Sunday, April 25, 2010

Radio Days

I did a lot of fun stuff during my college years and one of the highlights was spending 3 years on college radio.

It was never my intention to go into this area at all.  As a junior in high school, I thought I would go into the sciences.  I was digging on my chemistry class and thought it would be fun.  The rest of the sciences… not so much.  In fact, I had this Murphy’s Law calendar that summed up the sciences perfectly:

  1. If it’s green and wiggles, it’s biology.
  2. If it stinks, it’s chemistry.
  3. If it doesn’t work, it’s physics.
But when I got onto the school newspaper as a senior, I knew I had to pursue something that involved writing.  I also knew that my chosen school, Bowling Green State University (Yo, class of ’83 represent!  And yes, Cassie, I know you weren’t born yet… don’t rub it in), had a good journalism school, so that was the major I declared.

By the second quarter, I learned that J-School was not for me.  Journalism is a very structured discipline and what I had been doing for the school paper hardly qualified as journalism.  With real journalism, stories had to be laid out in a particular format, with very little room for creativity or flair.  I would have liked it so much better if they would have let me at least make up some of the facts.

So halfway through my first year, I knew I needed to change.  Lucky for me, BGSU also had a good broadcasting school, so I changed my major to Radio-TV-Film, specializing in Radio.  (Later, they changed the name to “Telecommunications.”)

One of the first things I did, my 2nd year, was to join the college radio station.  They actually had two… WFAL was run like a real radio station, with advertising, a playlist and the whole shebang.  Unfortunately, it was only broadcast to the dorms, via telephone land line.

The other station, WBGU was an FM public radio station, with a 15-watt signal that broadcast for an approximate 30-mile radius.  It was much more free-flowing and was commercial free.  That was right up my alley, so into the WBGU training program I went.

The first thing I learned was that the equipment was seriously old, like 1950s vintage.   Our “board” (used to run the audio from turntables, tapes and microphones) looked like this:

The transmitter looked like it came from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory: 

I was sure that if I looked behind the giant cabinet, I’d find those big glass tubes with lightning crackling inside.  Seriously, even my memories of that studio are in black and white.

For comparison’s sake, this is a modern radio board:

I suspect that this is what other boards for commercial stations looked like even then, minus the computer monitors.

But the old stuff worked, so I learned how to cue up records, change feeds from one turntable to the next, and to use reel-to-reel tapes and the “cart” tapes that we used for pre-recorded promos and PSAs.  We also had to take hourly readings from the transmitter to ensure we were transmitting within approved FCC guidelines.

The shows themselves could be pretty much whatever we wanted to make of them, as long as it was “alternative.”  That was our thing… “WBGU, your alternative radio station.”  I always had a running battle with this.  I could see not being a Top 40 or even traditional rock radio station.  (I would use the term “Classic Rock” station, but at the time, it wasn’t “Classic” yet.)  So I would try to play lesser-known songs and deeper album cuts from bands that people actually knew.

Sometimes that wasn’t good enough… they’d demand we play this endless supply of these obscure albums.  I’d use them very sparingly… It’s like, who wants to listen to the radio and hear a bunch of shit you’ve never heard of?  Sometimes, these things aren’t obscure because of some kind of marketing conspiracy; sometimes they just suck.

I decided to use “The Godfather” as my air name, which as you may remember from prior posts, was my neighborhood nickname in the first place.  I was so excited about my first air shift; I could barely sleep that night before.  But I dreamed about stumbling over my words, dead air and records running out before I could get the next one ready.   I should have taken it as an omen because that was exactly how my shift went.  I was horrible. 

I suppose that was to be expected.  But I really wish I hadn’t told all my friends to be sure to listen.  I got horribly tongue-tied, talked in circles, let a song run out and froze up on what to do next, allowing waaaaay too much dead air, and left the mic on while I took a call.  It really was a nightmare.

Luckily, I got better.  I knocked out one 4-hour shift a week for the next 3 years.  At the time, I was really all about the music.  I listen to some of my air checks now and I cringe.  I know times have changed to more talk-oriented radio, but I just sounded so forced, all that jabbering about the songs and artists, over and over again.

I did have one pretty good bit, courtesy of my mom.  We barely lived within the station’s 30-mile radius so Mom would listen in to my show.  I can’t say she enjoyed the music very much and often times, neither did I.  But I had to play for a college audience and not my mom.  Every shift, though, I’d usually play at least one song with her in mind.  So one day, she asked me to play a particular Bob Dylan song, with which I thought I could have some fun.

So I got on there and said (to the best of my recollection) the following:
I got a request from my mom today, and I’m really not too happy about playing it.  I said, ‘Mom, I just can’t go around playing “your” music, I have to think about my entire audience.’  But you know how Moms are… you just can’t say no to the person that brought you into the world.  So to Bowling Green at large, I know it may not be your kind of music but you all have mothers too so you’ll understand what I have to do.  So to my dear old Mom, I say, here’s your special song…

I then dropped the needle on “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35”, aka “everybody must get stoned.”  I was pretty sure no one knew where I was going with that… they were probably expecting Guy Lombardo or something… What I didn’t tell them was that really was the song Mom requested. 

Apple.  Tree.  Not far.

By my 2nd year there, I really started getting into the production end of things, meaning writing and recording spots or commercial spoofs.  I got together with one guy, Darin, and we started a radio soap opera spoof that we called “Search for Reality”.  It was supposed to be about four college students but wasn’t really much more than an excuse to play with the sound effects tapes.  Now, THAT… I wish I could have done for a living.  There was something about sitting in the studio with a fresh roll of reel-to-reel tape, just waiting to be filled up.  I loved doing the cutting and editing process!  Again, this is another antiquated skill of mine… I’m sure it’s all digital now.

Anyway, we had a ball!  We got two other girls in on it with us, but it always seemed like we could never get them both in the studio at the same time, so it was always one girl doing both girl’s parts.  I figured it was like the way Igor’s hump changes sides in Young Frankenstein.

We had a running joke about one of the principals getting mugged by a guy with a chainsaw, so using the chainsaw sound effect became a sort of trademark.

Sadly, Search for Reality only ran for five episodes before Darin was named Program Director, which dried up all his free time.

In the meantime, I became involved with the Jock Training Program.  Go figure… Me, once a total in-studio cluster fuck, teaching DJ basics to a group of freshmen.  OK, so maybe I didn’t do so much teaching as I was comic relief for my fellow instructors.

But while doing the training bit, I “discovered” these two freshmen who were as twisted as I was.  Their test answers as funny as anything I’d ever written, so I quickly put the hook on them and had them come up and sit in with me on my show.

Now I was finding my place.  As crummy as I always felt I did when it was just me and a mic, I was so much more at ease when I could bounce off of someone else in the studio.  My two freshman friends became “Sandtrap” and “TJ”.  We spent my senior year guesting on each other’s shows and generally having a blast.

My last show was during Exam Week, May of 1983.  That was the one show that I completely broke format.  I played my favorite music, didn’t take requests or even phone calls; I just let it fly.  Sandtrap and I did quite a bit of pre-production for this show, especially for the end.  In fact, we almost destroyed one of our production studios.

Not being one to go quietly into the good night, I wanted my last moments to be memorable.  Because exams were liable to conflict with our regular air-shifts, jocks had to sign up for individual shifts during Exam Week.  I took the shift from 5 to 9 pm and Sandtrap booked the slot following me.  So we worked out my “exit strategy” which I’m sure left an indelible mark on the 12 or so people that were listening that night.

Now because I like you, I have resurrected those last moments from the vast Bluzdude Archives, so that 27 years later, I can bring to you, in glorious monophonic sound, “The End of the Godfather.” 
Note:  That is a pic of yours truly in action behind the mic, as captured by a Friend of Bluz (and girl character from Search for Reality) and published in her local newspaper.  (Hence, the yellowing... I actually had much better skin tone.)


Miley said...

I can't imagine there would be ANY dead air for you, even on the first night on the job! Too funny. Nice afro btw :)

bluzdude said...

Writing and speaking are entirely different things! If only I could stop time and change around things that came out of my mouth...

And you should have seen the hair before I got it under control. I used to look like the drummer from "Boston."

Miley said...

fair enough. I do better "in fake life" (non-verbal) than in real life. Well... in general.

That was "hair under control"? wow. From the more recent pics of yourself that you've posted, it appears you've gotten it more under control, so congrats :D

bluzdude said...

It's easy to control what's not there! I wouldn't trust those "more recent" pictures... they're still pretty old.

vange said...

What a fun trip down memory lane and how cool you possess that!

bluzdude said...

Thanks, Vange. Those were fun times. I'm lucky I still have some tangible evidence.

Mary Ann said...

Who knew you HAD a skin tone under the hair and beard. I didn't see your eyes for three years.
Porky would have been PROUD! That Friday afternoon "Rainy Day Woman" is not only a treasured memory but a milestone for me in free speech. Happy Apple!

Mary Ann said...

Great Blast Off for the Godfather. Didn't impede flights either.
How 'bout emceeing our Mullet Toss next year. If Jim Cantori can kick it off, you surely can do a whopping good show with better tunes.

Burgh Baby said...

"Jock Training Program" totally had me distracted. There are so many different ways that phrase could be used. Ahem.

Cher Duncombe said...

I can totally picture you as a radio jock! That song you played for your mom must have gone over real well. :)

I was a campus radio jock too, but I was a Slippery Rock. Yes, bluz, there really is a Slippery Rock. The station got all kinds of promo music so I was in heaven listening to it all. But my show was all about the Pittsburgh Oldies. All the Porky and Mad Mike stuff was what the audience wanted, and got. Great times, bluz....

bluzdude said...

Mary Ann,
I only had a small window of opportunity to have bangs and I took advantage of it while I could. Even at the time of that pictures, they were in full retreat.

Sadly, my Godfathering, mic-rocking days are over and Mullet Tossing Day will have to go on without me. After all the crappy weather Cantori has had to stand out in, he deserves some light-duty.

bluzdude said...

Burgh Baby,
Sorry, I slipped into the lingo of the time and place. I went through the “other” kind of jock training at a much earlier age.

bluzdude said...

Yeah, there was no problem playing that song… The only things we had to really watch out for were F-bombs, which were most often slipped in on live albums. (Oh, and I know about Slippery Rock… I used to have a drink glass from there.)

I would have been totally content being able to just sit in a studio, write goofy shit and do production work. Unfortunately, there were no such jobs. My demo tape was met by a massive, gaping yawn from the Ohio radio broadcasting community. That’s when I turned the job at the record store from part time to full time. But I did get to write some radio commercials for our store during my time there. So that education didn’t to totally to waste…

Cassie said...

Ha! Yes, I was born in the sweet year of '84. Clearly I wasn't cool enough for '83. That's the other sister.

First of all: great 'fro. Or is that a gericurl? Either way, it's fantastic.

Secondly: Even though it sounds like they killed you off your show, doesn't mean you're dead. For example, Agent Freckles isn't really dead. I swear. I've watched enough Days of Our Lives in my day to know that you're not dead until you've been cremated and even then it's debatable. So you could totally go back.

Lastly, if I was alive then, I'd totally call in and harass you and make you play Airsupply "All out of Love" like a million times.

bluzdude said...

First, that pic was from when I had just recently got my hair under control. It was just a perm, because my hair did not follow directions very well. And just as soon as I decided I finally liked it, it all fell out.

Second, it's always lame when they bring back someone they killed off (except on 24). I chose to go out with a bang!

Lastly, I hated requests and rarely played them. Air Supply would have never made it on the air while I still had a pulse. I considered these "requests", not orders. Hell, most of the time, I never even answered the phone. "I'M the DJ... how dare you tell me what to play?"

No surprise that I never made it in radio, huh?

Cassie said...

You'd a played Airsupply for me. Damnit.

bluzdude said...

Yeah, you probably would have sweet-talked me into it. But I'd have played some Judas Priest right afterwards.

Cornmeal said...

I started at a ClearChannel station in 2002, and by that time, reel to reels were still in the studios, but they were just collecting dust. They are gone all together now. You are right, everything is digital at stations these days. That modern radio board pic is pretty much spot on, computer monitors and all. You hardly need a board operator at all anymore.

You are lucky to have been able to play whatever you wanted on your show. That's just impossible in the corporate radio world. The closest I got to that was when I was working the Allen Handelman show. He would leave his show an hour early and just let me fill out the last hour with whatever tunes I wanted to play. Good times.

Acadia said...

My brother worked for his college station and they had one of the best promos I ever heard: WRPI, Troy. Where we can talk 10000 watts louder than you can.

Good read

bluzdude said...

Yeah, the playlist freedom was a big draw for me. I know that's unheard of in radio today. Hell, it was even pretty rare back then. The corporate world has ruined radio, which is one of the reasons I practically never listen to the radio. Why rely on someone else to play my music, when I can do it myself and never hear a song I don't like?

I do know that I'd do a completely different show now than I'd have done then. First, I'd do a blues show if I could. Next, I'd do more playing around, talking with guests and people in-studio. Live and learn...

I know RPI... I used to live up around there... I worked at a video store in Troy. The good old Tri-City area... Albany, Schenectady and Troy.

I don't know what we'd do with 10,000 watts... We were probably better off with no one but the cows listening to us.

Unapologetically Mundane said...

I was a DJ at OSU! Except that I just had such a hard time talking to empty space. I was convinced no one was listening, and since I couldn't hear my output, I was convinced that half the time I was messing up and not actually playing anything at all. I'd love to hear some of my old shifts and how awfully depressed I sounded as I talked to myself. I really respect radio DJs now as a result, though.

bluzdude said...

I am totally with you there… going one-on-one with the mic was brutal. It really gave me respect for those that pull it off so effortlessly, because I felt I never could. From your own perspective, you feel like you’re talking to lots of people. But in reality, you’re talking to just one… that person who is listening. They try to teach that in the radio classes, but learning and doing are way different.

For what it’s worth, it’s a strategy I try to use now when writing… I try to talk to “you”, who is reading right now, and not “all of you out there.” Even that gets hard, when you know you’re addressing something that will be faced with varied opinions, like when I write about sports. I know some care, and some don’t give a crap. But otherwise, I think it helps.

See, it’s not like my entire education was wasted… I wrote some commercials, and now this!

(Go Bucks! We lived in Columbus for 5 yrs when I was a kid. Mom got her Masters there. Years later, my brother went there as well. So this Pittsburgh boy has Buckeye connections too.)