College Radio Days #1

lsWorking at my college radio station was a delightful prospect for the twenty year old version of me. Access to ceiling to floor music, a breathtaking vinyl collection, the first I’d explored larger than what my father kept in meticulous, alphabetical order beneath the stereo. Every record was cataloged, reviewed, stellar tracks and profanity noted on labels affixed to the covers. The lobby walls of 88.1 KWVA were plastered with posters for obscure music, bands and shows and compilations. I believed that earlier DJ’s were encouraged to bring handbills back from their home towns. Every night I would arrive for my show and stroll through that front room, visiting far flung venues, catching bands I’d never even heard of before in cities where I’d yet to arrive.

Everything in that station stood for a limitless array of possibility.

My time slot, for three years, ran from two until four on mornings, first on Tuesdays and then Thursdays. One summer, I drove down from Portland to Eugene to play from two to six every Saturday morning. Station managers assigned me the early (or late, depending) show at first because that was all they made available to mistake prone sophomores, low on the station seniority totem pole. When the chance came to switch later on, I chose to  hold onto my slot.

A number of factors came into play in that decision. For one, between ten and five in the morning the FCC restrictions on profanity were lifted. This meant that I could play whatever the hell I wanted to, ignoring those little album reviews. My music tastes were not exceptionally profane, nor was I interested in engineering with an eye for shock value, but the idea of having to rely on staff recommendations, or my ability to hit the dump button wasn’t my favorite idea. Besides, I was working college radio, a format that seemed to thrive outside of censorship.

microphoneAs I grew more comfortable, I also found that two until four in the morning allowed me to freewheel on content. My tastes ran (and still do) a frolicsome gamut and I relished jamming together afro-beat, dark wave, classic rock and psychedelic blues (among other things) into every hour afforded me. Whenever I worked an afternoon cover shift, I felt inhibition take over. People were listening at two pm, while two am feels like a very different story.

A different story, or so I believed at first. After a few months, I came to understand that my shows actually had listeners. My friends would stay up partying, and sometimes they’d call to either playfully harass or request something from the shelf. There were others though, fans of the station, maybe a fan or two of my show, and they would call in on that request line.

Around finals, calls would come from late night crammers, looking for soothing accompaniment, or raucous distraction.

I remember a janitor at the Valley River Center who called all throughout my second summer. He’d pick up a phone in some office that he was cleaning, always requesting a single track from the same album (Thinking Fellers Union 282, I Hope It Lands) before he suddenly stopped.

For a while after, I wondered if he had been fired.

Once a caller got me on the phone and asked if I would just talk to her. She was on the brink of tears, although what happened, she would not say. I remember thinking the best idea was to find the longest song I could find so I could stay close on the line. Once a dropped the needle, she hung up, and I was stuck with the longest song I could find to ponder my responsibility.

When I took the reins for my show, I recall the that I was suddenly a part of something larger. College radio. I was evolving another aspect of my musical obsession. The spirit of independent creativity. In truth, the bigger element I was a part of was the community. This always seems to be the case, but I didn’t quite get that then, not like I do now. I was bringing all those divergent elements to my communion with fellow denizens of the late night.

My relief showed up around 3:50. When they didn’t, I held the line all the way until 6:00. Show’s end was always a bitter prospect. You want out of that studio, jittery hands away from the microphone and turntable arm. At that hour, you need sleep.

Still, there remains a dangling notion that one more song would round out the mix, creating the elusive perfect set. That feeling carries forward now, into my career as a writer. Every construction amounts to a rough, worthy of re-write, re-draft; when the draft is comprised of the inherently fleeting radio wave, all a DJ can do is add another song.

The next DJ would follow me upstairs from  loading dock door into the station. He would get comfortable, choose his first burst of music from the stacks and position his cigarette on the cracked office window. Concurrently, I would wrap up, a much quicker process. I’d grab my coat, finish my log and put that one last song on before pressing play and saying goodbye.

Most nights, I walked home. I would step out of the back of the EMU, up to University Street and across open Hayward Field toward my apartment complex. A ten-minute walk, still the quietest, most affecting meditation I’ve ever experienced on any sort of regular basis.

Whatever degree of tired I felt toward the end of my show, suspended during that half mile. Sometimes I walked through the early morning, draped in silence. Others, I’d put on my headphones and listen to that last song. Always though, I would drift out to the middle of the road and walk down the yellow, dotted line. No car ever crossed my path.

Ten after four in the morning. No one else out on the streets, but not alone.

If you’d like to read more essays, check out the Well-Lighted Etcetera essay page.