DJ memories

My post from yesterday on F&M has me thinking more about the radio station. I loved being at the studio, being on the air, hanging around with people on the air, finding new music and sharing it, toggling between records and CDs, trying to hit perfect transitions between songs, coming up with pithy things to say when the mic was live, looking out the huge picture window onto the quad while queueing up promo carts. I miss that environment terribly.

When I was a 24-year-old postgrad listening to Vin Scelsa late at night I considered volunteering at WFMU. But I had just moved into the city, and getting on the air would have meant committing to a 4 a.m. weeknight timeslot in New Jersey, and I didn’t have it in me to pay those dues. I’ve never really listened to podcasts, and as such I never got into making my own, so my dreams of being a radio personality are, for now, just a memory from my time in Lancaster. It was a blast.

Herewith, some anecdotes worth preserving in writing.

—I came to WFNM a highly skilled 18-year-old, having founded my high school radio station out of the TV studio senior year. The general manager of WFNM gave me a quick on-air test (only telling me after that we were live) and gave me a timeslot and an FCC broadcast license without having to go through training, which was apparently unprecedented, and that was fun. I made sure I had a lunchtime broadcast all four years of college, as WFNM was broadcast in the campus cafeteria, and I knew I’d be reaching my core audience each week. (Also, the news came on at noon, which I enjoyed, and on occasion I read the news, and once in awhile the AP news feed would break down—it was a dot-matrix printer directly connected to “the wire” back then—and I’d get to freestyle the news from my copy of the New York Times. I have a recording of one of those moments somewhere, it was great.)

—I was a first-semester freshman doing my radio show in the fall of 1991 when my friend Rich Schultz came into the room, said “listen to this” and played me “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I remember thinking it was good not great; Rich insisted it was going to be major. A few months later it revolutionized the music industry. College radio let me in on the secret ahead of the masses, which is exactly what it was meant to do.

The world doesn’t work quite like that anymore, which is a shame. But a liberal arts college is all about those shared moments. I cherish them and hope future generations have them, too.

—The radio station had a good old-fashioned music library, two closets filled floor to ceiling with records and CDs. I volunteered as a librarian and helped keep things organized and tracked. DJs could check out music as though it was a real library. Senior year, I watched a sophomore friend of mine, also on library duty, cavalierly pocket a few CDs for his permanent personal use despite my overtures and his own radio participation. It was a blunt introduction to how people like to behave when no one’s looking. Disappointingly, I believe he handed me a Rusted Root CD as he was taking for himself, and I took it. At least I still have it.

—In addition to the sheer joy of being on the air, I got a kick out of meeting a couple of bands in the studio, notably the guys from Live. They were from York, Pa., 20 minutes down the road, and WFNM helped break the band. When I met them it was before they released “Throwing Copper” and experienced a No. 1 record; they were your basic music dudes, cooler than us DJs, since they had a record deal, but pretty normal and nice, and roughly our age, too.

Still, I was a huge Live fan. I still have their autographs in my “Mental Jewelry” CD jewelbox (remember them?), along with ticket stubs (remember those?) from when I saw them at the Chameleon, their hometown club in Lancaster, as well as at CBGB (remember that?) before “Throwing Copper” came out, the night Ed Kowalczyk shushed me from the stage with a smile for calling out to them to play “Susquehanna” because it didn’t make it onto the album. This was all before their self-righteousness got the best of them and before Ed was offering to make you a video message for five hundred bucks, but oh well.

—For several semesters, I volunteered for the Saturday night, 1- to 3- a.m. timeslot. I did it with my friend Chris for a semester, then with our buddy Norm. We thought it would be an amazing chance to do whatever the heck we wanted on the air (and if we were too tired or having too much fun, the station would just shut down for the night, no biggie). I remember two things about this: one, that I only managed to make it into the booth two or three times, blowing off the rest of my weeks; and two, that Norm really, really loved it, and made the show his own. Which was awesome.

—I still have numerous cassette tapes of my shows, one of which I believe is in my car (which is old enough to still have a tape deck, but never mind that). They’re still fun to listen to. I should convert them to digital audio at some point before the tape degrades.