Rick Balis

KSHE is one of America’s original FM rock stations, harking back to the freeform era of FM radio. Born in 1967, Emmis-owned KSHE is now celebrating 50 years of rocking St. Louis and program director Rick Balis has been there for nearly 40 of those years, first coming to the station in 1976.

KSHE is not your normal rock station. For starters, every day is a no-repeat day, exploring a library that includes “thousands and thousands of songs” from its five decades on the air. Their mascot is a pig—Sweetmeat, who has taken on a life of its own, even marrying and having piglets. If St. Louis is the Gateway to the West, KSHE is the gateway to many artists and bands’ first exposure to their now legions of fans, and many of those artists still come by the station today whenever their touring schedule brings them to town. When they come, there’s new hardware to admire: KSHE is fresh off of winning a Marconi Award for Rock Station of the Year.

Inside Radio spoke with Balis about KSHE’s yearlong 50th birthday celebration, the unique sound of the station, its massive Real Rock Radio online museum launched at the start of its anniversary, and what Sweetmeat would say if he could talk. An edited transcript follows.

KSHE is well known throughout the industry—just winning a Marconi as a matter of fact—and is celebrating its 50th year in the rock format; but if someone has just arrived in St. Louis and tuned in for the first time, what would they hear?

For starters, you’re going to hear our calling card, which is marquee classic rock artists, primarily from the mid to late ‘70s and into the mid ‘80s or so. It’s Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Rush, Sammy Hagar. We are extremely conservative with currents and have been forever. We do play some new material but you’re not going to hear a current song by an artist more than once a day. We will continue to play the artists that are automatics, if it’s good. Like the new Bob Seger song. We have also, throughout time, adopted some new artists along the way. Like at this point the Foo Fighters are a very relevant band. We will also continue to introduce some new artists; it’s something that in varying doses throughout the decades we have always done. We focus on the meat and potatoes but always have played some relevant new stuff as well.

That’s the music; what can be heard between the records?

You’re going to hear an air staff that is primarily from St. Louis. They are very upbeat and personable. There’s more to the “Real” in Real Rock Radio than just looking at that term as describing a certain type of rock music. It does that, yes, but it’s also the case with our air personalities. They are very real, very approachable.

We don’t take ourselves seriously. Some of the stuff we get into is just a bit left of center. We have that stationality as part of our digital approach to things as well. It’s rock. We like to have fun and look at KSHE as an escape to all of the madness out there in the real world—no matter what decade it is.

You’ve been in the market for 50 years—how best has it been ingrained into the community?

The best specific that I can call attention to is the summer and winter blood drives we have been doing for approaching 30 years. We have impacted the lives of around a half-million people with our listeners participating in these blood drives.

And how has the station affected those listeners over time?

We have some real magic going and that is the connection with the listeners. We have been through so much together. If you were a fan of rock as it was first establishing itself on FM radio in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, chances are you’re still a fan. And bless their hearts, they’re still with us. But many things have happened over the decades, like having kids. Time and time again we have correspondence from listeners that say, ‘my mom and dad were KSHE fans so when they were taking me to school way back when we would always be listening to KSHE and I became a fan back then and I never left it and now I am introducing it to my kids.’ It’s generations of listeners that we have. We’ve been part of the soundtrack of their lives as they’ve grown up. It’s absolutely, positively priceless.

Which I guess leads into the KSHE Listener of the Day campaign.

That’s something we started in November 2013. I have never heard of such a campaign lasting so long, but the listeners are so into it and having their day in the sun—on the airwaves—as the KSHE Listener of the Day. We are never at a loss for listeners to highlight on any given day. Becoming a Listener of the Day on KSHE is like trying to get Jimmy Kimmel tickets or Ellen DeGeneres tickets. We have such a backlog. I see the entries to this and sometimes, Lord knows I’m a KSHE geek, but I can’t fake goosebumps. I just read some of these submissions and I get goosebumps. We can’t script these things better. They make it so clear that KSHE has played such a big part of their lives. They go crazy with the idea of being a part of it.

The station has championed a number of bands early in their career; can you tell us about some of those artists?

If anybody that reads this is into rock and if they have heard something about KSHE in the past—or not at all—it’s a real treat to visit KSHE’s virtual Real Rock Museum, which is at KSHE95.com/museum. So much rock, and specifically St. Louis rock history. I talk about it and buttons on my KSHE jersey just come popping off because there is nothing like it in the world. It took us years and years to put together, we launched it this past January to kick off our 50th birthday celebration. You can go in it and spend the time that you would be going into a major real museum and you’ll still never see it all. I bring that up because one of the eight wings in the virtual museum is the KSHE Hall of Fame. A lot of people would think automatically it’s the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, so on and so forth. Well, those are key acts and marquee acts and have played such a huge roll at KSHE obviously, but we’re going to leave that for the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ones that we have inducted over time, and we have just inducted our 16th artist recently, are acts we have had an incredibly fabulous long-standing relationship with. We were there at the beginning and isn’t it amazing that they’re still rocking and we’re still carrying on together.

In the museum you’ll hear Geddy Lee in the Rush Hall of Fame video say that their first interview was on KSHE 95. Alex Lifeson is sitting right next to him and he just starts grinning and he goes, ‘Yeah, that’s right Geddy, you were the one who did the interview and we were in the car somewhere and we were just going crazy….It’s Geddy on the radio and he’s talking about us, is this cool or what?’ You’ll hear the same type of thing from Kevin Cronin and Bruce Hall of REO Speedwagon. You’ll hear the same thing from the guys in Styx. We couldn’t have scripted what the stars say. One of my all-time favorite quotes from the Hall of Fame is from Alice Cooper, I forget what the setup question was, but he ended his response with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll is not gonna die, but neither will KSHE,’ and he’s got this real cool grin on his face. It’s nuts…I kid you not, I just got goosebumps saying it.

It’s that type of relationship that we have with these artists: We were there when this music was being played on the radio for the first time. Fortunately a lot of these artists continued on and we played in the sandbox of rock ‘n’ roll together for all of these decades.

What other ways have you been celebrating the 50th birthday of the station throughout the year?

One thing that is oh so KSHE: We tried it once in a small club and the event went clean in no time. And on November 10th we are going to do the second of this kind of event. We call it Stories from the Window. For many years, KSHE was in a very small cinderblock building in a town called Crestwood, MO—a suburb of St. Louis—and talk about humble, you were basically shoulder to shoulder there. It wasn’t a state-of-the-art environment by any means but it’s where the radio station was in the very early days. The ‘stories from the window’ comes from the fact that immediately behind the disc jockey was a good old-fashioned grade school-type window that you could pull down the lower third of it and listeners would come to the window regularly. They would make requests, ask for bumper stickers, they would want to buy KSHE stuff, and so many listeners that have been with the radio station since the beginning would tell you ‘I came by the KSHE window.’

Stories from the Window is an event where we have past and present air personalities on stage and they’re just shooting the breeze telling stories from the window. Anecdotes about KSHE at the time, to the many artists that would come through that cinderblock building. The listeners love hearing the jocks shooting the breeze and then they get the opportunity to ask questions. We also have a local band that plays music that was first played on KSHE. Rusty Young from Poco came by last time and played a few songs with the band.

A key part of our 50th celebration is our birthday concert that we recently had that opened up with Sammy Hagar’s son, Andrew Hagar, and then we had Collective Soul, ZZ Top and Sammy Hagar.

On the air we make it perfectly clear that we are celebrating our 50th year and thank the city, but at the same time we didn’t want it being the wayback machine all the time. It’s a balancing act. We do have about 50 former air personalities recorded and here and there we will sprinkle those in. They identify themselves and have a short memory or wish to the radio station.

If station mascot Sweetmeat could talk, what are the stories we would hear?

We have to be sensitive to the idea that they’re grown adults now. So there are two—FMily and Boarbo—who are adults now with kids. The original Sweetmeat is a good wholesome husband, father and No. 1 fan of KSHE and classic rock in general. However, there was a before....Sweetmeat’s a rocker and this radio station came about at a free spirit time, back in 1967. To sit down with Sweetmeat and hear those stories about pre-marriage and the stuff that went on with him partying with Mick Jagger and Robert Plant—those were some fun times.