by Kevin Burton
On Feb. 16, 1960 there was a staff meeting at KMOX Radio in St. Louis. Change was in the air, soon to be on the air.
General manager Robert Hyland announced a format change, to all talk. In a memo he stated that KMOX “does not choose to limit its prime afternoon time to music that a home record player can provide.”
Hyland said it was time to give the audience “programming with more substance and meaning.” He was looking to create “a true newspaper of the air.”
KMOX claims to be the first to go to an all-talk format. KABC in Los Angeles also claims to have been the first, according to Wikipedia.
This was a time when television and FM had supplanted AM radio and usurped much of the available ad revenues. Hyland told staffers they would give talk radio a try for six months and if the format flopped, as many predicted it would, they would simply move on, try something else.
Jack Buck, much better known as the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, was also a newsman with KMOX. It was Buck who suggested “At Your Service” as the name of the talk program format.
On Feb, 29 of that year, KMOX took the leap.
Details of the move are set forth in “At Your Service; KMOX and Bob Hardy, Pioneer of talk Radio,” by Sandra Hardy Chinn, Bob Hardy’s daughter.
On At your Service, KMOX interviewed experts such as gardeners, dentists and accountants to give general advice to listeners.
Suicides were prevented, a drug addict got professional help, a dangerous intersection got a crossing signal, all because of the new programming on KMOX.
“Answering the needs of the public was always something KMOX did well,” Hardy Chinn writes.
The public was listening and the industry was watching. After KMOX prospered in talk radio, thousands of stations worldwide adopted the format.
It started at KMOX with the public in mind. But talk radio “at your service” is a laughable concept today.
The sort of public affairs programming that motivated Bob Hyland in the beginning, does still exist. But today it represents a whisper in a stadium full of blaring influence paddlers.
Now the airwaves are full of liars, planting seeds of hate.
“Outlandish opinion mongers on the left and right tend to drown out everyone else. Extremism in the pursuit of ratings is no vice,” writes former Washington post media reporter Howard Kurtz in his 1997 book “Hot Air: All Talk All The Time,” an assessment of the talk format on radio and television.
“The middle ground, the sensible center, is dismissed as too squishy, too dull, too likely to send the audience channel surfing,” Kurtz wrote.
Remember when Saturday Night Live was new, cutting-edge must see TV?
It was 1979 and SNL did a takeoff on a public affairs program, “Point-Counter Point.” Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd delivered opposing views on various topics.
In one sketch after Curtin’s opening line, Aykroyd responded with, “Jane, you ignorant slut..”
Curtin’s sketch character went into slack-jawed shock, the studio audience into fits of laughter. Why? Because nobody would say such a thing in that setting.
That was then, this is now.
“There was a time when ‘Jane you ignorant slut’ was a great late-night gag. Now the parody cuts uncomfortably close to reality,” Kurtz wrote.
Kurtz wrote that book in 1997. Having helped enlighten us to the deterioration of talk radio he himself has gone over to the dark side and is now a member of the Fox News blather factory.
“Attention is currency,” reads the website of media consultant Holland Cooke.
According to 2007 statistics compiled by the Center for American Progress, 91 percent of politically-oriented talk radio is right wing to just nine percent for the left.
As recently as the 80s, talk radio was “diverse in topic and political orientations,” according to the book “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took over a Political Party That Took over the United States,” by Brian Rosenwald.
Now talk radio is “an appendage of the Republican party,” Rosenwald wrote.