'Nobody plays anything they don't like': An interview with KDHX DJ Steve Pick
Steve Pick has been involved with KDHX since its inception. Already active in the St. Louis music community, his dreams of becoming a DJ were given a platform in the late ‘80’s when KDHX was broadcasting from a small shack at our tower site in Arnold, MO. Since then, KDHX has grown to new heights and become a hub for St. Louis artists and musicians. Pick sat down with Chris Sanley, host of KDHX’s The Future Is Now to discuss his journey with the station from days of yore.
Chris Sanley: I am here with Steve Pick host of Sound Salvation, which airs Friday mornings, 7-10. We are celebrating 30 years as listener-supported radio station this Fall, and as a newbie I am thrilled to be sitting with an OG who has been with KDHX since pretty much the very beginning. Hi Steve.
Steve Pick: Howdy.
CS: I feel like a part of my soul has been with KDHX for a very long time. I became aware of it around 2004 — so not quite as long as you've been involved. I've heard some of the stories of the glory days, but I'm really excited to hear it first hand. Tell us what you experienced and all that, but first let's start from the very beginning. Music seems to really be in your blood, a part of the fiber of your being. Can you maybe describe that turning point, that moment of music discovery when you were like "yes, this is me, I need this!"
SP: Well, I'm very different from most people in that regard in that up until I was 7 I loved records and then when I was 12 and 13 I loved records — but other than that, not until I was maybe 19 or 20 I was really into comic books. That was what all my money went into. I had to pick up a lot of stuff after the fact. It was the whole punk rock/new wave revolution that grabbed me. When I heard the Sex Pistols, when I heard Elvis Costello, when I heard the Ramones, I realized that something was happening and I needed to know what it was. So I read everything I could get my hands on about it. Back in those days, there were all kinds of magazines you could buy. But there was no radio station that told me about it, except KWUR, which was a tiny 10-watt station on the campus of Washington University. I lived in North County and we could barely pick it up. I would have to hold the antenna as the shows went on —
CS: Get like tin foil and creative with it — that's amazing!
SP: So, yeah, that was basically the "big bang moment" for Sound Salvation, if I could borrow Dr. Jeff's phrase.
CS: I mean, the time is right for that right now!
SP: So that was in 1978, like I said I was 19 and that's when I really got into music. There was a brief moment, maybe about a week, when I would play the Sex Pistols and Barry Manilow both, because I had really bad taste for a while.
CS: Everyone's gotta start somewhere, and then you evolve from that point in your life.
SP: I had good taste when I was 6, I had good taste when I was 12 and 13. But, in those other years I only bought a handful of records and most them were not …
CS: Comic books were clouding your judgement. It happens.
SP: Yes, they were.
CS: That's so interesting. So you got a little bit of KWUR, and that was kind of your introduction to exciting radio.
SP: Exactly. In 1980, I started a fanzine called "Jet Lag," which lasted 11 years. I co-started it with John the Mailman, and John actually managed to get a radio show on KWUR. He wasn't a student — in fact, he was like 30 at the time — but, we knew the KWUR people because, with Jet Lag, we would meet up with a lot of the same people and were getting interviews with the same artists. So, they told me that I could be a DJ, and then they pulled that back.
CS: Oh no! Like, the dream was there and then …
SP: The dream was and then they took it away, for whatever reason — probably because of a personnel change.
CS: They wanted to keep it student-focused, probably.
SP: Yeah, and every semester they had different people running the station, you know.
CS: Oh the turnover rate is crazy at college radio stations.
SP: So, there I was was, wanting to be a DJ and having no way of doing it. And about that time I heard that Double Helix existed and that their dream was to put on a radio station that would allow independent DJ's to play music. I actually got involved with Double Helix first through a TV show, because Double Helix had a radio side and a TV side, and they got the local origination public access contracts from the City of St. Louis on, I guess, probably charter cable of whatever it was back then. So, "Jet Lag" again, we put on a TV series called the video show —
CS: Oh, cool! And you tied it in with the fanzine?
SP: Exactly, and what's fun about that is that my wife [Cat Pick, host of Emotional Rescue] was the co-host. But at the time, she was married to another guy who was involved with the magazine. And we were just friends, and did this TV show together, and then years later they got divorced and then a couple years after that we got married.
CS: That's so great — music brings everyone together.
SP: Right. And she's on the radio, too!
CS: Exactly — you guys are like the husband and wife dynamic duo here at KDHX. She's my fellow female drive-time companion, which I love. Gotta love those female broadcasters — putting the broad in broadcasters, you know? It's important to do! So, did she get involved in the radio station at the same time you did?
SP: She was a little bit after that. So, we did the TV show for about a year, and I don't know exactly why we stopped. But that brings us probably up to late 86/early 87, at which point the radio station was getting closer to actually existing. My interest was more in the radio than the TV, because with TV you were limited only to what the record companies would send you videos of, or you could shoot videos of bands that played in town. Which, actually, we were involved with Double Helix doing that. So, I started going to all these meetings and it was late 87 — October — when the station finally went on the air. I was hoping at that point that I would get this radio show that was my dream for all those years, right. But for whatever reason, that didn't happen for 6 months.
CS: And you never found out why it took the 6 months?
SP: I can tell you the story I was told which was that they didn't know I wanted to. Which is kind of weird, but, you know. Who knows! But we had all these meetings then, probably in April of 88 they said that — in those days there were all these DJ's who had multiple shows. And there'd be like 2 or 3 4-hour shifts of the same DJ's, as there were actually so few DJ's actually on the air. And someone in the meeting said, well why aren't you getting more people. And they said that they've gotten everyone who expressed interest, and I stood up and said "well, what about me?" And there were several other people who said "what about me?" And these were all these people who had been going to these meetings.
CS: Expressing interest in ideas — and enthusiasm for the station. And you're a tall man! When you stand up and say you want to do something, it's pretty hard to look over that.
SP: Right, so at the end of that meeting, one of the people on the program committee — Michael Donahoe — said, can you meet me at the Tower at noon tomorrow. And I did, and in 5 minutes, he taught me how to use the board. He said this is turntable 1, this is turntable 2, this is the telephone, you do this for the microphone, you do this to the turntables. And we didn't have anything else back then. There were no other inputs. And then he said, "Ok, I'll see you later — "
CS: Like, "Congratulations, you have a radio show!"
SP: And I was on the air for 4 hours, in a little shack, by myself, in Arnold.
CS: That's awesome — kind of a hazing experience, but you're gonna learn and you're gonna figure it out when you're just thrown into it like that. Oh man. Do you remember that 4 hours very vividly — did you have any moments of panic?
SP: Honestly, no — I think it was all enthusiasm, and also just a blur. I'd spent all morning pulling records to bring, and the next thing I knew I had that same 4-hour shift for a long time.
CS: And what was that 4-hour block on Wednesdays?
SP: Well, originally I did 2 shows within the 4 hours. I did the Pop Quiz and Driving Jazz. And the Driving Jazz was because it was drive time. I guess it was probably more like 1-5 PM. So the Pop Quiz was more like a pop show, and the jazz show was jazz, because those were the two things I was most interested in. I was so young, I was like 29, I guess, and I thought I knew everything there was to know. I was a music critic in the Post-Dispatch, I had "Jet Lag," I worked at Vintage Vinyl, which was the coolest record store in town.
CS: Oh, of course!
SP: And here I am on the radio. And I was in bands, at the same time.
CS: So you were just a gatekeeper of all things cool happening in St. Louis, basically.
SP: I don't know, I felt like things cool kept coming to me. So, yeah, that's what I did for a long time. After about a year or so, I got involved in the Program Committee and helped bring along all those people who had said they wanted to be on, and found more people. And we completely revamped a lot of what was going on. At first, in the earliest days, there was very little rock music on the station. And there were all these young people who were really enthusiastic about it, and I thought we need to mix that in. There wasn't any hip-hop, there wasn't any reggae, you know it was jazz, blues, folk, which were the primary focus. And all of which are good things, but we wanted to mix it up.
CS: Right, and look at us now. We have all of those things plus all of the things that you mentioned you didn't have at that point. Perfect storm happening. A little bit of something for everyone, which is what makes the station so awesome and special.
SP: So the other thing I wanted to say is that we decided to cut the shifts off of being 4 hours, because we had more people than we could fit. So I went into a 3-hour shift and I didn't want to do 2 shows in that, so I dropped the jazz show. So the Pop Quiz is what I did for 5 and a half years, at which time I left the station for, like 7 years.
CS: And then you came back, and it became "Sound Salvation"
SP: Yes. Originally it was the morning drive shows were, when I came back on, the idea was that the station had had 1 morning drive host, Roy St. John, for 10 years at that point, and there was kind of bad blood between management and him.
CS: That's hard.
SP: So that ended, and they decided they were going to have co-hosts every morning except that I told them I didn't want to co-host.
CS: You were like, "I got this."
SP: Because, you know, life's too short to play songs you don't like just because someone else is there. So, they let me on anyway and it was called "The Morning Show" for a couple years. Then they decided that we would have individual show titles. And actually Cat came up with "Sound Salvation" which is a phrase from "Radio Radio" by Elvis Costello.
CS: Who is one of your favorites.
SP: Who is the single greatest songwriter of all time. As, of course, every school child knows.
CS: That's what they teach the kids these days, right?
SP: There are certainly other candidates who are quite legitimate, but he is quite awfully darn good.
CS: Elvis Costello has your heart. And mine. We agree on that. So, going back a little bit — when you were on the program committee and helping to bring some new, exciting voices on air, where there any particular DJ's you remember really fondly and that you remember getting them in there. And maybe they're still around today?
SP: Oh, wow, there undoubtedly are, but how do I remember them. Well, for one thing, we got Gabriel in, which is really funny as he was this legend, and no one expected that he'd be still doing that for us 25 years later. We got a hip-hop show on, which was originally run by a fellow who was my roommate at the time, Russ, and he brought in Ron Butts [DJ G Wiz]— who now does the Musical Edutainment series. So that was something I was really proud of. Lots of the people, but I'm trying to remember which ones are still around …
CS: I know, I'm making you dig deep here …
SP: We did the World Beat Dance Party that used to be really great.
CS: So fun!
SP: We brought Harriet [Shanas] in, that was one, who does the Folks of the World show, still.
CS: She let me sub for her once — that show is so wonderful.
SP: Yeah, she just plays the most exciting stuff. And she doesn't have to put it together in any fashion other than just —
CS: She just takes you on a little journey, and you never know where you're gonna end up, but that's what's so great.
SP: John [Uhlemann, host of Music from the Hills] is another one of the one's we brought in.
SP: Interestingly enough, some of the folk people are the ones that lasted the longest.
CS: That's great. I mean, just getting those new voices, getting those new DJ's — that's what helps build a station like this. And just opening those doors to different genres and all that is just so awesome. Thank you for helping with that process!
SP: It was fun, and it was nerve-wracking. Because back then, there were all kinds of meetings, and so many people showed up and there were arguments. It was a really heavily involved —
CS: Art gets people heated, man!
SP: But there was much more of that than there is now — when I first got on the air, there weren't any actual employees at the station. It was all volunteers. There was a station manager, who was from Double Helix. And then Larry Weir was the first actual employee at the station, and he was Operations Manager. So, they didn't have a real station manager who was just here until, I think, 89 — whenever Dave Taylor came in.
CS: That's two years into the fold already — yeah, that's crazy. Obviously at the beginning of anything — like, a radio station — built from the ground-up there are going to be challenges. Are there any specific things you remember facing that you remember as particularly trying for yourself or KDHX as a whole?
SP: Well, there's funny stuff —
CS: Those are always welcome anecdotes.
SP: The young Irish guy we found to do an Irish folk music show, which was very important to some people at the station, except that they didn't know anybody who could do it. So they found this Irish guy who was literally from Ireland, he was probably 22 or something —
CS: Seems like an ideal candidate —
SP: Seems like an ideal candidate — he had the accent, it was gorgeous — but he didn't really like Irish folk music a whole lot, so he played, like, U2, which was very disappointing. But, even better in a way, was the fact that on his second show, he was going on and on about this car dealership that was so good. And it turns out that this dealership had given him a car to drive to the station in in exchange for on-air promotion —
CS: Which is of course against the rules —
SP: Yes, so he didn't last long. And the fact that when I first started we were still broadcasting from the tower up in Arnold, and they were building the station from the ground-up at the bakery on Magnolia, and they did an incredible job and it lasted 20-some years before we moved into this nice building. So that was a big challenge. There were always fundraising challenges. They were always arguing about different things — why do you want to put hip-hop on our radio station! That was an actual sentence uttered.
CS: Oh my goodness.
SP: All in all it was such a blur of fun and fighting and music and events and great times. We formed the KDHX softball team in 89, and that year it was all KDHX volunteers, and none of us were any good at all, and so we lost tons of games. We had one woman on the team who literally looked up and saw a pop-up directly to her, hit her in the nose, because it didn't occur to her to put the glove up in front of her face.
CS: Oh no! We're disk-jocks, not jock-jocks.
SP: But Larry Weir and I stayed on that team for years and years and years, but the people who gravitated to it were all listeners not DJs —
CS: Had to get some ringers in there. I was on the kickball team one summer, and we weren't very good. But we had fun! And that's what matters.
SP: That team still exists and it’s still called the KDHX team. And there are in fact more people involved now than there were back when we started it. I mean Rich Reese [host of Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst] is on it, and bobee Sweet [host of Uncontrollable Urge]— but it's great to know that that tradition still continues.
CS: Absolutely — many traditions do continue. So those were some struggles. Any major victories that you remember? Any specific moments when you were like, "Yes, we've been fighting for this and we got it!" Other than getting the hip-hop show on or something like that.
SP: Honestly, for the most part, the victories were just the fun of doing the show. And back in those days, when you'd have a membership drive, which is what we called it then — everybody would come together, and you would see all these people you usually didn't see around the station everyday, and we have some of the best, most hilarious times doing those drives than in all those years. Though there was one year when I was on the air during the San Francisco earthquake, during the World Series — that night, nobody called in.
CS: Wowza — I bet. Oh man. So, favorite DJ moment? Like maybe an interview you thought was really rad?
SP: I always hated interviews. I would do them occasionally, but to me, nobody wants to hear people talk on the radio. Obviously people do, or this whole podcast thing wouldn't exist. But —
CS: It is a phenomenon.
SP: But I was just more into the music. Every one of my favorite moments was just hitting the perfect segue.
CS: That is a beautiful thing — those transitions.
SP: One of the things I prided myself on for a while, in ‘91, when the Gulf War started, we would do these little 5-minute BBC news clips at the top of each hour. I got so good at timing it so I could get the music to end just at the beginning of the BBC thing —
CS: That's a victory!
SP: Cause you would [pile it up] into your headphones and you'd hear this "beep beep beep" and then you'd know, that's when the song was gonna end. Yeah, those were good times.
CS: That's awesome. Can definitely relate to that 100%. So the description of your show "Sound Salvation" reads “it’s 3 hours of the best new music liberally mixed with the classics of the past century's worth of pop music, rock and roll, jazz, blues, country, soul and more.” How has your show evolved over the years, once you came back in the ‘90s.
SP: The biggest thing is that I have personally grown into listening even more music than I did back then.
CS: Because it's so much more readily accessible now?
SP: Yeah, exactly. Back then, you were only limited to hearing what you could get yourself. What you could afford to buy, what promos I could get. I was very lucky in that I was a writer and a record store guy and could get lots of promos, but I still couldn't get as much as I really wanted. But now, with the internet, with the radio station getting so much more music than it did back then —
CS: More than ever —
SP: Yeah. And also because of technology, I can put CD's that I can't afford onto my computer because I work at a record store where we sell used CD's, and I can just put them onto my computer, then go ahead and sell them. Therefore, I have access to so much more, and it's opened up to show in ways I could have never predicted back in the day. The fact that I say "the past century's worth of music," it's important to me to know that all of this stuff has a history, that the whole recorded music history goes back to 1880, but African-Americans couldn't do it until around 1920, with very few exceptions. So I don't count it. There's good stuff before that, but I don't count it.
CS: 1920 is where it starts. I like that a lot.
SP: That's where the whole American pop music thing took off in so many different directions and spread around the world —
CS: Everything is informed by something that came before it.
SP: I like to make those odd connections between something that might have been released in 1928 and something that came out last week.
CS: Right — it's so fun to find those little nodes that you can connect to one another. That's really exciting and still such a big part of your show, which is musical discovery and fusing it all together.
SP: Exactly, every week I play something I've heard for the first time that week. That is really, really important because it keeps it fresh. And there's no way you're going to predict what I'm going to do, except that hopefully you can predict that you're either going to like what I do or not like what I do, because it's based on what I can connect to. And I don't play anything I don't like, it's that simple. And that's the great thing about this station — nobody plays anything they don't like.
CS: Right, it's free-form, there's no obligation, it's what we're excited about and it's what we hope the listeners are excited about. 30 years, listener supported radio: I think they're excited about it, too!
SP: It does seem so.
CS: Well this is so great — I love hearing about the glory days in the beginning, and I'm so thrilled that you're still such a huge part of what makes this station so great right now.
SP: Thank you.
CS: What advice would you have to give an aspiring DJ or perhaps someone who might just started hosting their own show on their favorite community radio station?
SP: Well, this imaginary person we're going to create, the first piece of advice I'd give them would be to have enthusiasm — I know that you personally have enthusiasm, that seems obvious as all get-out. Enthusiasm, interest. The most important thing to know is that you don't know everything and you never will, but that that means that you will always keep on learning and finding something new to get excited about. You're never gonna get bored with doing the same old thing. Because you're on fire, you're searching for new music. And that's what I'd tell anybody — there's a certain phase in your life when you think you know everything, and the important thing is to get past that. And once you do, you're off to the races, and you can go on learning for the rest of your life, and music is just the most amazing thing to learn about, because it just keeps coming and evolving and changing. And you'll never know all of it that ever existed — it's impossible, you can't.
CS: Which is hard to come to terms with, because I want to know it all. But it's true, it's never going to happen. And that's ok. And that gives other people those holes to fill.
SP: Exactly, and that gives you the chance to make a contribution. Because what you know is what someone else doesn't know.
CS: We're here teaching each other and helping with that exploration process.
SP: People will a lot of times say that I'm an expert and that I know all this stuff, and I have to remember that I do know more than a lot of people, but I don't know more than a lot of people I know, and I also know so much of what I don't know.
CS: Absolutely! So, we're going to end on one more question here. Do you have any wishes or hopes or dreams in the next 30 years?
SP: Just to keep being here, man. That's the amazing thing, because we're in this environment where radio — I mean, when I was growing up, radio was a huge deal for everybody. It cemented a community. Depending on which radio station you listened to, you knew a lot about the person you were talking to right away. What radio t-shirt they were wearing. KDHX is one of the last remnants of that, because commercial radio as it exists now has a pop element for teenagers — which has always existed and probably always will — but it's a lot more ephemeral now that it used to be. And then other than that it's all nostalgia. There's not these communities of people that are listening to the radio and connecting with any kind of contemporary music. Well, maybe country — I guess probably has something along those lines.
CS: But that still has such a pop element to it.
SP: And that's fine but KDHX is a community of people connected to music not just from now but the past, the future, all of it together. And to me that's just so special that I hope it goes on forever and ever.
CS: I absolutely agree. You can't talk about KDHX without talking about community. It's pretty much impossible. Because of that, it is going to keep going strong for 30+ years. Thank you for keeping this station going strong and for all of your enthusiasm and music discovery through the years. Just keep it coming, dude —
SP: Thanks so much!
CS: Cheers to another 30 years!
Join us for KDHXFest: 30th Birthday, sponsored by Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, on Saturday, October 14, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., at KDHX's home in the Grand Center Arts District. Two outdoor stages showcasing local musicians, beer tents, food trucks, activities, DJ spins, archival displays from KDHX's history, and more. Free and open to the public.