I ain’t staying out late, nowhere to go
I’m home around eight, just me and my radio
I don’t behave badly, I keep my love for you
– “Ain’t Misbehavin ‘” by Thomas “Fats” Waller, Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf
When Fats Waller recorded “Ain’t Misbehavin ‘” in 1929, jazz and radio seemed inextricably linked to the center of American popular culture. Over 80 years later, their association continues, although it is now mostly located on the far left of the FM dial, where niche music genres and nonprofit radio stations reside.
This is where you’ll find WSIE (88.7 FM), which broadcasts from the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus and has been since the mid-1980s the only St. Louis radio station dedicated specifically to jazz. More recently, after financial difficulties that led to several years of all syndicated content and a period of great public uncertainty, the university decided to re-engage in local jazz. Since then, staff and students have strived to revitalize the WSIE. Over the past year, they have restored local music programming, added online streaming, and organized the station’s first on-air fundraising campaign in over twenty years.
However, WSIE has not always been a jazz station. It first aired on September 4, 1970, with an eclectic mix of music programming – “a bit like KDHX,” says general manager Greg Conroy – and a massive student-run information campaign. “Back then, they were doing news 24 hours a day, 24 hours a day.”
The jazz format was adopted in 1986 when the university hired Roy Gerritsen as its CEO. Gerritsen brought in local broadcast pros associated with jazz, including Leo Chears, already famous as “The Man in the Red Vest”; Jim Bolen, former TV weather presenter and children’s host who played the vibraphone with his own combo at local concerts; and finally, Ross Gentile, a former record label man and Bolen’s protÃ©gÃ©.
The jazz format continued even after Gerritsen’s sacking in February 1996, and Frank Akers took over as managing director. But in 2003, as concerns about Illinois funding for higher education grew, WSIE began using the subscription service JazzWorks, which provided satellite programming from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Although this move comes with the dismissal of several DJs, Akers told the Saint-Louis Business Journal that it was not based on economic considerations and that “the operating costs of the WSIE will actually increase”, in part due to the hiring of two additional full-time employees. Chears was relegated to weekends only, while Gentile continued to work multiple shifts per week. But without a college degree, neither met the university’s criteria for applying for a full-time professional staff position, and both remained “temporary” employees.
Soon after, funding for the WSIE by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which had been declining for years, dried up completely. In 1995, Gerritsen told the Saint-Louis journalism review that CPB provided 25 percent of the station’s budget, and in 2005, WSIE still received nearly $ 43,000 from CPB. The following year, he got nothing.
The WSIE did not have its own fundraising apparatus. And as Illinois began to experience its own fiscal crisis, further cuts followed.
Chears died of heart failure in early 2006, silencing one of the station’s most identifiable voices. By the spring of 2009, WSIE had fired Gentile and all other remaining local hosts and had started broadcasting exclusively subscribed programs. This led to resentment both among former DJs and some listeners, and the sense of uncertainty was heightened in May when SIUE Chancellor Vaughn Vandegrift announced that a university committee was being established. trained to examine the future of the station.
In the summer of 2009, rumors were circulating that WSIE was being sold or converted into rock music or sports talk. A Facebook group called “Save 88.7 The Jazz Station” drew nearly 600 members in a short time, as local media speculated on the potential fate of the WSIE.
Speculation ended in October 2009, when Chancellor Vandegraft told attendees during his annual address to the academic community that WSIE would remain a jazz station, an announcement that the Belleville News-Democrat noted was “greeted with applause in the crowded room”.
There would be some changes, however, including an increased emphasis on the dissemination of sports and academic news from SIUE. In addition, responsibility for the station was transferred from the Department of Mass Communications to Academic Relations, headed by Deputy Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Keserauskis. âShe stepped in and said she would like to include the station in her portfolio, and she had a vision for the station,â Conroy said.
One of Keserauskis’ first moves was to have Conroy, then the university’s public affairs director, become the station manager. âShe knew I was on public radio years ago and asked if I could jump in,â Conroy said. She also recruited St. Louis radio veteran Dick Ulett to act as a consultant and help the station rebuild.
Ulett, inducted in 2009 into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame, began his on-air career here in 1966, spending twenty years on seven different stations. He left broadcasting in the mid-1980s to run his own recording facility, Clayton Studios, but remained involved in radio through local industry groups and doing commercial voice overs.
âThe first big project was to take them out of the satellite and give them full control over the music they were playing,â says Ulett. After taking an inventory of the music library, he, other staff and student volunteers began to digitize the station’s collection and upload it to the WSIE’s own servers, a process that continues. âNow everything we play comes from our own collection, and that’s a big change,â says Ulett. Another change came when the students were brought back as DJs.
One of those students is Jason Valentine, who is studying for a Masters in Mass Communication and is responsible for selecting potential new recordings to add to the WSIE playlist. âWe’re moving more towards direct and more traditional jazz. Frankly speaking, we’re trying to avoid elevator music,â says Valentine, adding that the station wants to emphasize local music as well. âThere are so many talented people in St. Louis who play live jazz,â he says. Local artists currently playing include the Jim Widner Big Band, Reggie and Mardra Thomas, Denise Thimes, Brett Stamps, Rick Haydon and Tom Byrne.
Ulett’s next task was to create new on-air imagery for the station: âThere were all kinds of people doing IDs, some of them were long gone,â he says. “It looked very dated.” He recruited local jazz singer Erika Johnson, a SIUE alum, to voice a series of promotional spots. âI’ve worked with her in commercials, and she’s exactly the sound the station needs,â says Ulett.
Then, in May 2011, WSIE took another big step forward by starting to broadcast the station’s programming on the Internet. âThere was a huge scream that went up when we went online,â Conroy said. “The phone was ringing constantly.”
Adding an online stream not only helped the station gain new fans – Ulett says he’s heard listeners as far away as Australia – he’s also made WSIE readily available in parts of the region. from St. Louis where the signal may be difficult to pick up. .
Another big milestone came with an on-air fundraising weekend last December. The results were modest, but good enough to warrant another pledge campaign this spring. To raise money for operating expenses and a new back-up generator in their broadcast tower, Conroy said, the station has also stepped up efforts to attract corporate underwriters.
As WSIE continues to rebuild itself, Ulett looks forward to expanding the music library and refining the playlist. âI really think it’s important to make as much local produce as possible,â he says. “There’s a whole bunch of talent in Saint-Louis, and it is, after all, a Saint-Louis metro radio station, and we think it’s important to identify ourselves as such.”