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Encore: KDHX'S last dance on Magnolia Avenue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2013 - Tomorrow at 7 p.m., I’ll wrap up a pledge pitching shift at KDHX, joyfully riding shotgun with Art Dwyer on "Blues in the Night,” a show that has aired on the community radio station since its first week of broadcasting. When discussing the merits of becoming a member of KDHX, Dwyer often rolls far away from the script. He riffs on all types of topics, almost always hitting his high goals, by using what could safely be called a “freewheeling” pitch.

His success is rooted in his individual, unmistakable approach to playing the blues. And his longevity doesn’t hurt. As one of the true originals of KDHX, Dwyer unofficially serves as a human foundation at the station. He dates back to when the station was in a shack next to the nascent station’s transmitter in Jefferson County. The volunteer programmers called that home for the first year-and-change of KDHX’s history.

But for the better part of the last quarter-century, the station’s been headquartered in a converted bakery on the south side of St. Louis. On Magnolia Avenue, just a block from Tower Grove Park, KDHX has been a vibrant part of the greater South Grand community. You could judge who was going on- or off-air, based on who was in such places as Mangia Italiano or the City Diner. (And no one’s going to be sadder about the station’s upcoming move than Riley’s Pub.) Soon, those same volunteers will be popping into new haunts in Grand Center.

After years of capital campaigns, the station will join a variety of media arts organizations — including the Beacon, St. Louis Public Radio and the Nine Network — in Grand Center. At this very moment, construction crews are adding the finishing touches on the new digs, which will include a cafe/coffeehouse and small music venue, as well as expanded studios, production facilities and offices. The building at 3524 Washington Ave. will be named after longtime KDHX staffer Larry Weir (it served as the second home of the old punk club the Creepy Crawl).

A few weeks back, volunteers, including programmers, were treated to a walk-through of the new space. Even the newest KDHX volunteer would recognize that the station’s on-air programmers are truly a motley crew. So it was at least a little bit funny to see some of these colorful and opinionated folks traipsing through an active work zone, ducking through the slightly dusty space, while clutching complimentary Gus’ Pretzels. As expected, the programmers loved all the new amenities, even if they were concerned about parking and after-hours visitors. After all, these are the wrinkles that everyone’s worked through on Magnolia Avenue.

On Monday night, while serving as a board operator for the station’s weekly talk block, I took over the board for Jean Ponzi, who started broadcasting in 1988. By 1989, she was doing environmental talk on the radio; her "Earthworms" remains one of the station’s longest-running shows, and one of the nation’s premier talk programs on environmental issues.

In chatting briefly about the new space, Ponzi said she finds it "tough to change." That applies to KDHX, too, where she’s spent a quarter-century. When it comes to Ponzi’s radio home, changes are going to inevitable. Positives will be plenty. But some quirks are going to go bye-bye.

Radio in a rehab

A small closet just outside of the door of KDHX’s primary broadcast studio houses rock CDs, with a small light bulb illuminating the otherwise-dark nook. A couple weeks back, I went into the closet to look for a CD, which was located waaaaay down on the bottom shelf. Rising up, I got cracked by the door to the hallway, which opens almost into the closet. On the other side was a former Webster U. student of mine, Brandon Bischoff, who’s a production intern at the station. We couldn’t help but laugh.

While most volunteers don’t enjoy a shift’s end by getting popped with an opened door, the building abounds with weird little twists and turns. The new, sprawling-by-comparison venue will be built to spec. Air rooms will serve that purpose. Live recording studios will be used for just that. Conference rooms will have flexibility, but won’t be freeform areas.

Today’s KDHX has been built with major flex in mind. During pledge weeks, the conference room serves as "pledge central," the place where volunteers take calls and read magazines and debate politics. The upstairs kitchen is sometimes used as a spill office; I once signed documents for a part-time job at KDHX a few feet away from the sink. The studio used for live recording is converted into an impromptu kitchenette, with an ever-present scent of pizza and curry. (Not that that’s a bad thing.)

As pledge drive rolls into play, programmers tend to find their way to KDHX with a bit more regularity. Or they hang around the station for an extra few minutes; often these elongated visits coincide with the arrival of food shipments from area restaurants. Sitting around a small folding table in the studio, they (well "we") eat and drink and trade stories and engage in small talk and occasionally get a laugh at the oddball comments that drift from pledge central, where really interesting blends of humanity routinely come together.

Everybody who’s been through the station with purpose and regularity will miss the building for some certain thing and will have a memory or two to take away. For me, it’s all about proximity. Living just a few blocks down Arkansas Avenue, I can leave my house within five minutes of a show’s start, arriving at the front door as the between-shows interstitial break is playing. It’s not the ideal way to program (and it’s hard on the nerves of any preceding host), but being that close to the station has all kinds of perks.

I like to think that I pull a lot of pledge-pitching shifts because of my pleasant personality, my ability to sell anything to anyone, and my melodious speaking voice. In reality, my being down the block is probably a major appeal. The station’s boss, Bev Hacker, can relate.

Staffers speak

Though a goodly chunk of the programmers you hear on the airwaves are volunteers, there are some staffers among the mix, too. Some of them are known names in the community, thanks to long-running programs, while others serve only in behind-the-scenes capacities. Either way, they’re the folks dealing with the building 24-hours a day. While volunteers may find elements of the space quirky, charming, or otherwise entertaining, it’s safe to say that the staffers are probably ready to move on from the old bakery’s friendly confines.

In sending out a note to a handful of the station’s daily staffers, a few responses came back, specifically from: Bev Hacker, KDHX’s longtime executive director; Chris Bay, the recently minted "chief content officer"; and Megan Dougherty, a audio production staffer who works on the station’s interstitial breaks, calendars and underwriting spots.

What, if anything, will you miss about the old building, the neighborhood, the atmosphere of Magnolia?

Hacker: I will certainly miss the fact that it’s six blocks from my house. And there are a lot of great things that have happened here and an awful lot of construction that I had a big part in, so I'll definitely be leaving with fond memories. It’s also the place that I've met some of my best friends over the past 20 years.

Bay: The Magnolia Avenue studios have a lot of character; there's a sense of history in these walls. Every volunteer and staff member has some kind of special memory involving the building. But when I think back to what I enjoy about Magnolia, it's the people that I've met — volunteers, DJs and musicians — and the stories I've heard that come ringing back. And I know all of those things are moving up to Grand Center with us. The station is about community; and while we're leaving this old building, we're taking our community with us.

Dougherty: I am going to miss the extreme intimacy of our current building and location. (Intimacy to a fault, at times.) … our current building has the feeling of sitting around in a friend's living room hanging out, which eases the mood. I also loved telling people that it used to be a bakery and hearing them freak out about the cool, old woodwork.

What things are you directly, or indirectly, most excited about in relation to the new space, particularly as it relates to your job?

Hacker: Being in a space that allows us to really expand our audience by being so visible in Grand Center. It also puts us a lot closer to many of our collaborators. I'm also really excited about the venue and all the new equipment.

Bay: The new facility will really allow our content to shine. We pride ourselves on being a community station powered by volunteers that approach their work with a professional spirit. And in the new space we'll have more of everything that they need to provide high-quality programming — online, in our live spaces, and on our flagship, 88.1 FM. We'll have expanded production facilities with higher quality equipment, and a live space that will allow us to interact with our audience more and more. Our interactions with our audience outside of the radio sphere have been growing for some time now, and The Stage at KDHX will allow for those interactions to rise to a new level. I'm excited to work on developing live programming that complements what we do on-air and online, and draws our audience in for a deeper look at the culture and community that's been the touchstone of KDHX for so long.

Dougherty: I am so excited for the expansion of our production capability. It will be awesome to not have to worry about noise bleed from studio to studio. We will have more room and awesome state-of-the-art equipment. I'm excited to be in a new area that will help us grow through partnerships with other arts organizations. Our awesome venue is kind of the icing on the cake!