After 18 years as the news director at KMOX Radio, you could understand if John Butler has spent part of his days reflecting on the past. But Butler doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back. Avoiding nostalgia when talking about KMOX is difficult for all of us who’ve been following its legendary image for generations. This, after all, is ‘The Voice of St. Louis,’ the station that Robert Hyland built, where Buck, Carney, Hardy, Costas and many more St. Louis radio Icons made their marks. When I started work at One Memorial Drive in 1993, Anne Keefe still filled the studio with her gravely tones and cigarette smoke, and Jim White lurked in the dimly lit studio down the hall.
I met John Butler when he came to KMOX in 1995. I was in the newsroom, trying to beat another hourly deadline; and he was touring the station, trying to decide if he should leave WSYR in Syracuse, N.Y., and take the news director job at the ‘Mighty ‘Mox.’ He was still a young gun in his late 40’s when he breezed through the newsroom on that August day. I’d seen other candidates pass through, but this one looked different. I remember thinking, This one marched with determination, like he was on a mission. As if he knew it was going to take a lot of work to get the news operation up to his speed. As Butler himself recalls, “When I got here, they were still doing phone interviews with alligator clips and recording on reel-to-reel tapes.”
Those times—in many ways—were still in the dark ages of technology. My colleagues and I spent hours editing stories by cutting and splicing audio tape with razor blades! Butler was up to the challenge: He worked to retool the newsroom and brought the operation out of the analog era and into the digital age.
Times have indeed changed at KMOX, most dramatically last fall when the station moved to new studios just west of Tucker Boulevard on Olive Street. It was there when I recently visited with Butler, who is a bit grayer than when I worked for him, but is still as fit and energetic as ever.
“So, what do you want from me?” Butler asks with a smile as we settle inside his new office. “Nostalgic reflection,” I reply. “Not happening,” he quickly responds.
It’s not that Butler doesn’t treasure the great moments he’s had, like the day Jack Buck pulled him away from breaking news and took him to lunch with Stan Musial—just the three of them eating at a small table. Just when I think I’m about to get him talking about the good old days, he turns the conversation back 180 degrees. “You can’t live in the past, you have to keep moving forward—but you can’t live in the present, either!” Butler proclaims with those smooth radio pipes. “You have to live in the future, what’s coming around the corner, what’s coming at you. What’s the next thing that’s going to be out there? You’ve got to be on the cutting edge, to use a cliché.”
There are certain things that you just can’t look past. He’s led the news team through huge events: Gov. Mel Carnahan’s plane crash, devastating tornadoes, and most personally, the unimaginable murder of his morning drive host, Nan Wyatt, in 2003. “Sitting in the newsroom the night it happened, everyone was in tears,” Butler recalls, adding that he remembers how he and the rest of the staff—all Wyatt’s friends and colleagues—had to work through it. “What a tragedy. She was a great person and a super journalist,” he says. “It was a big story; unfortunately for us, it was a very difficult story.”
We also talk about his two tours of duty in Vietnam, serving in an Army Psychological Operations unit in 1968 and 1969, but Butler offers few details, except to say that his job there was to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Again, he snaps back to the present and the future.
Butler talks about the changes in the business, like webcasting and editors who take on-air stories and turn them into online information. He isn’t discouraged that KMOX no longer is the ultra-dominant ratings-holder back in the day—before the audience was fragmented by competition on all sides. He says the 50,000-watt ‘blowtorch’ still is an 800-pound gorilla.
“I tell you what,” Butler says, with a pause for emphasis. “The next time there’s black ice, and there are accidents all over the place; the next time a tornado hits, or your power goes out; or when the next big thing happens, you know where people turn—they go to KMOX. I can put a dozen reporters out there—all good and experienced—and we’ve proven it over and over again.”
That’s about as nostalgic as he gets. John Butler just doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back.