Jeff Lytle: Travelers Find Memory of Radio King in the Unlikeliest of Places

Come along for a trip out of town to a very curious shop. It is in south St. Louis on Cherokee Street, five funky blocks laden with antiques in the Cherokee-Lemp Historic District. The shop stands out to first-time visitors such as those from Naples because it is in two parts. One part has a name more apropos to Florida Jasper’s Tropical Fruit Gift Baskets. A Web site says Jasper invented them. Another boasts of him selling one to the mayor. The other part is called Jasper’s Antique Radio Museum. We will tune in there at the risk of appearing to diminish the legacy of an icon of St. Louis and Naples radio who is remembered there. You see, Jasper’s is not Cooperstown. As one respondent to a Web site about St. Louis tourist attractions put it, “Gaack! This is not a museum. It’s a creepy, dirty, weird little storefront with a lot of radios stacked all over the place.”

But, as the icon would be the first to agree, this is funny.

Jasper Jasper Giardina, if you please sees his emporium differently. “The museum is dedicated to the preservation of radio history, with the purpose to bring old radios back to life,” his Web site explains. “My goal is to help you with information on finding old radios and restoring them. You are welcome to look at hundreds of radios that I have on display.”

Jasper says his aim is to “help any fellow collector and any young person interested in radios especially a young person who has no radios at all. I take pride in giving them their first radio as a start to their collection.

“All sizes, shapes and makes, some dating back to the 1800s.

“… When they are gone there will be no more.”

There are radios. And more radios. And more radios.

There is the elder Jasper himself.

There are pictures. Lots of pictures. They are of celebrities ranging from NASCAR drivers to movie and radio stars.

Many of these celebrities have their arms around Jasper.

These photos adorn the walls and fronts of shelves.

But it was a photo resting on the floor, near a cash register, that gave me a shock. A real heart-thumper.

“Do you know that fellow?” I said to Jasper, pointing at one of the four or five men whose dated, black-and white publicity photos share a frame of about 3 feet wide by 4 feet deep. “Or did you know that fellow?”

Jasper looked down, paused and thought deeply.

He scratched his head.

He thought some more.

Then it came to him.

“King Richard,” Jasper said of the handsome, thin face alongside sportscasters Harry Caray and Jack Buck.

“That is King Richard.”

King Richard indeed.

We knew him here as Rich King.

Following a stellar career in radio in St. Louis as well as San Diego, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee, King graced Naples and Southwest Florida airwaves for 12 years prior to his death in 2003 after three bouts with cancer. He kept making comebacks to assure fellow sufferers they were not alone.

In the St. Louis days, in the late 1950s-early 1960s, he was a rock jock.

Here he ruled talk radio on WNOG later regionalized into WINK-WNOG and did TV too on Comcast.

He knew to talk to and with his audience, not at his audience. Though it was his show and he was the star, he knew listeners wanted to hear his guests and callers. He just kept things moving along accentuating the positive and needling the pompous. He had one of those magic minds that clicked faster than everyone else’s. King’s legacy lives on via his skill and the Ricky King Fund, named after the 4-year-old son whose death in 1978 led dad to crusade for research that found the aspirin link to Reye’s Syndrome and saved countless young lives.

The story about Naples travelers stumbling across a remembrance of King in a south St. Louis junk shop is oddly typical. Naples visitors from Cincinnati used to turn on the radio here and have startling flashbacks. Once he was overheard in a crowd and asked if he were Rich King in Germany.

Those were the days.

Now his St. Louis radio station, KWK, is gone.

So is WNOG. Three years after the loss of King’s golden touch, the pioneering “Wonderful Naples on the Gulf” brand has given way to simply WINK News.

Another object for a museum.