was not generated in-house. "It was the first indication that duty wasn't as important as ratings," Absher said. "It was indicative of the homogenization where everyone has the same voices, same jingles and personalities."
The 25 share of the 1970s has dropped to 10.6, which sounds like a precipitous decline until you realize that no other station in a top-40 market has a rating this high. Even in its new incarnation, in a different media universe, it remains No. 1.
Looking back, it was almost inevitable that the Cardinals and KMOX would part ways. While the news came as a jolt, the two institutions had slowly been moving away from the world that kept them together. Were it not for the tradition that had been their bond, the break might have come sooner.
From his temporary office in the top of a building just across the street from Busch Stadium, Lamping, the Cardinals' president, is armed with statistics that point to the realities of a small market team trying to put a big market team on the field. He points out that St. Louis had the sixth-biggest payroll in baseball while playing in the seventh-smallest media market in the game. If salaries continue to increase, he said, he worries the Cardinals won't be able to keep up.
"Given the steadfast commitment to having a competitive team and realizing we don't have the level of media revenue to compete with the best teams in baseball we need to be creative," he said. "We need to maximize revenue streams."
Hence the new stadium with luxury boxes down low and a two-tiered wall of suites that stare at the players from just feet above the field. The new park will also have a baseball village and it will feature stores and restaurants and rides, and these will all fill the Cardinals' coffers as does a Class AA baseball team the Cardinals bought in El Paso, then moved to Springfield, Mo.
Lamping grew up on KMOX and somehow he figured the Cardinals would be on KMOX forever. "I went into [the latest negotiation] thinking we would work something out with KMOX," he said.
But as talks crystallized earlier this year, it seemed they both were coming from different worlds. The station, worried about the influx of satellite radio and live Internet broadcasts controlled by Major League Baseball, proposed a revenue sharing plan in which the team would take a little less guaranteed money -- $4.5 million instead of about $6 million -- but could more than make up the difference in advertising sales. And while the Cardinals eventually agreed to the basic idea, the two sides got tangled up in the details.
Then when KTRS came offering more in guarantees and agreed to let the team buy half the station as well and make the station a permanent tenant in the baseball village, neither the Cardinals nor KMOX could disagree that times had probably changed.
"It was difficult for them to pass up," said Les Hollander, the Infinity vice president who handled the negotiations. "You need to remove the emotion and look at the economics of the situation. [The Cardinals] removed the emotion out of it too."
In the end, he said. "it was a little bit melancholy but you move on."
Instead, St. Louis, exploded. Fingers pointed everywhere: at the New York owners of the station who didn't understand the world of Bob Hyland, at the Cardinals owners who certainly weren't Gussie Busch.
"The catalyst is greed," said Curt Smith, the author. "What it does is put more moolah into the pockets of multimillionaire baseball owners."
"If we tried to do this 10-15 years ago this never would have happened -- never, ever," says Dorsey, the man who got the Cardinals for KTRS but who was also a Hyland protegee at KMOX.
But it did and sitting in his St. Louis office, Costas pondered the ramifications of the move, of the end of the Cardinals on the station he loved so dearly.
"Although I have as much of a feeling for this as anyone, I'm not thinking this is the end of the world because the world has changed significantly," he said. "Virtually every Cardinal game is on television. The primacy of radio has been diminished. So many of the great names of KMOX have passed away."
A few weeks ago, perhaps as a tribute, perhaps in a fit of nostalgia, KMOX began replaying old Cardinals games late at night. The really big ones, the ones everyone remembers. And so it happened one recent night that Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS was on the radio. And Jack Buck was alive again and here it was the ninth inning and Ozzie Smith was coming to bat against an unfortunate reliever named Tom Niedenfuer and suddenly Buck began to scream, his throaty voice tumbling like a cement mixer.
"Ozzie corks one into right . . . down the line . . . it may go . . . Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!"