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Encore: Veteran rock DJ 'Smash' would like to talk to you

Smash, left, and Twist
Thomas Crone | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 25, 2013: At some point around half past 4 on Monday afternoon, I had to consider which Kardashian sister I would eat, which I'd chew on and which I'd spit out. Well into my fifth decade, I've spent a lot of time specifically not thinking about the Kardashian sisters. So to be asked about them with a microphone open to a St. Louis audience, well, that's the kind of thing that can only happen inside a guy-talk radio station.

To put things into context, let's start with two bits of background. One: The newly minted 590 The Man's gone from an all-sports station to one that peppers sports into a wider conversation of guy-friendly topics. Pretty much the entire air staff departed the 590 airwaves since local wireless dealer Dan Marshall bought into the station, scuttling a variety of name hosts. Several of them have since banded into a new effort at WGNU, 920 AM, where Tim McKernan’s The Morning After will be the early drivetime anchor and the station's site will roll into his insidestl.com.

Why is this being discussed in a music article? That comes via thread number two: The afternoon co-host on the new 590 is Asher Benrubi, known to countless local rock radio listeners as Smash. A longtime musician and vocalist, Sir Smashington began his onstage career in the 1960s, with a group called Frenchie & The Oui-Ouis. That group morphed into Pure Funk, then Roadmaster, a band that signed to Mercury Records, though they disbanded without widespread commercial success. His time in those groups, though, directly influenced his career choices; and by 1982, he was offered a spot on the brand-new cable station dubbed "Music Television," MTV.

After a few years together, the original MTV jocks -- Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, JJ Jackson and Alan Hunter -- began to break up and new talent was brought in. Among the early arrivals was Smash, who introduced videos in the morning, while hosting MTV's staple "Headbanger's Ball" on the weekends. He was an interesting choice for the network, a rock radio DJ with a following in D.C. and a booming, enthusiastic voice.

It's the same voice he brings to the air today, co-hosting a guy talk, drive-time show with one of the most-feared players to skate in the NHL, former St. Louis Blues enforcer Tony Twist. Debuting with Smash & Twist on May 1 this year, Smash says the decision to join Marshall's new effort came, in part, from knowing Twist socially for about 15 years. The two are attempting to launch their brand by relying on their own, outsize personalities, rather than bringing in a steady cavalcade of guests. Those who do appear are sometimes commercially tied, buying time on the show for ad dollars. Callers, long the staples of many a sports talk show are also accepted, though limited.

“Last week was big on racism talk, with the Trayvon Martin case,” Smash says. “Some weeks there’s more sex talk. We’re not relying on guests at this time. We’re branding ourselves as hosts. (The show’s) about things that guys can relate to and women would like to eavesdrop in on.”

Maybe so. I just hope the Kardashian sisters weren’t listening on Monday. The way that Twist was smirking at my addled responses, I’m kinda hoping that segment passed by history, altogether.

Anything goes radio

In watching the show go live, it’s obvious that Smash is driving the bus, while in routine contact with his producer Stacy Fleming and board operator “Maestro” Howard Morton. Twist adds the color, with a bit of a libertarian streak and no shortage of his own opinions.

Smash has a unique patois, a personal dialect that’s easy and quick to detect. There’s a certain N’awlins vibe to the way he speaks and his word choices are just delightful. The info all comes from a voice that was off of local radio waves for four years.

His last job was KLOU, which ended, he says, “in April of 2009. In a two-day period of that year, Clear Channel fired about 2,400 employees across the country and 60 of them were here.” Asked if he saw it coming, or if the grim reaper visited unannounced, he says “Oh, I saw it coming.”

These days, Smash is working for a company far smaller than Clear Channel, though not one without some interesting stories. When the station was bought by Marshall, fans of the all-sports format went crazy on local message boards. Meanwhile, an affiliated radio station, with studios in the same Webster Groves office building turned over, too: 1380 AM changed from a ratings poor, third-place, all-sports station into The Woman, a talk station dedicated to topics geared to a female audience.

Occasionally, the two blend. On Monday, Sonja Shin, a host of “The Natural Beauty” on 1380, rolled into the 590 studio for a chat with Smash & Twist. The conversation was geared toward an article detailing “planned parenting,” in which non-coupled parents would raise children in unconventional homes. The story brought about serious commentary, but also the kind of bawdy asides you might expect.

In setting up the show, Smash says all hands are on deck. And all topics are in play.

“We put our content contributions together from different frames of mind and then we have a show,” Smash says. “We prepare in an outline form. We have a level of intelligence, where we can put forth something that makes sense, whether it’s supposed to or not. Whenever anything is presented, it’s done so by any player of this ensemble.”

Including the intern, Gollum.

Young man in a twisted green shirt

When I shake Tony Twist’s oversized hand, I realize that this is the same weapon that used to dance across the foreheads of the toughest men in the NHL. There are maybe a dozen fighters who’d contend for the status as the most-feared enforcer in NHL history and Twist would be among that number, having ruled the league for the bulk of the 1990s. Even today he’s ripped and his penchant of dipping a bit of chew during his radio program adds to the overall tough guy mystique.

Since his retirement from the game - precipitated by an awful motorcycle crash - he’s run bars, done commentary on Blues’ broadcasts, been an ad pitchman and dipped his toes into sports talk. But he’ll be defined through life in St. Louis as a fighter, a masterful one.

And yet, there’s a moment when Will Starnes walks into the air room and his shirt is awry. So Twist walks over and adjusts the kid’s collar. It’s done with -- how else to say it? -- a bit of human-to-human care.

On the show, Starnes is Gollum, so named, says Smash, “because he’s so precious to us.” During the show, Starnes occasionally enters to give updates about the royal baby. At times, his facts are off. At others, he affects a British accent that drifts into an unknown corner of the world. Smash, in particular, takes delight in taking Gollum to task, saying that he’s doing so as part of “the Smash School of Broadcasting.” Starnes takes the abuse and saunters away, to go work on sound clips. But there was a moment in which Smash was needling Gollum, only to have a very literal twinkle appear in his eye.

The twinkle comes around, too, when Smash is talking about his first love: music. He tells the audience, at one point, that rock radio no longer cares for the local scene, so it’s up to talk radio to fill in the gaps. And Smash does add local music to the weekly calendar. Recently, the show dedicated a long, long segment to cigar box guitars, based on a local festival. He’s not afraid to add music to the mix, though this day is given over to talk topics: a driver harassed by police for flashing his lights; Geraldo Rivera’s recent, semi-nude photo shoot; helicopter parenting; and a lengthy segment with regular guest Dr. Steven Stahle, which revolves around Smash’s attempts to work through complications of diabetes.

Smash & Twist will likely shape-shift somewhat, with bits and guests tried out and scuttled. But the basics are in place. The biggest one is that nothing will get a scripted “secondary” response, everything is meant to go out fresh and live.

“I hate when stations bring fake secondary responses and they’re all acting happy,” Smash says. “Ours is about initial response. ‘Save it for the air’ is our mantra.”

He says this as only Smash can.

About this series

For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. And a lot of his memorabilia is available to the public at www.silvertrayonline.com/

The "Second Set" series highlights known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these articles will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.

"Encores" follow in the spirit of the earlier series as Crone and The Beacon roll out an ebook that developed from Second Set. Read Second Set columns.

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