Beverly Hacker gestures toward the open space that is the third floor administrative "offices" inside KDHX's (88.1 FM) new headquarters. To her right is a small conference room, and straight ahead are several desks aligned about ten feet apart from one another.
"When this was originally designed it was going to all be offices," explains Hacker, the station's executive director, who arrived to work this day in a leather motorcycle jacket and jeans. "When they did the demolition I brought my whole staff down here and said, 'All right guys, here's the deal: You can either all have private offices and cut this up, or we can do modular, or cubicles, or just open office space.' And to their credit, they all said, 'Don't put those walls up.' I can't even imagine any place I've ever worked where people say, 'No thanks, I don't need my own office'!"
But, then, such is the nature of St. Louis' "community" radio station, where music and media aficionados have always put their passion ahead of their egos. And now, after 26 years of operating out of what could be generously described as a "rustic" storefront building in south St. Louis, there's this: the stunning new Larry J. Weir Center for Independent Media in St. Louis' Grand Center. The difference between the old location and the new is perhaps most apparent in the building's two on-air rooms. The soundproof doors into these state-of-the-art studios are bank-vault thick and cost $2,000 apiece, and the sleek and gleaming audio gear within conjures thoughts of space travel.
"All of the broadcast equipment as a whole was pretty expensive," confesses Hacker, "but really, almost all of the money went into the renovation."
The ground floor of the Larry J. Weir Center, which takes its name from station's late operations manager, is unrecognizable from its former life as the sweat-soaked punk and metal club the Creepy Crawl. Gone is the drop ceiling that shed particles onto the people below. Gone, too, is the grit and grime and graffiti. In its place is an impressive venue space that seats 140 people at its tables, with a bamboo stage and audio enhancements like bass traps and sound diffusers.
"When you do an old building, you never know what you're going to run into," says Hacker. "We didn't even know what we had until we pulled out that nasty tile ceiling."
What they had was twenty feet of space from top to bottom, opening up the area dramatically. Another surprise was the fact that the ceiling is suspended, an architectural necessity that leaves the venue free from obtrusive support beams.
At 13,000 square feet, the Larry J. Weir building as a whole is triple the size of the station's old home on Magnolia Avenue, a former bakery where the station's seventeen staff members worked nearly atop each other. Still, KDHX couldn't get everything on its wish list for the new building, such as the solar panels that an engineer determined would be too much weight for the roof to support.
"I'm really disappointed about those," laments Hacker, "but we did as much green building as we could afford."
For a listener-supported station that's accustomed to operating on a shoestring, it's difficult to overstate just how bold it was for KDHX to embark on fundraising for the Larry J. Weir Center. At $3.5 million, the renovated building is far and away KDHX's costliest endeavor.
"The fundraising efforts were ambitious, because the organization has never done a capital campaign before," confirms board president Andrew Scavotto. "KDHX usually just does two pledge drives each year. The campaign was designed to finance the building and the increased costs that come with it." The station isn't finished yet. Its board and volunteer DJs have raised $2 million to date — just over half of the total amount necessary. "The organization really made a commitment to going out and seeking new and different sources of support, including higher dollar amounts," says Scavotto.
"We actually got a mortgage on part of it, so we are still fundraising," Hacker says. "It originally was going to be less than that, and then we changed some things — that includes the equipment and the building and everything, so yeah, that's what it ended up being."
This past summer KDHX launched a Kickstarter campaign for the ground-floor concert venue that raked in $58,000. It was the largest successful nongaming Kickstarter to occur within St. Louis. Prior to this renovation KDHX didn't have any kind of major donor program set in place; instead, it essentially relied on $88 listener donations to trickle in one at a time. Hacker describes the early stages of the move as a "learning curve."
"We had a lot of folks that really took a chance, because we have zero track record. As you can imagine, not everyone can walk into a place that is sort of trashed out and say, 'Of course, this is going to be a beautiful building.' So a lot of people took it on faith that we were gonna be able to pull this off."
The single largest donation for the new headquarters came from the Kresge Foundation, a Detroit-based philanthropic organization established by Sebastian Kresge — the "K" in "Kmart." (The foundation is not otherwise tied to the retail store in any way.)
"When you get a Kresge grant, they are so diligent about vetting their donees that other foundations will say, 'They've already done their homework, so you are good with us,'" Hacker explains. "It's really a hands-off grant. They just say, 'We did our homework; we think this is a great project, and here's your money.'"
On the heels of that Kresge grant, the station received many additional donations in the $10,000 to $100,000-plus range. The rest of the money came in much smaller amounts.
These large donations could cause some to question the station's prized status as an "independent" radio station. When KDHX received a quarter-million-dollar grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2007, one of the first things the nonprofit did was bring in a media sociologist to see what people valued most about KDHX. One of the most commonly given answers was its "independence," but as it turned out, different people had different definitions of the word. To programmers (who host their shows without pay), it means they have the freedom to play whatever music they wish without anyone exerting control over content. To the station's board of directors, it is in decision-making — the lack of corporate ties allows the station to be more nimble in its business dealings. To the listener, it simply means no one is telling the station how to run itself.
For Hacker, independence is all of these things. "We get to do radio in a way that used to be really important, and it's not done anymore. We get to take advantage of the passion and the knowledge and aesthetics of our programmers. We were able to move into the digital world so seamlessly because we've always been crowd-sourced."
KDHX first went on the air as a nonprofit community radio station in 1987, but its origins extend further back than that. In the late 1940s a man named Lew Hill started the Pacifica Foundation. A pacifist during a time of war, Hill believed that the voices of ordinary Americans were being shut out of broadcasting. To remedy this he sought to establish radio stations funded through "listener sponsorship." It was Hill who essentially pioneered the very concept of community radio. A protege, Lorenzo Milam, did the work of figuring out the logistics and traveled the country to help educate groups of people on how to follow suit and acquire noncommercial radio licenses. Many of the stations Milam helped get off the ground still exist today.
On February 8, 1969, Milam and a man named Jeremy Lansman, a Clayton High School dropout with an interest in radio, launched KDNA, a counterculture station, which broadcasted on 102.5 FM. Facing insurmountable problems with funding, the venture lasted only three years. But out of it was born the nonprofit Double Helix Corporation, whose goal was to get back on the air with both a TV and a radio station. The group acquired a contract to run public-access television for St. Louis on cable during the mid 1980s, and in October 1987 it made its return to radio after acquiring 88.1 FM.
The vibe inside KDHX's Magnolia Avenue studio on December 15 was something akin to what parents must feel when sending a kid off to college — hope tinged with a bit of sadness. Staff members and volunteers gathered around to share stories, hug and pack a few remaining furnishings. Ed Becker, the DJ for Sunday morning's Songwriter's Showcase, was last at the helm inside the old on-air studio.
"It was an honor to do the last show," says Becker. "A lot of the people that had been there a long time wandered in, and when we ended the show there were probably 25 people there hanging out, just wanting to come down and say goodbye to the old bakery."
He concluded the set with Rodney Crowell's "'Til I Gain Control Again," a country tune from the early '80s which, not coincidentally, was the last song Larry J. Weir played on the same show before his untimely death. "We brought a bottle of Champagne, had it outside the air room, and did a little toast before we all left," Becker adds.
Across town, John Hartford's 1971 bluegrass classic "Turn Your Radio On" was the first tune to hit the airwaves from the new location, as chosen overwhelmingly by the station's listeners. As it played, the wide-open, office-less area outside of Hacker's office teemed with activity. Nothing — not the music, not the staff — skipped a beat.
The biggest question now is what the future holds for KDHX at its shiny new outpost.
"It gives us much more visibility just physically," says Hacker. But it's more than that. The new building and its club venue offer KDHX the opportunity to be a community gathering space, as well as a community radio station. And the more people that pour through the doors, the more likely its listener base will continue to expand.
"Our theory has always been that if we can bring them in, we can keep them," says Hacker.