This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.
When I first toured the university campus that would soon serve as my higher education home, I was surprised by the music the student-run radio station was playing. At least, I thought it was the student-run radio station, because it never even occurred to me that the student center, which were strolling through, would pipe in any other broadcast outlet to expel through their overhead speakers. So why, I wondered, was I hearing the tinny, empty pop stylings of Taylor Dayne (it was 1988, friends) rather than R.E.M. or U2 or They Might Be Giants or any of the other acts that I knew, in the limited acumen with the field I had then, were more suited to college radio? The radio station was housed in a building next door, and I desperately wanted to break away from the tour group to investigate.
The staff at the campus center wasn’t tuned into the college radio station, of course. (I am extremely pleased to report that multiple recent visits to my alma mater confirm that the current university center staff does indeed chose to support their fellow students with their official facility radio selection.) It wasn’t until I was officially enrolled that I finally heard the noncommercial radio station that would become my primary home base during my undergraduate years. It was love at first listen.
When I joined the staff at the station, I wound up presiding over one of the late night weeknight slots, a chunk of the schedule that would prove to be so coveted in subsequent years that I now marvel it was available to me my freshman year. WWSP-90FM, the station in question, mostly stuck with what was termed general programming during the week. Students who signed up for slots were expected to follow a programming clock that directed them to certain parts of the new music rotation and the stacks stocked with older records, with a mandate to favor college rock (though there was plenty of mainstream rock and pop in the library when I started there). The station’s late night shift, from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., was a different matter.
Dubbed “Soundstreams,” the station’s late night shift was more freeform. On air personnel were still encouraged to play a wide variety of college rock and include lots of new music, but what was played and when was entirely at the discretion of the person behind the microphone. A major motivation behind the method was making it easier to play listener requests, which came in at a surprisingly robust clip. (Within a few years of my start date, when the station was, I suspect, at it peak of listenership, it wasn’t all that uncommon to see almost an entire four-hour playlist comprised of requested songs.) But it also allowed the DJ to explore freely, playing an entire hour from the part of the music library that housed the most obscure music or doing an entire program that was nothing but new music. For me, eager to learn and painfully aware of the gaps in my music knowledge, the untethering was a godsend.
I was a devoted member of the college radio station staff the entire time I went to college, even staying in town during breaks to play music. During my years there, I had many different regular shifts and probably subbed every time slot and specialty show at least once. (I was the program director for two years, and filling in for absent DJs was a big part of the job.) But I also hung on to that Monday night Soundstreams slot for as long as I could, only giving it up when I started to feel a little guilty about keeping such prime territory for myself when there were so many exceptional staff members who wanted their turn in the wondrous freedom of the slot.
I’m lucky enough to slip back into the air chair at that trusty college radio station every now and then. It still feels like home, especially when I’m sitting in the studio and running the board at around 1:00 a.m. Decades later, few things bring me more untempered joy.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.