(Above: Sometimes there’s an advantage to not throwing things away.)
September 5, 1987 was a Saturday. It was the start of the Labor Day weekend, I had just finished my first week of classes at Lewis University, and it was the day that I was to attempt my first scheduled radio show on the college’s student station, WLRA. This would turn out to be a day that would change my life.
Earlier that summer I had paid a visit to campus to work out a course schedule for the upcoming fall. I saw a course that was interesting called “Introduction to Radio.” I remembered those days in sixth grade when my friend Dave and I played radio in class instead of doing our homework, and thought that perhaps I could put those skills, as they were, to some use. In order to get into the course I needed the permission of the instructor, who I was told might be on campus over at the radio station. I also thought that joining some sort of group on campus might make me feel more connected, since I’d be living off-campus in my parents’ basement. So, I headed over there, form in hand, and went looking for John Carey, who I met that afternoon, working in the radio station. I explained that even though I was a pre-medical student, I had an interest in radio. John took a gamble and let me into the course, which met on Wednesday nights. I had something to be excited about for the fall, which should have been my first clue that perhaps I was in the wrong major.
At the first class meeting we learned that a weekly radio show was required for the course. Being new, late to the party, and not really knowing anyone, I grabbed one of the open time slots – Saturday from 2pm – 4pm. I figured that a weekend afternoon shift would be prime-time, not fully realizing that at a commuter school, there’s no one around on the weekends. Nevertheless, I started thinking about what I would do with my own radio show.
I reported for training on Friday, September 4th. Training consisted of sitting in the studio with the station’s program director, Stan Wysocki, who was doing a show. He showed me how the mixing board worked, how to cue up a record, and then left ‘to make a phone call.’ When Stan got back 45 minutes later, I had the nuts-and-bolts of running the board down.
That Saturday afternoon I got to campus with a box of LPs in tow. Campus was surprisingly (to me) empty. I walked through the doors of the station in the lower level of Fitzpatrick Hall, let the noon-2 show know I was there, and tried not to think about getting on live in front of an audience I assumed must number in the tens of thousands of people.
I’m listening to the show in real time while putting this together. The tape is in really good shape despite being 30 years old. Observations along the way:
-The show before me just sort of ends. The J-card on the cassette makes reference to “Dan and Slip Close,” which must mean that I followed Dan Riggs and Phil Gullett, who called themselves “Dr. Dan and the Slipperman,” but whoever is talking does not identify themself, introduce me, or sign off. There’s some dead air, and then the first song starts – U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I wrote about this playing this as the first song a year ago, and also pointed out that it was not only the first song I played on the air but the last.
-There I am. I’m nervous, my voice hasn’t finished changing yet, but I’ve introduced myself to the world. First bit isn’t a talkover but a voiced segue between records, sending a song “to Alicia in New Lenox… this isn’t the one she asked for.” Good start. Cue “I Want Action” by Poison, which starts cold, so the dead talkover was actually appropriate.
It’s worth noting that the station has a TON of reverb. I remember well the first time I heard myself “on the radio” in my headphones. Trite as it is to say, I liked the sound of my voice with the processing on it, and remembered thinking “This is really happening.”
-Talking again, stiffly reading the slogan from a card. Pointing out that Pink Floyd is coming in concert, and playing “Learning to Fly.” Technically I talked over the intro, since it started about a second before I stopped talking. More likely this was a mistake in cueing up the vinyl and having it start unexpectedly. From here we dead segue into David and David’s “Welcome to the Boomtown,” a song I really liked from a year earlier. (Of course, the foreshadowing about leaving college David Baerwald sings about is more than a little ironic.)
-Here I did the lazy talkover – start talking out of one record, start the next one, and talk over a bit of that. I’m still sounding like I’m freaked out, sticking to slogans posted on the wall. Next tune is Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” which I am sure I didn’t know at the time. Music is on point so far. Tight segue into “Saved By Zero” by the Fixx. Most notable is that I didn’t let the record play too long, since “Suffragette City” blends out of “Stardust” pretty tightly.
-Backsell, explaining that the Fixx was a request. No introduction of myself, but at least I gave call letters. We go right into a live public service announcement for auto safety. I can read, sort of. Out of that we get the first recorded sweeper and it’s right into “My Best Friend’s Girl” by the Cars. Board work is really tight. (Note on the sweeper: the slogan “We’re what’s left on your FM dial” is still one of my all-time favorites.)
-Now I’m telling people who I am and encouraging them to use the phone and call in. “When’s the last time you heard this one from Journey?” It’s “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’,” so I’ll say “about twenty minutes ago. But hey – it’s an attempt at some personality, so maybe I’m warming up a bit. We’re still not yet hip to the idea of ‘call letters on the way out,’ but I imagine we didn’t cover that in class the first week. Vinyl is also really scratchy on this one, which is great to hear on the radio again purely for nostalgia. Dead segue into Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl,” and Side 1 runs out at the end.
-Side two begins with “Breathe” by The Cure in progress. Clearly I took a gamble on this, since I can assure you that I had never heard of The Cure before coming to college. The rest of the classic-rock-fest I would have been picking on my own, but this was a random record grabbed off the shelf. That dead segs into “All of the Law” by the Psychedelic Furs, and I’ll put that record in the same category. (Thanks, Soundhound, for the assist on this one, since the cassette index simply says “?”. Play logs were imprecise, I guess.) The rule at the station was “Play two new releases per hour,” and I probably figured a) I’ll get this over with now, and b) if it’s new to me, it’s “new.” (The Psych Furs track was a year old.)
-Stop the music, introduce yourself, and – now he’s getting more comfortable and cracking wise. “This is Jimmy Barnes and INXS from the new movie ‘The Lost Boys,’ which I saw MOST of at the drive-in last night.” Punchline. (It’s funny because I remember that I saw the entire damned movie.) Sloppy segue into a live version of George Thorogood’s “Bad To The Bone.”
-We get some backselling – Thorogood was a request for “Mark in Orland Park,” which I believe was my stepbrother. We also get another attempt at reading a PSA. This time it’s encouraging people to eat fruits and vegetables, and it’s as riveting as you would expect from such a subject. Something goes wrong coming out of this as “More Than a Feeling” starts up, someone says “Oh, God” (who else was in the studio? It’s a guy’s voice), and we get a recorded ID for the station done by Steve Dahl and Garry Meier. “More Than A Feeling” starts up, and we’re back to normal.
-Quick stop to do a legal ID, which technically isn’t legal since I say “WLRA in Romeoville.” But, I’ve survived the first hour. The Boston record was also a request, so apparently people are listening to this thing. The 3pm hour starts with “Radio Waves” by Roger Waters.
-I’m talking again after that record, and now I think I’m making up things that sound like liners. “Playing some of the new, as well as the best of some of the old.” Hit Mitch Ryder’s version of “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
-Stopped the music again. Name and time check this time, as well as soliciting for phones. For some reason I play a sweeper coming out of the stop, and the PD in me cringes. Next tune is “Never Enough” by Patty Smyth of Scandal, and it’s safe to say the format is fluid in this hour. I haven’t heard this song in, oh, probably thirty years, and it’s not bad. Here we get two songs in a row, the second being “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by the Clash.
-We hear the mic turn on, and get a backsell. Another request satisfied, and an introduction of “Black Dog” by The Newcity Rockers as “the old Led Zeppelin song.”
-Talking again – name, time check, begging for more phones. Clearly I worked out that time is running out – show’s over at 4 – and that I’d better get my reps in. Since I haven’t yet mastered the talkover segue, there’s a lot of interruptions. Future Oldies jock takes out “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by the Temptations, and follows it with Bob Seger’s “American Storm,” a song I forgot about but that actually made #13 in 1986. I think it’s the same record as “Even Now” with different words. This is where Side Two ends.
-Side 3 of the tape(s) opens with the segue I wrote about a year ago when this anniversary passed. The tape starts with the end of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” Finally I get the courage to start using the song intros as talkover time. “838-0700, that’s my phone number… (start song) I’d like to find someone out there who could give me this girl’s phone number – her name’s Debbie Gibson and this is her song “Only In My Dreams” on The New L-88.” I think it was at this precise moment that I decided I wanted to do this for a living.
-Backsell of the record we just heard, and another attempt at reading a live PSA. This one is for the Joliet YMCA. Clearly I have no idea what I’m talking about as I refer to “Briggs” and “Galowich” as towns rather than streets. Station ID from Lou Reed, and back to music with Katrina and the Waves’ “Walkin’ On Sunshine.” It’s not looking good on getting the “two new releases” in this hour, so technically I’ve broken the format rules on the first day.
-Another stop to talk after backselling “Katrina and the Waves – a British group.” Show prep is a hallmark of this performance. This time it’s a dedication of George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” which is a lousy way to get a date. In an interesting segue, we go from this to Van Halen’s “Eruption/You Really Got Me.”
-We stop here to catch up on what’s been played. “A little Van Halen to break away from the Top 40 clutches.” I notice that I’m using “a little” a lot – I think I got that from the guys who’d come to our high school to DJ record hops. Fortunately that’s a short-lived habit that I will have dropped in a few weeks’ time. Here I go into “one of my favorites,” playing Dylan’s “I Want You” from the very copy of Blonde on Blonde that I will donate to the station’s record library years later when I drop out. Segue into “Get Off My Cloud” by the Stones, and we’re back to being a classic rock show.
-Backsell – even with only six minutes left, I’m working the phones. We now seem to get the idea of ending with the call letters. I’m reminding myself that this was a Saturday afternoon, and there would have been no one around but other students, and not many of those on a holiday weekend. Any sort of adjustments in execution of a radio format are coming to me divinely or something. The introduction to Springsteen’s “The Ties That Bind” ends with the call letters over the music.
-The final backsell of the show complete with another improper legal. I sign off the show, saying that I’ll be back next Saturday at 2, and that “my buddy Del” is on the way next. I explain that Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” is coming up “right after this,” play a sweeper (c’mon, man…), and start the record. Del’s voice comes on afterwards, and it sounds like the stray voice heard earlier in the show. It’s entirely possible that he was either there helping or training. He’s playing “a little bit of” The The’s “Infected,” and the station will sound very different after I leave.
All in all: I sound stiff, scared, and nervous, sometimes all at once. This also isn’t terrible. Given that at the first day of a college class you don’t learn much more than what’s in the syllabus, I clearly had some idea of what a radio show was supposed to sound like coming in. It also sounds like, along the way, I was getting more comfortable and – dare I say it – a little better. Practice will make closer to perfect, and this whole semester will be an example of that. For a first-ever show, though, I’m not embarrassed by this. In fact, I can think of a few stations in West Michigan that I’ve heard on the weekends where this might be an upgrade. (If the teaching thing doesn’t work out, I’ve got a demo.)
I packed up my records, walked to my car, and headed back to my parents’ house. I remember that I found a note from them on the table saying “good show,” indicating that they were listening that afternoon. It turned out that a lot of my friends were. That evening a party was held at my friend Bill’s house. I had the tapes of the show in the car, and we actually played them as the soundtrack for the party, so that those that missed it were able to hear it. There was a lot of support for this hobby at the beginning; a little less so in a few weeks when I decide that I am going to change my major to broadcasting and actually attempt this as a career. But something happened on this afternoon: I caught the radio bug, and it never really goes away. John Carey and I are still in touch, and I’m in the process of working on WLRA’s history, what with the 50th anniversary of the station’s launch coming up in 2023. Even in my second career, I’m still very connected to radio, serving as GVSU’s student station’s advisor for what is now Year Eight. In a very real sense, though, it’s really Year Thirty-One as of today, and it’s been an amazing experience.
You can (if you are perversely curious) hear this whole experience here.