(Above: What a wacky college morning show looks like, apparently.)
Thirty years ago this week I was starting my second year at Lewis University on the air at WLRA. I almost didn’t come back; at the end of my first year I was left off of the management team and threatened to take my ball and go home. That didn’t happen. Instead, I came back and offered to work at 8 in the morning several days a week. It turned out to be a good call: within a month I was placed in newly-created role – operations manager – and within two months I’d be working for a paycheck at crosstown WJTW.
Over the life of this blog I’ve digitized and shared a few of these WLRA morning shows. I’m in the process of digitizing all of them for two reasons. One of them is for the WLRA History Project (we have a reunion in November), and the other is, frankly, to see what all we were playing on the station and check it against what was popular. There’s a reason for this. We’re having the debate again at the station I advise, WCKS, about what to play on the station. “We should probably play more alternative, since that’s what’s students like,” a staffer told me last week. “You should probably check with students to see what students like,” I suggested. That “wisdom” comes from one of the reasons that I believe WLRA did so well on our campus: we were a “Top 100” station. Sure, we played new (and strange) music every now and again, but we weren’t afraid to play things that were popular. Now you know why there was all that Debbie Gibson on my show.
So, let’s check: what was on the charts at the start of the Fall 1988 semester? (As I run across songs that we played at WLRA, I’ll add a * before their number.)
*100. Jane Wiedlin – “Rush Hour.” 1988 was the year we started getting solo-Gogo material. Of course, Belinda Carlisle had the most memorable of those, but this one’s not bad. We played it more than #76, “Inside a Dream,” which I do not remember at all.
97. Will to Power – “Baby I Love Your Way/Freebird Medley.” This is perhaps my worst memory of being on the air at WJTW, because we *did* play it there.
96. Climie Fisher – “Love Changes Everything.” Man, this chart is starting off like a soccer mom list.
*95. Depeche Mode – “Strangelove.” Not on *my* show, but we played it.
94. White Lion – “Tell Me.” Man, this screams summer of 1988 to me. This sounds like the background music being played at Great America while waiting to get on a roller coaster.
91. The Moody Blues – “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.” I’ll put this behind “Your Wildest Dreams” on my favorites list, but it’s still pretty good.
*89. J J Fad – “Supersonic.” One of the reasons that WLRA did so well with the off-campus community was that we were an accessible urban contemporary station after 9pm each night. “When does the black music start?” was a common request line question in the evenings, and for good reason: the guys (they were all guys) who hosted those shows were genuine stars. It was on that show that I first heard this record.
85. Robert Plant – “Ship of Fools.” The memory I have with this one takes place a year and a half later. The guy who lived upstairs from my friend John at WIU got dumped, and spent a day playing this record over and over. yelling and throwing the furniture around. I played “Tall Cool One” instead.
83. Boy Meets Girl – “Waiting For a Star To Fall.” I think I covered this one on the night I took out the box of records. It’s debuting this week. I played it way too often at WJTW.
*78. The Beach Boys – “Kokomo.” We didn’t play it often, but we wrote our own lyrics for it. “Down Route 53… there’s a place called Joliet. It’s where you want to go to get away from Fitz Hall…”
*77. The Fat Boys – “The Twist.” Admittedly, I was not a fan, but we played it.
73. When In Rome – “The Promise.” We should have played it. You know it from a game of tetherball at the end of Napoleon Dynamite.
*71. The Contours – “Do You Love Me.” Well, *I* played it.
69. Cinderella – “Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” We may have played it on the metal show – which, in a fit of poor programming, immediately followed the dance party show – but I was usually at the campus bar when that went on.
*68. Cheap Trick – “The Flame.” The song was at #1 the previous summer, but was burnt toast by the beginning of the semester.
*65. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince – “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” I was more likely to play “Girls Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble” on my show, because they were, at least to me. But we all rifled through these records at some point. Same with *19. “Nightmare on My Street.”
58. Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock – “It Takes Two.” Again, I bet this was played on the dance party shows, but I didn’t “discover” it until at least a year later. In 2018, I once played it at full volume pulling on to campus and felt no shame.
*56. Midnight Oil – “The Dead Heart.” Oh, yeah, we played it a LOT. If I had a show this fall, I’d still play it.
*55. Aerosmith – “Rag Doll.” Yeah, we played all of these – even “Angel.”
*51. Def Leppard – “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” I vaguely remember an effort to make a video for this undertaken by a few other students. While I saved a small percentage of radio shows, I saved even less video, and this one isn’t in my collection.
*50. Kylie Minogue – “The Loco-Motion.” I once played Grand Funk and said it was their version of the Kylie Minogue classic. Why would I be playing Kylie? See Gibson, Debbie.
46. Basia – “Time and Tide.” This is another of those songs that takes me back to WJTW, and wishing that I could play something – anything – cooler.
*45. Escape Club – “Wild Wild West.” I played this one damned near every morning, usually making some joke about the “gimme gimme safe sex” line in some capacity. The old tapes have revealed an LP version that I haven’t heard in 30 years.
*43. INXS – “Never Tear Us Apart.” If it was on the Kick LP, we played it. Hell, we used INXS’ “What You Need” in one of our station IDs.
41. Bruce Hornsby & the Range – “Look Out Any Window.” We may have played this one, but I’m not sure. I should have, since it’s a great record.
Now, we’re into the top 40:
*38. Erasure – “Chains of Love.” Oh, yeah, this hit the air, and there was no way you couldn’t like it.
*36. Steve Winwood – “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do.” Believe it or not, we played a lot of the tracks from the Higher Love LP. I think “Help Me Angel” got the most, but this one certainly got played, as did *29. “Roll With It.”
*33. Eric Carmen – “Make Me Lose Control.” I played it for sure. That summer I’d gone back to work at the retail job I had before working at WLRA, and some days had to work alongside an ex named Jennifer that I wasn’t speaking to. That made for some awkward evenings. Someone suggested that she still listened to the station, so one morning I played this (“Jennifer is singing ‘Stand By Me'”) next to “Train In Vain” (“you didn’t stand by me”). In New Zealand they’d describe this as “subtle as dog’s balls.”
*30. Debbie Gibson – “Staying Together.” Debbie Gibson could have recorded herself on the toilet in the morning, and I’d have played it on my show. (Come to think of it, that might have been more memorable than this song.)
*28. UB 40 – “Red Red Wine.” They played this. I played the Neil Diamond version, because that’s what a wacky morning host does.
27. Breathe – “Hands to Heaven.” It’s the “goodbye” song of the summer of ’88, but I don’t think it saw a lot of airplay on our station.
*26. Information Society – “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy).” I played it a bunch. I think it’s the only tune we had with a sample of Ronald Reagan on it.
*25. Poison – “Fallen Angel.” I had seen them in concert that summer (true story!) and decided I liked this record a lot. I don’t think I’ve heard it outside of old station tapes in years.
*22. Pat Benatar – “All Fired Up.” Surprisingly, a lot of Benatar got played at WLRA. I was partial to the “Ooh Ooh Song,” but I think the intro to this got used for basketball broadcasts or something. (One night at the start of the semester I was driving and listening to the station. I heard a girl on the air talking to a girl I had dated – and jilted – that past summer. They dedicated “Sex As a Weapon” to me. Because of COURSE I had a car phone, I immediately called up and requested “Bizarre Love Triangle.” I won.)
20. REO Speedwagon – “Here With Me.” Man, I remember when they were a rock group.
*17. Joan Jett – “I Hate Myself For Loving You.” Anyone on the airstaff who got dumped played this at least once. That semester I probably played it each week.
16. Def Leppard – “Love Bites.” This one, you can hear about every seventeen minutes on Sirius XM’s 80s channel, for reasons I cannot fathom.
15. Chicago – “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love.” I think this was scheduled on every show I had at WJTW. Same with 14. Peter Cetera – “One Good Woman.”
13. Rick Astley – “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man.” If we ever played Astley, it was ironically. One day we were brainstorming station slogans – what could the letters WLRA stand for? – and almost settled on “Who Likes Rick Astley?” (We weren’t allowed to us the one we finally settled on – “Women Love Radio Announcers.”)
12. Elton John – “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.” I’m surprised that I didn’t play this one, but don’t have any memory of doing so.
*11. Michael Jackson – “Another Part Of Me.” Because you played Michael Jackson. This is why I take issue with college stations who do the “We would never play (name of huge commercial success).” Those artists are part and parcel of the students’ experience at that point in time. Hell, we used the instrumental version of “Dirty Diana” for the station sign-on message. MJ was iconic, and we wanted to be mentioned in the same breath.
*9. Bobby McFerrin – “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Yeah, (sigh), we played it.
*6. Tracy Chapman – “Fast Car.” We actually started playing this one the previous spring semester. I recall playing the video on the “Network Video Hour” program and wondering aloud if it really wasn’t Gary Coleman, because that’s the kind of kid that I was at 19.
*5. Van Halen – “When It’s Love.” You couldn’t avoid Van Halen in 1988, even with Hagar.
4. George Michael – “Monkey.” I know we all knew it, but I don’t think we played it. I wasn’t above walking through the station singing it.
3. Huey Lewis and the News – “Perfect World.” No, this was even less cool than “Hip To Be Square,” which wasn’t cool at all.
*2. Robert Palmer – “Simply Irresistible.” This one and “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” got a bunch of play on the station. I think if I had to be a rock star, I’d have done well as Robert Palmer in the coat and tie.
And, the new *#1 song this week – Guns and Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” That spring we saw the band live opening up for Aerosmith. We all had the album. And I played it on the morning show, because what better way to wake up than to hear not only Axl Rose shriek this, but me trying to sing along with him?
So, yeah – granted this isn’t the whole chart, but there’s a lot of asterisks on this list. We were a lot more mainstream than perhaps we thought we were for a college radio station, but: we had an audience, and a good number of us went on to work in the pros. WLRA, at least in 1988, had the magic formula in place.