(Above: The WJEQ Morning Mug from my collection.)
Over the course of almost 30 years in radio I was associated with some outstanding radio stations – and some not-so-good ones. If you were to look over my resume and try to guess which ones were the great ones, you’d probably guess the major-market ones and put the small-market coffee stops at the bottom of the list. It doesn’t always work that way. Were I to sort the list, a small little station in Macomb, Illinois would rank a lot higher than you’d expect.
In early 1990 I bailed out of a situation in Davenport, Iowa that was terrible in just about every aspect. (Blogger and radio friend Jim Bartlett agrees.) Facing what would have been a certain firing, being out of money, and not willing to admit to friends and family that my shot at “the big time” had been a failure, I opted not to move home but instead to Macomb, a college town about an hour and a half away from the Quad Cities. I enrolled at WIU just long enough to gain access to their college radio station in order to stay sharp, and from there attracted – inexplicably, now that I hear it – the attention of Tom Phillips, the program director of WJEQ, and landed weekend work.
Admittedly, I wasn’t “there” yet in terms of my career. I had been a prodigy in college radio and left college early to start working in the business. When I go back and listen to tapes from my first stop in Joliet and what little exists of KRVR airchecks, I sound stiff – almost afraid to display any sort of personality. WJEQ is where that all changed, and I think why I remember it so fondly. Even though I only worked at the station for two months, something happened while I was there: I actually got comfortable communicating with an audience.
From a programming standpoint, we were kind of all over the place – and I think that’s what I miss about listening to the radio today. As I’m writing this I’m listening to a show from April 30, 1990 – a day where I filled in for Tom on the afternoon show. I’m playing the Zombies on one side of the break and a new Gloria Estefan record (that stiffed) on the other. Either way, it’s fun to listen to. The station exuded fun. We had a morning show, The Dawn Patrol with Pat Linton, that was doing all sorts of bits and voices. We had outstanding air talent for a market that technically wasn’t rated: midday host Cindy Helling sounded like the sort of friend you’d want to spend the afternoon with, Tom was a more than capable jock, and nighttime jock Marty Hodges was an AOR guy doing AC. On the weekends, I handled “morning plow,” as I called it, from 6 until 10am on Saturdays and Sundays, and yielded to Mark Manuel at 10. Mark was doing a fully produced morning show each weekend, and sometimes I’d stay around after 10 and be the Garry Meier to his Steve Dahl. Our newsroom did morning and afternoon news, and the news anchors held their own interacting with the jocks (Patti Diericks demonstrates that on this show). Promotionally, we were active: we’re all over the Mother’s Day promotion on this show, and there’s a recorded promo that I did for a bicycle race event that sounds pretty decent, considering all of the razor blade cuts it took on Queen’s “Bicycle Race” to get it to become a promo bed. (Copyright? Naah….) Speaking of production, everyone at the station lent a hand in creating the spots and promos that aired, and they sound really solid when compared to today’s local stations.
My performance on this particular afternoon is pretty decent, for a 21-year-old newbie who, as I said, seems to have just found his comfort zone in a radio station. I’m in need of a little coaching (I need to check my driver’s license to see if my full name is really “Len O’Kelly with you,” since I think I say it that way each time), but the program director in me can see the potential in this kid. I’m having fun. And that’s why I rank WJEQ so highly on my list: everyone on the station sounded like they were having a blast when they were on the air. Think of your local music station. Are the personalities (and I’ll use that term loosely here for argument) giving you the impression that they are enjoying themselves? I bet not. Likely it could be because they’re not there; they probably recorded their tracks hours or even days ago, and may not even be in town. (During my stint on WBXX/Battle Creek, I never once visited the station despite holding down afternoons for several months.) At WJEQ we were live, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and all lived in town. The news department worked all day and all weekend, making sure we covered information that Macomb residents needed and wanted to know. I was also getting six dollars an hour; when I moved back home in May and got my job back at WJTW in Joliet, I effectively took a dollar-an-hour pay cut to be in the “bigger” city.
(Above: This pizza joint used to be a fantastic radio station.)
Of course, that sort of spending was likely the station’s undoing. There were two main stations in Macomb: WJEQ and WKAI. K-100 had a habit at that time of blowing out the commercial inventory at the end of the month for fifty cents or a dollar. Our sales people were trying to get $20 a spot, and – in a market with no ratings – couldn’t fight the competition caused when businesses would wait until the 25th to get their cheap WKAI spots. Our owner, Bruce Foster, was likely subsidizing us with the profits from WWCT in Peoria, and that wasn’t sustainable. I lost track of the station after moving back to Chicago, and by the time I re-discovered most of the staff on Facebook many years later, the station was long gone.
Musically, some of the treats I found in this particular show include:
Jude Cole – “Baby It’s Tonight“ (#16, 1990). “The Quad Cities’ own Jude Cole,” he points out.
Pilot – “Magic“ (#5, 1975). I will never not play this song loudly.
The Dream Academy – “Indian Summer“ (did not chart). I completely forgot about this record.
Waterfront – “Cry“ (#10, 1989). This, to me, is what AC radio in the late 80s sounded like.
Peter Blakeley, “Crying in the Chapel“ (did not chart, 1990)
Bread, “Down On My Knees“ (did not chart). This should have been a hit. We weren’t afraid to go deep on this station.
Daryl Hall, “Dreamtime“ (#5, 1986). I always loved this song.
Paul Carrack, “I Live On a Battlefield“ (did not chart, 1990). There’s a lot of good stuff hidden in Carrack albums if you’re willing to look.
Bruce Hornsby and the Range, “Mandolin Rain“ (#4, 1987). I need to take this LP off the shelf again.
Everything But The Girl – “Driving“ (did not chart). I don’t think I’ve heard this song in, oh, 27 years.
Don McLean – “American Pie.” Clearly, I needed to go home early, as it’s the last song. Marty comes out of that and plays Madonna’s “True Blue.” We were all over the place.
So, yeah – when I go through and rank the stations that I’ve worked for, I give a sizable boost to quality, fun, small-market radio. I wish we had more of it today. If we really want to improve the medium of radio, we need more stations like WJEQ. Of course, we also need more listeners to stop settling for lowest-common-denominator programming and demand better than they are getting.
You can hear the whole skimmed show (songs mostly removed), if you are interested, by clicking here.