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St. Louis Public Radio Celebrates 25th Anniversary Of ‘St. Louis On The Air’

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David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
The team that creates St. Louis on the Air each day: from left, Alex Heuer, executive producer; Emily Woodbury, senior producer; Charlie McDonald, former call screener and current station host; Lara Hamdan, producer; Sarah Fenske, host and producer; Aaron Doerr, audio engineer; and Evie Hemphill, producer.

Today St. Louis Public Radio celebrates the 25th anniversary of its signature talk show St. Louis on the Air. The show has an incredible legacy of sharing St. Louis stories with local radio listeners and now has a large podcast audience, with over 1 million downloads last year.

Since 1996, St. Louis on the Air has explored issues and challenges confronting the region, discussed the latest innovations in science and technology, and has taken a close look at local history as well as talked with authors, artists and musicians. The show creates a unique space where ideas and opinions are expressed with respect and honesty.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, at left, talks with host Sarah Fenske, right, ahead of his St. Louis rally on Monday.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Host Sarah Fenske interviews presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in early 2020 as producer Evie Hemphill records the conversation

The show has included thousands of topics and guests. Celebrity guests have included author Margaret Atwood, Twitter founder and St. Louis native Jack Dorsey, journalist Gwen Ifill and many others. However, the show is best known for covering current issues and connecting with everyday people.

“Having a celebrity guest every once in a while is great, but it’s most rewarding to hear from people affected by the news or who are doing the important work to make this area a better place to live,” explained Alex Heuer, who’s been with the show since 2012 and became executive producer in 2018.

Over the past month, such topics have included a conversation with ZZ, a refugee from Afghanistan who just moved to the St. Louis area; a sound-rich trip to Sumner High School, which recently convened a student choir for the first time in decades; and a fun look (and listen) at a new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum exploring St. Louis’ rich music history. Cathy “MamaCat” Daniels recently joined the show to share her love of food and activism that led her to start Potbangerz.

Other compelling stories include a conversation with the late classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sarah Bryan Miller, and a discussion with several men who were finally eligible for parole after being sentenced to life in prison as juveniles. Conversations like these give room for empathy, knowledge and deeper understanding.

The Show’s History

St. Louis on the Air took to the airwaves on September 3, 1996, as a Monday through Thursday show. Mark Manelli, a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio (then known by call letters “KWMU”), served as host/producer, with Mary Edwards as director/engineer, in addition to her duties as production manager.

A great deal of credit and thanks goes to Mary Edwards, the show’s “founding mother.” In addition to her 22 years producing St. Louis on the Air, she has worked at the station for more than 44 years. She retired as executive producer in 2018 and continues to produce live Saturday night broadcasts of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Longtime executive producer Mary Edwards is retiring Friday after more than four decades with St. Louis Public Radio.
August Jennewein
Longtime executive producer Mary Edwards retired from her role on the show in 2018 after more than four decades with St. Louis Public Radio.

For many years Edwards held the demanding daily production together with tireless dedication. She was known to have a spot to sleep in her office, using it several times each year after long nights covering election results or breaking news.

Edwards recalls many memorable experiences. Among them was the show’s extensive coverage of the community’s reaction after Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer in 2014.

Listen: Reflections And Remembrances Of 'St. Louis On The Air'

Edwards said the shows that stand out are the ones that made a difference in the lives of listeners.

“We were doing a show about the workforce and we had a caller who said, ‘I’m so frustrated because I don’t think a human being even reads any of my applications and resumes,’” she said. “We happened to have the hiring manager from BJC as a guest that day and she gave him her phone number, told him to call her and that she would make sure his application and resume were read. We got a very nice letter from him the next week. 'I can’t believe this show has changed my life. I called. I got the interview. I got the job and I start Monday.'”

In addition to Mark Manelli, former hosts of the show include the late St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman, who started in November 1999, at which point Edwards became the sole producer. After Freeman died in late 2002, Mike Sampson became the host until his passing in January 2005. Longtime TV and radio journalist Don Marsh hosted the program from September 2005 until he resigned in March 2019.

Sarah Fenske began as host in July 2019 and has helped broaden the show’s audience.

Sarah Fenske speaks with Tim Eby
David Kovaluk
Current host, Sarah Fenske

“Sarah brings a lively and empathetic style of hosting to the program that has helped energize and expand the reach of the show,” Heuer said. “Those qualities and her sharp news judgment make St. Louis on the Air destination listening.”

Producers Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan pictured outdoors with a band behind them
Producers Evie Hemphill (left) and Lara Hamdan, while reporting on "Western Wear Night" at The Whiskey Ring in St. Louis

In 2010, St. Louis Public Radio invested in additional production staff to enable coverage of more than one topic per hour. The show’s current staff includes senior producer Emily Woodbury and producers Lara Hamdan and Evie Hemphill who, in addition to Fenske and Heuer, research potential show topics, book and prepare on-air guests, and produce sound-rich segments. Shula Neuman oversees the show’s production as the newsroom’s executive editor.

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Audio engineer, Aaron Doerr, counts down to signal host, Sarah Fenske in the studio

Aaron Doerr, the show’s audio engineer, expertly guides the sound of the show. Doerr has had a steady hand at the sound board since 2000 — first as an intern, before becoming permanent part-time staff in 2004. After engineering the show live, Doerr prepares each episode as a podcast that’s enhanced with additional music and production elements.

The show has grown to include a weekly newsletter, Off Mic — a personal essay from Fenske about the week’s most compelling moments. Subscribe to Off Mic to receive the host’s note and to get a glimpse about upcoming segments in your email each Monday.

The producers also manage an active Facebook group that discusses the news with a surprising level of respect and nuance — allowing fans of the show to share their perspectives and submit suggestions for questions and topics.

The show has also expanded to Instagram, and, recently, started offering video streams of select episodes from the radio broadcast with Instagram Live.

Listen to St. Louis on the Air each weekday at noon, catch the rebroadcast at 7 p.m., or listen anytime on our program page or wherever you get podcasts.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.