I used to be on the radio. Did you know that?
No, I’m serious.
I was a DJ (deejay) for a public radio station based in Southampton, NY. We broadcast in 50,000 watts which gave us an area including all of Long Island, into the 5 burrows and sometimes north into Connecticut and west into New Jersey.
By day, we were news (NPR, BBC, that kind of thing), weather (only local), and a combination of Jazz, Classical, and other public radio programs (Rabbit Ear Radio, The Met, and more). By night, we were Blues (I give credit to my love of Blues to the show which preceded me weekly), World, Reggae, and – my area – Progressive Music.
Obviously, a name like “Progressive Music” (PM) is extremely vague allowing it to encompass a huge amount of musical subgenres including Ska, Punk, Alternative, Industrial, Electronica (techno, trip-hop, etc.) and even Rap. (Though, I did learn the hard way that it had its limits.)
PM started usually at 1oPM so that we wouldn’t offend the delicate ears of the Jazz and Classical listeners (aka, donors) and went until midnight, 2AM, or even longer before being turned over to the BBC News.
We were a ragtag crew consisting primarily of college students from a variety of majors – broadcasting/media, English, Fine Arts, and Marine Bio – with no affiliations other than that by being in radio, we were part of an Elite Group. We had weekly meetings. We had weekly radio shows. We had excuses to hang out into the wee hours of the night. We stayed up alone in the damp basement of a more-than-century old building and we had groupies who hung on our every word and beat.
For a time, I actually had two radio shows – one on the AM station broadcast only on-campus and the other on the infinitely more prestigious FM station – while precariously balancing 15-18 credits, a full-time job, and a girlfriend. That combination didn’t last long.
For a short time, I added being the Electronica Music Director. I openly admit that I Sucked at this job (capital “S” is intentional and important) having earned the spot because the previous EMD had graduated and no one else wanted the job. I had zero training on even the simplest parts of the job, but I sure got to listen to a lot of fantastic music (and a lot of mediocre and swill also) and helped myself to my fair share of promo CD’s and LP’s.
I will also admit to being jealous of the other MD’s as Electronica seemed to have the least amount of swag. I later found out that one of the items I hadn’t been trained on was contacting the record companies to find out about new music (and thereby get on the swag lists).
I wish I could adequately describe being on the radio. There just aren’t words to give the full feeling of what it was like. The whole experience. More than HD and Blu-Ray and ED and 3-D.
The radio station was in the basement of a century-plus old building on a small college campus primarily composed of grassy hills and cinderblock buildings on the East End of Long Island – where the rich go to play and the stars go to hide. The campus was small enough that I could walk from one end to the other in minutes. No one rode bikes. A few drove but mostly just to get to campus and then walk from there. One cafeteria. On library consisting of a main floor and a basement level. A science building, an art/humanities building, an art studio building, and the rest devoted to dormitories – some with basement rooms used as classrooms.
I had to travel further than I ever had in order to get to the school and I learned more about life in my first few weeks there than I ever had at home. (Sidebar that I’m just realizing my parents reading this blog are going to learn a lot more about me than they probably ever thought existed. Not all of it will make them proud, but I know nothing I say will change their love for me.) In fact, within the first week, I had already gotten to Third Base (I wouldn’t reach Home for the first time for another year) with a girl who turned out to just have been trying to use me to further her own reputation (Seriously? With the Ultimate Nerd? Yeah, I made out better in the long run.).
I digress from stories of radio but it’s to give you some context. Some texture to what it was like for me when I was on the air. But it’s like skydiving – you just will never fully understand unless you’ve done it – and even then, only some will get it while the rest never pick up a chute again.
Trying to find my place and to distance myself from some bad elements disguised as sheep who I’d gotten involved with, I found myself following my roommate to a Radio Club meeting. Truth is, I was mostly following a cute face.
Her and I were to have an on-again/off-again friendship. She had a very hard life and I don’t know much about her after she left school a couple of years in, but Sandy, I still wonder sometimes how you are and hope that you’ve found the happiness – or at least the peace – you so desperately needed.
From that meeting grew an addiction. Partly a place to belong. A lot an excuse to skip classes and “forget” about homework, it was home. After only a few months (feeling like years) into my first semester at college, I had found My Place. I would remain there about 4-years – remaining about 6-months even after graduating – only feeling estranged in the final months.
With a love affair like that, what could have driven us apart?
Well, a Girl, of course.
But that, again, is another story.
Again, I deviate from trying to describe being on the air.
Sitting alone in a dimly lit and soundproofed room as midnight using a combination of technologies including record, 8-track, CD, cassette tape, 3.25 floppy computer disk, and voice-over-microphone, there was a subtle but intense power. My voice was going into the microphone, being translated into FM radio waves and traveling nearly 30 leagues through space and then being reconstituted into sound waves and sent to someones ears. It was in my power if someone got the time, the weather, the news, or which song played next. I had the power to play an 8-min+ remix of Bjork or a public announcement about the dangers of smoking.
The air was usually still (little ventilation) and always musty. I would put on long songs in order to go out the back door and smoke my artsy clove cigarettes in the stairway behind the building.
In the summer, the humidity reminded me of Kremlin, OK, and my grandparents’ farm. The air was thick and the heavy spicy smoke made breathing like cutting into flan.
I was never great. I think I was barely passable. I never had callers and – only twice – had groupies. One became my girlfriend when I didn’t know what it really meant to have one. The other tempted me to break both my monogamy and the law, but I didn’t give in. One I don’t regret but the other… I sometimes do, even in my wizened old age.
It was lonely. It was strange. I’m sure it was unhealthy. But it was also sexy and fun and wonderful.
In this life as an Adult, I have reconnected with a few of my former W*** radio folks. Some have kids. Some have vastly different lives from being in radio. Only two (that I know of) have made careers in music. One of them is a producer/promoter for musicians. The other is the Music Director – the Cream of The Crop – at a college radio station in NJ. He’s living the dream most of us on the air in 199* all thought we wanted.
And I know at least some of us now are jealous he kept it in his life when the rest of us felt the need to “grow up” and move on to different things we thought were more respectable. More adult. Where we thought we could make a living when public radio didn’t have it for us.
Instead of doing all that, he made being in radio an adult job. He is married, has children, and is making a living doing what he loved then. No compromise.
Back in 199*, I thought he was a tad on the insane side.
Now, can you tell that I might admire him a little?
These days, Friday nights are my DJ night and my stereo of mismatched and hand-me-down components is my radio station.
The listeners are limited to one. The beats are mostly digitized, though I do sometimes branch out to my (limited) vinyl collection and even cassette tapes of old mixes and radio shows.
The theme is not longer “Progressive Music” but is more adequately named “Nostalgia.”
There are no groupies. The wattage is nil. But I still have a great time.