by Roland Klose
Bob Hamilton, 62, has been doing the news for nearly 30 years in St. Louis area -- first at the old KSD (550 AM), until Pulitzer sold its St. Louis broadcast properties, and then at KMOX (1120 AM), beginning in 1982. A St. Louis native who graduated from University City High School and Westminster College, Hamilton got his broadcasting start at a cousin's station in Fulton, Mo., and worked his way back to St. Louis at small stations. He spent three years at the Washington Missourian in the 1960s, then worked in the special-events department of Famous-Barr until landing at KSD.
When Hamilton started out, he was spinning records, but at small stations he had to be a jack-of-all-trades. And there were early flubs. He interviewed burlesque star Sally Rand, who was performing at the state fair and plugging the Heart Fund, and Hamilton ended the interview by thanking her for her work for the "Fart Hund." Hamilton recounts how when he had to read the farm report, he came across the word "ewes." A city boy who didn't know a female sheep from a barrow or a gilt, he asked a wag at the station how to pronounce this strange word. So for two weeks at KFAL in Fulton, Hamilton kept midstate farmers up to speed on the current price of "ee-wees."
"All around the county, people would come up to me, and say, 'Bob, that's a great farm report, we really like it, keep it up' -- and I'd keep saying 'ee-wee.'"
How'd he develop his distinctive voice? "I sang in the church choir when I was little, but I don't think I was that good. In high school, I always wanted to be in radio -- the people in radio were my heroes," Hamilton says. "So I would just spend hours and hours reading the newspaper into a tape recorder. I would listen to the people I thought were the best, and I would borrow a little from this and a little from that and come up with something." Frank Eschen, a top newsreader at KSD, was a model; so was KMOX personality Jack Carney, a master of on-air comedy and double-entendres. Hamilton's been doing "the voice" so long that he uses it all the time now. "I don't know how it began, but I can't turn it off now -- it's just there," he laughs.
And what is it with Hamilton's musical, roller-coaster style that, as Post-Dispatch columnist Dan O'Neill observed, "can make a four-car pile- up sound whimsical"? Hamilton says it's all calculated to keep listeners tuned in, even when they're not particularly enamored of the subject matter: "I love journalism, and I love telling people what happens. There are a lot of people who really don't care for the news, and for them, I play with my voice -- go up and down a little with more than usual inflection. I put a little Mid-Atlantic English in there. I try to make it sound interesting -- the whole idea is get people to listen."
Hamilton works a 40-hour week, but from his point of view, they're the best hours in the business: eight hours on Thursday and Friday afternoons and evenings ("when all the bosses are gone") and 12 hours on Saturdays and Sundays ("that's when people are home"). Unlike most broadcast employees, Hamilton has enjoyed an unusually stable career. When KSD switched to country music, Hamilton was able to get himself quietly hired by longtime KMOX honcho Robert Hyland a week before KSD sacked him -- so he collected "lots of severance pay, furniture for the apartment" and a job at the city's top-rated station. "I've really had a nice career -- it's been very lucky."
-- Roland Klose