Purists insist that satellite radio and automation have depersonalized the radio experience. However, few stations continue to inspire more loyalty than KSHE (94.7 FM), the "Real Rock Radio" giant that's been a local radio staple since the '60s.
A new book, In Concert: KSHE and 40+ Years of Rock in St. Louis, is more than just a history of the radio station. As its title implies, the coffee-table tome lovingly chronicles high points in St. Louis rock & roll history through words (concert recollections, interviews with musicians, DJ and photographer profiles) and graphics (a jaw-dropping collection of photos, ads and memorabilia). But don't mistake In Concert for a provincial narrative. To the contrary, the book is more of a pop-culture scrapbook, one documenting the cultural history of the rock revolution as experienced here in the Midwest.
The book spotlights KSHE's formative rock acts and employees through lively interviews and colorful anecdotes. Local appearances by the greats (the Who, the Doors, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd) merit their own sidebars. In Concert covers the area's rock roots with the studied eye of a scholar, from lengthy histories of clubs, such as the Castaway and Rainy Daze, to annual outdoor concert series the Metro East's Mississippi River Festival. Also recalled: KSHE's own successful promotions such as the Kite Fly concerts in Forest Park, its legendary birthday parties, the rebel-pig mascot, Sweetmeat, and the Seeds local-music compilations.
Of course, classic rock is the book's forte, but thankfully, it doesn't shy away from modernity — or from discussing how music's changing fads affected the station. In particular, Nirvana's 1991 Mississippi Nights appearance and the Guns N' Roses riot receive generous coverage, while former RFT freelancer Steve Pick talks about Elvis Costello's sour 1978 performance and Jet Lag magazine. (Onetime Jet Lag publisher/editor Toby Weiss edited In Concert.)
The mostly chronological book begins with a discussion of the station's roots as a basement-founded entity devoted to conservative classical music. After Century Broadcasting Company bought KSHE in 1964, the station flipped to rock music three years later. Thus entered the golden age of KSHE, the era when general manager Shelley Grafman steered it into a free-form FM innovator and national tastemaker. (He lost his job when KSHE's present-day owners, Emmis Communications, bought it in 1984.)
In Concert's author is John Neiman, a rabid Who fan who spent his formative years in Collinsville, Illinois. The Chicago resident moved away from the area in 1984 and joined the Air Force but never forgot the radio station that soundtracked his youth.
"Back in 2001, my brother was getting out of the military, and I had some old Ruth Hutchinson tapes that I recorded back in 1983," he says via phone, referencing the grandmotherly host of the KSHE Klassics show. Spurred on by nascent file-sharing programs such as Napster, he rediscovered KSHE songs he hadn't heard in years. "I wound up wondering if there was more stuff out there," he says. "I was just like, 'Well, it would be neat to hear some old KSHE.'"
Neiman started collecting ticket stubs and old concert photos as well, which he used as artwork for homemade KSHE compilation CDs he created. "But then around 2003, I wound up thinking, 'Well, I should start talking to DJs and seeing if they [had old KSHE broadcasts],'" he laughs. "Over time, somebody suggested that I should do a book. Initially I thought, 'Oh, that's a lot of work, I don't think so.' But they suggested it again — and well, before I knew it, I was doing that by the end of 2003."
At that point, Neiman started hunting for more historical artifacts, while tracking down the characters and major players in KSHE's evolution. Although he didn't have any formal journalism training, he found parallels between his knowledge of genealogy — he spent a decade researching family history, which he says helped him learn "how to convince people to dig in their closets" — and the research process for In Concert.
"The Internet helped for a while, but you would talk to people and a lot of people would say, 'Hey, I know so-and-so, why don't you talk to this person?' or, 'I know this person,'" he says. "Michael McDonald, who gave me an interview for about an hour and a half, he was still friends with people who owned the Castaway back in the day because he was in the house band. And so connections like that happen mainly because some of the people, just knowing this person or that person, they talk about me. But other people, I [would] just look them up, see where their phone number is and just call them."
This generosity extended to the people who agreed to be interviewed for In Concert; besides McDonald, Neiman talked to local rock gods such as Charlie Daniels and Sammy Hagar and countless employees, photographers and fans. Other people donated valuable pieces of history: For instance, Bob Heil — the local music-equipment innovator known for his pioneering Talk Box, used by Peter Frampton and others — lent him memorabilia before it traveled to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
The effort Neiman put into collecting elevates In Concert beyond normal music-history books. Layers of ticket stubs, backstage passes, posters, playlists and faded photographs coalesce into an awe-inspiring nostalgia collage. The photos alone are priceless: Michael Stipe's yearbook photos from Collinsville High School; a shirtless Iggy Pop writhing onstage with the Stooges; young Keith Richards and Mick Jagger by the Chase Park Plaza pool; the Ramones at Mississippi Nights in 1979; and KISS and Rush in Forest Park at a KSHE Kite Fly. On the book's cover is a slightly fuzzy photo of Jimi Hendrix at the Kiel Auditorium, one of many photographs of the legendary guitarist that Neiman is especially proud to have included.
In Concert's thoroughness is even more impressive when considering that he researched and wrote the book while holding down a day job at an advertising agency.
"The hours here can be just grueling," he says. "I would go home quite often and try to keep going on this. It was kind of crazy for a number of years. But you should know that the whole thing became so much fun. In a lot of ways, it didn't feel like work. It was a blast to take stuff that people hadn't seen before and put it together in this format and try to marry photography, writing and the audio, and all that stuff. It was like a dream come true for somebody who likes music and rock music."
The book's biggest effect, however, appears to be how these personal recollections trigger people to share stories. Anecdote-wise, one of the best in the book belongs to hometown boy McDonald, who recalls returning to St. Louis with Steely Dan for the first time after moving away in the early '70s. His grandfather's elderly sister, Aunt Mame, insisted on attending the show. Despite passing out during Montrose's opening set because it was so loud, she stuck it out, only to tell McDonald the next day: "Dan Steely did all the singing, and he didn't let you sing anymore."
Neiman has a good reason why people were so open and enthusiastic to share their memories with him. "You wonder how I got all of this stuff, but I kind of felt like it was the idea [that] people just had such good memories of KSHE over the years," he says. "Quite a few [employees realized that] working there was the best part of their lives. It was the best experience they ever had in broadcasting.
"The same goes with people who listened — some of the best years of their lives were when they were discovering some of the rock that came about. People were just very excited about this. It's something I just got a vibe that that's what was going on and why people would send me these things.
"This happened a number of times, where [people] would literally box their stuff up and send me the real things, and I'd never met them, I'd only talked to them on the phone," he says. "And their stuff is worth an incredible amount of money. That's a pretty good tribute to how much that radio station has meant to people."