Earthworms’ Castings

KDHX Jean Ponzi

With Jean Ponzi

KDHX is 30! A Person-Powered History

I wasn’t tuned in to earliest days of KDHX, but my best friend Sarah Linquist was. She understood the momentous achievement of ordinary voices broadcasting on the frequency 88.1 FM. “You should get involved with this, Jean,” she said. She was a very smart friend.

Sarah had been one of many blithe spirit volunteers who literally camped out in the Free-Form Radio digs of KDNA (1969-72), the counterculture ancestor of KDHX. FM attracted creative types: the KDNA license holders welcomed people off the street on the air, upstairs from the Crystal Palace nightclub in legendary Gaslight Square.

Frequency Modulation broadcasting was an upstart challenge to hugely popular and deeply commercial AM. Would a new radio medium make it?

Down on the low-number end of the dial, where the FCC reserved a limited number of frequencies for non-commercial, “educational” FM stations, the concept of independent Community Radio sprouted around the country from ideological roots. KDNA’s owners transplanted their experience at KPFA, flagship of the progressive (some said radical) Pacifica Network in Berkeley to St. Louis. Ordinary people (OK, so some were rather odd) got a radio voice!

The call letters KDNA were a joke request on a license application mostly filled in “Does Not Apply.” When FM began to look profitable, the owners sold that frequency.

Bereft and dogged volunteers pivoted on the meaning of DNA to incorporate as the non-profit Double Helix Community Media. They took on local-access TV operations (in the rinky-dink era of cable), taught audio and video production skills, and ran a Media Truck around town. They scrambled for grants and got local bands to play fund-raisers.

Ordinary people persevered here through a fifteen-year quest to revive Community Radio, amazingly resulting in KDHX popping onto 88.1 at 12:14 a.m. on October 14, 1987.

I didn’t act on Sarah’s advice, but KDHX acted on me.

I already loved radio, that magic of voices talking through the air to me. I had noticed (barely) a local buzz about that new, weird station. Puttering at home late one night near (fittingly) Independence Day of ‘88, I tuned in to 88.1. The program flow alternated between segments from Franco Zefferelli’s landmark movie Romeo and Juliet (famous for casting actual teens in the star-crossed lover roles, that film was hot) and musical cuts in a jumble of styles: bluegrass, jazz, folk, funk. Unrelated music complemented each Shakespeare scene. It was transcendental listening.
At a 4th of July party later that week, everyone talked about KDHX. Every time you turned it on, it was different. I described my hours hearing brilliance. A guy down the picnic table said, “That was my show.”

That guy was Jeff Ritter, a Jersey boy in town to get a Ph.D. at Saint Louis U, in American Studies. He had started volunteering at KDHX when those Double Helix stalwarts were still struggling, physically, to build a transmitter. In fact, he did the first-ever KDHX airshift! Jeff didn’t have to go to work the next day, and everyone else who was there that night did. Jeff camped out in the transmitter shack on the grassy knoll in Arnold, MO, spinning records and taking phone calls (landline, incoming only) from people who were hearing a brand new thing.

He also served on the station’s first Program Committee, scouting for diverse perspectives and voices, ordinary people who could learn some simple audio tech and do interesting radio shows.

The mission of KDHX at that time was involving women and minorities in media. I was a woman and I could talk. On that 5th of July, Jeff Ritter scouted me.

That was one of many happy “accidents” in my life that have helped me develop a community service, and become the kind of person I always hoped I’d be.

My KDHX show, Earthworms, is my longest-running job. I’m proud to say I do it as a volunteer. It has shaped my thinking and cultivated knowledge for my chosen career – environmental communications – in depth, breadth and a sense o’ humus.

Starting the first Friday in August, 1988, I co-hosted, and soon solo-hosted, a live talk show every week. In those days, there was nearly zero environmental media focus, but I had started organizing some green-themed events, meeting some local Green Giants. Working through KDHX, an environmental interview niche opened for me. It has fostered my vocation, my community service.

That era’s station manager was Dave Taylor, who came to KDHX via connections in D.C., at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Detroit Dave” loved radio, especially the Community Radio model: the more diverse the better, where information from local voices flourished amid the diverse wealth of music KDHX was already famous for. Dave encouraged poetry, radio theater, and spoken word shows. He launched a strip of talk shows across the mid-day noon hours, with live, local perspectives on psychology, health, gender, politics, teens, and the environment (Earthworms!). A fledgling local news group hit the streets seeking stories. We also presented edgy recorded shows from noted public radio producers. Most significantly, Dave Taylor offered superlative learning options to us volunteers.

Groups of us went to conferences of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, where we networked with ordinary people like ourselves (many continued to be odd) from all walks of life and experience levels. I was enthralled with the Mohawk Nation Station, with studios in the U.S., a transmitter in Canada and fierce message independence from both governments. Dave brought public radio pros to KDHX, for public talks and small-group trainings. I learned to interview from top non-commercial radio talents, who cared about helping ordinary me build and apply skills.

My work at KDHX changed form in 2015 when the station moved our talk shows to podcast format. That was a challenging transition. Live radio is the best. And, Change is one reliable constant of life on Earth. The media landscape is reeling with changes. Music has always defined KDHX, and an enterprise needs focus. Plus many people now listen through pods.

I fixed my focus, when all that came down, on what was most important to me: continuing to bring Green perspectives to my fellow humans, through conversations on topics I believe are worth exploring. I also kept an Earthworms Segment (biological pun) on-air, as a promo-teaser for each week’s podcast.

As such, I am the woman who’s been on the air at KDHX the longest. From this historical, very personal point of view, I pop my cork for 30 Years of KDHX!

As with any lively, healthy entity, the station has, shall we say, matured. You come in off the street to Magnolia Café, and to The Stage, a legend-in-the making venue. The studios are still upstairs, but the crash-pad sofas have given way to nine well-equipped, well-maintained digital production rooms, where volunteers continue to learn and grow media skills. That mighty KDHX musical hum modulates the babble of voices, while the mix of music styles that first captivated me continues to attract, enchant and retain listeners. All this in an era when any ordinary Jamar or Jane can instantly build a personal radio station on their flippin’ phone.

I believe it’s that person-to-person connection, the bond at the heart of KDHX, that remains its strength, more essential than ever in our abstracted, saturated, multi-tasking DIY media age.

You hear a person talking, singing, playing to you. You, in turn, contribute the great gift of your attention, and financial support that, steadily and sufficiently, sustains the needs of KDHX. Liveliness generates Livelihood. Granted, it all takes some technical heft, but more than anything KDHX continues to run (and rock) on Person-Power.

It’s a real, important, elegant, personal and pretty simple exchange.

One of the greatest gifts of my life is getting to be part of KDHX – and, at this time in both our lives, getting to say CONGRATULATIONS! Keep up the good work! We’re listening!

Check out Jean Ponzi’s Earthworms interviews at podcasts.kdhx.org, or subscribe through iTunes. Don’t miss Jean’s 7-17-17 conversation with Jeff Ritter, and book this October 14 on your dance card for KDHXFEST: 30th Birthday, 11 am – 6 pm in Grand Center. Early birds can get an Earthworms high-five.