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5 On Your Side and its place in St. Louis history

Andy Mohler

When KSD-TV went on the air Feb. 8, 1947, it was the culmination of a dream long-held by the general manager of KSD Radio, George Burbach. It was a vision that Burbach held as far back as 1936. While World War II may have interrupted his plans, it didn’t diminish them.

KSD Radio was owned by the Pulitzer Publishing Co., owners of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. shared Burbach’s vision of adding a television station to the Pulitzer family’s media holdings. It may be hard to conceive in this day and age, but a television station in 1947 was like any startup company in today’s economy; it had a vision that became an innovation with a blank canvas, some failure, and lots of experimentation.

The first day on the air was more like “first hours.” In a studio set up inside the Post-Dispatch building on Olive Street, KSDK broadcast for roughly two-and-a-half hours beginning at 2 p.m. The first-ever local telecast in St. Louis consisted of an introductory overview by Frank Eschen, a ballroom dancing segment, a dramatic presentation of “The Game of Chess,” and a sports show hosted by Cardinals broadcasters Harry Caray and Gabby Street. A young Cardinals catcher who grew up on The Hill, Joe Garagiola, was interviewed by J. Roy Stockton, sports editor of the Post.

Among the early challenges was simply keeping a broadcast schedule. We take 24/7 programming for granted now, but that wasn’t the case in 1947. Expecting your favorite show to begin promptly at the designated time is an expectation in the 21st century, but that wasn’t the case either. KSD’s first program director, Russ Severin, once explained that the newspaper’s pressmen set the lights for the studio; if there was a press run next door, the pressmen had to tend to the latest edition coming out, which would delay the start of the broadcast. Of course, the thunderous whirring noises coming from the pressroom would be a distraction for a show as well.

Those challenges were significant, and may have seemed greater than KSD’s search for remote events to bring to the few viewers who could afford a television set. The number of viewers in St. Louis was very low when KSD took to the airwaves due to the expense of the set – early models were priced in the $700-$900 range. The number of viewers did gradually increase, and so did the remote broadcasts the station put on the air.

Not long after their debut, KSD sent cameras to then-Kiel Auditorium to broadcast a basketball game. According to University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Michael D. Murray, Eschen filmed on-the-scene reports at a mine explosion in March 1947. Later in the summer, cameras were set up at St. Louis Country Club for the 1947 U.S. Open golf tournament, which was sent out for a nationwide telecast on NBC.

Then there was baseball. At first, KSD increased the amount of programming by broadcasting home games of both the American League St. Louis Browns, and their National League counterparts, the Cardinals. Two cameras were set up along the first base side of Sportsman’s Park – there were no camera wells built into ballparks like they are now. And in comparison to the billion-dollar TV contracts that now exist between broadcast outlets and teams, the station paid the Cardinals and Browns the price of two box seat tickets for each game. Eventually, KSD dropped the Browns and only aired Cardinals games, and established a long relationship with the team that included a 25-year run from 1963-1987.

Burbach eventually retired as the general manager of the television station, giving way to Harold “Hod” Grams. It was under his watch that KSD had their first memorable broadcast events, including a report on arrests in the Bobby Greenlease kidnaping case in 1953, a report by John Roedel that went out over the NBC network. That same year, Frank Eschen, who filled the role of station public events director, was the reporter for the public announcement of the sale of the Cardinals from Fred Saigh to August A. Busch, Jr. The franchise remained in the ownership of Anheuser-Busch until 1995. In 1951, KSD televised Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Special Crime Subcommittee hearings held in St. Louis. In one notable exchange, a potential witness refused to testify as long as the television cameras operated. Viewers clamored for more coverage, and the Post-Dispatch reported, “Never have so many amateur television actors held the interest of so many listeners.”

Serving as the only TV station in St. Louis until 1953 gave KSD a valued head start that allowed the station to remain dominant over the market into the 1980s. It also allowed several station personalities to become civic celebrities; Severin, who in addition to his programming duties with the station was also a fine singer and entertainer; Eschen, who hosted “The Laclede Little Symphony” and other musical performances; Dan Sorkin, a Chicago disc jockey who traveled to St. Louis each weekend for the highly received, “Sundays with Sorkin;” Dottye Bennet, who began as a reporter conducting person on-the-street interviews and later co-hosted quiz show and musical programs; pianist Russ David, and the multi-talented Charlotte Peters, who fronted the “To the Ladies” mid-day show before a live audience for several years.

To entertain younger audiences, KSD began “The Wranglers’ Club,” a show hosted by Texas Bruce (Harry Gibbs, as he was known in real life) and Dry Gulch George (George Abel). Texas Bruce had a trusty horse – named Trusty, after all – and became so popular in the area that he and Trusty began making appearances throughout the viewing area on the weekends. The weekday afternoon show lasted for 13 years, until 1963.

Another long-running show that also began on weekday afternoons and finished up on Saturday mornings was hosted by “Corky the Clown” (Clif St. James). Corky’s run began in 1954 and, like the Wranglers’ Club, featured cartoons and a studio audience. The show was one of the highest-rated children’s programs in the country and allowed St. James to showcase his many talents, including that of puppeteer. Loralei, a bird-like creation, was known for her singing voice and her rendition of “Happy Birthday” for those in the audience celebrating their special day. St. James, who was also a cartoonist, served as a weatherman on the station’s newscasts for several years. He dealt with the daily challenge of getting out of his Corky character - makeup and all - and turned around a weathercast complete with cartooned characters on his maps within 15 minutes after the Corky show ended. Occasionally, the time between shows was too tight and he would present the weather as Corky, explaining that “Clif had the day off.”

Corky the Clown served as a pioneer in more ways than one. When KSD became equipped to broadcast in color, it was the Corky show (which became “Corky’s Colorama”) that was the first to be shown in that way. As St. James explained in 1997, “If Corky was purple one day and green the next it didn’t matter – it was a clown show. They wouldn’t dare experiment with a newscast in color until they got it right.”

News became another staple of KSD programming. In the mid-1960s, Bob Chase was hired to put together a 5 p.m. newscast “or something.” As he explained in a 1997 interview, “we were airing re-runs of ‘Maverick’ up against ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and we were getting killed [in the ratings). So, the station figured they had nothing to lose. But within a few months we had quadrupled our audience,” and the early evening newscast was born. His deep baritone voice, and subtle sense of humor, became station staples for more than a decade.

What had begun as a 10-minute program back in the 1950s, KSD’s news became the half-hour day-in-recap that we know today. White-haired Chris Condon came to the station in 1961, and eventually became the most recognizable face on the news. Condon would anchor two broadcasts in addition to covering up to five stories a day for use in those newscasts. Max Roby, who became popular on KMOX-TV’s (now KMOV) news shows, served as lead anchor for five years in the 1970s. Dick Ford also came from KMOX to begin a two-decade run on Channel 5. It was there that Karen Foss put together a memorable 27-year run that saw her rate as the most recognizable face on St. Louis television.

One significant report came in 1965, a few months before the Gateway Arch was completed. Condon and photographer Dick Deeken were taken by elevator to the top level of the structure for interviews and a brand-new look at the city’s landscape. Visible in Deeken’s footage was Busch Memorial Stadium taking shape, as well as construction of the Mansion House building.

Weatherman Howard Demere was a fixture on the news program, giving daily forecasts and signing off with the familiar “That’s all from here, Howard Demere. Good night,” that he said came about quite by accident. Not having a clever way to close out his portion of the news, he came up with his signature line on the fly. The station made additional broadcast history when they made Dianne White the first African-American weathercaster in the country.

With that six-year head start in the news business, KSD was able to notch several other firsts over the years: first live cameras on a St. Louis newscast, the first satellite truck in the market, and the first station to broadcast in high definition.

Sportscasters also made their mark at KSD. Bob Ingham interviewed Stan Musial after “The Man” recorded his 3,000th career hit in 1958. After that, former Billiken and St. Louis Hawk Ed Macauley was the face of the sports department, covering the Cardinals’ miracle run to a World Series title in 1964. He would give way to Sonny Randle, a star football Cardinals receiver, who delivered the sports news often after leaving the Big Red practice field. He had the distinction of detailing his own trade, from the Cardinals to San Francisco in 1967. The native of West Virginia would ultimately give way to another Mountaineer, Jay Randolph, who served as sports director while broadcasting Cardinals’ baseball and network events for NBC and Raycom. Ron Jacober was his sidekick for more than a decade, producing several year-end sports specials and programming in addition to daily reports and filling in for Randolph on Cardinals baseball.

A unique set of promotional spots lifted weathercaster Bob Richards and sportscaster Mike Bush to new heights of popularity. The antics of the pair, who playfully jousted on the air, increased in the goofy ad campaign; shot in Los Angeles and costing well into six figures, were part of the reason KSDK became the highest-rated NBC affiliate in the U.S. in the mid-to-late-1980s.

Weekday programming also went through a metamorphosis on KSD, and beyond when the station became KSDK in 1979. From the “To the Ladies” show with Charlotte Peters came “The Noon Show” with singer Marty Bronson and comedian-organist Stan Kann. “Mid-Day A.M.” was another vehicle for the multi-talented Clif St. James, his last before leaving the station in 1980. Then the news broadcast day expanded with a noon broadcast, and in 1995, “Show Me St. Louis” debuted in the mid-afternoon. More than 20 years later that show is still on the air.

But it is the news where KSDK has made its biggest impact. Through the network reach of NBC News, viewers have seen man walk on the moon and the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986 both play out live on Channel 5. The long story of public school desegregation has played out in our community, reported and explained in detail. Natural disasters like The Great Flood of 1993 and the Good Friday tornadoes of 2011 have led to greater and expanded coverage. The historic visit of Pope John Paul II in 1999 saw unprecedented cooperation between local and network outlets. The area has seen two professional football teams leave, but not before the Rams left St. Louis with a memorable Super Bowl run, and the baseball Cardinals have won five championships while KSD(K) has been on the air.

Evolving technology has made weather a significant part of each newscast, while the severity and unpredictability of St. Louis weather has led to great changes in the way the weather is presented. A running joke of rushing out to buy bread, milk, eggs, and toilet paper with the prediction of snowfall may have gotten its start in 1982. A blizzard dropped two feet of snow on the area over a two-day period. Highways were shut down, cars were trapped, and the streets were empty for days, causing viewers to alter their shopping habits and stock up at future mentions of significant snowfall.

When historic flooding occurred in 1993, the need for expanding coverage of the hardest-hit areas led to the addition of weekend morning newscasts. It was during one of these early telecasts that one of the most iconic images of that time played out live on the air: a farmhouse being lifted off of its foundation by a massive stream of water and then being broken apart as it was carried away by the powerful current.

The people who remember the deadly tornado that swept through St. Louis in 1959 are dwindling, but a more recent memory were the series of tornadoes that roared through the area nearly six years ago. Former KSDK meteorologist Mike Roberts proudly remembers that despite a tornado “on the ground for more than 20 miles, we never lost a life.” It was an unprecedented six-month period of catastrophic weather, beginning with tornadoes on New Year’s Eve 2010 and culminating with deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. the following May. Prior to that, the protocol for weathercasters was to get on the air, give the information, and get off the air so regular programming was not significantly interrupted. But the extended period of unpredictable storms led to an expanded on-air presence, with the weather team often reporting in tandem for multiple hours at a time. That practice continues today.

New technology has led to more news being available more ways with more immediacy. From KSD’s origination date, when the broadcast day was two-and-a-half hours, KSDK broadcasts five hours of news each day. The ENG trucks that came about in the 1970s are still around, but portable remote units now allow multiple live reports during any scheduled newscast or breaking news situation. Those capabilities have spilled over to KSDK.com, which offers news consumers the latest information on-demand instead of waiting until the next news broadcast.

Sports has also benefited from the advancement of technology. When a game was filmed for highlights in the 1960s and 1970s, photographers had to allow for time to develop the film, so only the first few innings of a night game were available to show on a 10 p.m. newscast. “If we got a run in the first inning, it was a big night,” Randolph remembers. Mike Bush reported live outside the ballpark in Kansas City during the 1985 World Series when the Cardinals were only three outs away from winning the World Series. As he was reporting, he was unaware that the Royals were rallying to win the game, thanks in part to the infamous call at first base by umpire Don Denkinger. Now, video can be turned around quickly, often within seconds, to allow for immediate updating. Randolph sent filmed reports from the 1972 Winter Olympics, reaching St. Louis days afterward. Thirty-six years later, Rene Knott interviewed East St. Louis gold medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson live via satellite from Beijing, China, minutes after her performance aired on KSDK through NBC.

Through three ownerships, two locations (the station moved into its current location in 1982), and numerous video formats (from film to today’s non-linear and online capabilities), KSDK has proudly served the St. Louis area. It has embraced its long history while always looking to the future, in broadcast and the latest advancements in the digital age. We’re proud you have allowed us to be part of your lives, and we look forward to being with you for the next 70 years and beyond.