Radio Days — Operation Desert Storm

This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.

Thirty years ago this week, the United States went to war. After months of amassing a military presence in the Middle East, all in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, bombs starting falling on Baghdad on January 17, 1991. An operation known as Operation Desert Shield ceded the tactical map to one dubbed Operation Desert Storm. Anyone hoping that the wind-down of the Cold War might mean a quieter stretch for the land of free was hit with the realization that a nation that expands ungodly amounts of its budget on hammers is helplessly inclined to see every geopolitical challenge as a great big nail.

When the war started, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, giving my time and my heart to the college radio station. Because Operation Desert Storm launched in January, the school was in the midst of its winter break. With the student population largely scattered to their family homes across the Upper Midwest, the station operated on a skeleton crew and a slightly shortened broadcast day, but it was on the air. I remember being with a station cohort in a campus-area bar, sipping on a local libation and occupying the corner where the arcade games gobbled our quarters. The establishment’s usual blare of music dropped out, and the television volume went up so we could all hear the initial reports offers by CNN. By instinct, my friend and I realized we should be at the station.

We weren’t the only ones. Despite the fact that the students who were in leadership roles didn’t need to be on campus at the time, and, unlike during the semester, weren’t being paid for their time (or, given our meager allotment of resources and the demands of the positions, a portion of their time), many of them arrived at the station at the same time as the two of us that had scurried away from the tavern. We told the DJ on air that they could head out for the night and turned over our airwaves to the continuous audio coverage provided by the Associated Press Radio Network. And then we debated what else we could do, what else we should do. We took seriously that we were stewards of public airwaves. Together, as student leaders, we had a responsibility.

For the next few hours, we worked. One student, a political science and history major, knew people in those university departments who could be interviewed for perspective on the region and the military strikes. We contacted our district’s representative in Congress and got him to agree to a brief interview. A couple of students took the remote broadcasting unit, purchased mostly with the intent of airing college hockey games, and went to our community’s downtown, where we were confident a protest would be taking place. We assembled information, wrote copy, and developed a structure for our own news program. At 9:00 p.m., we turned down the network feed we’d been relying on and aired out own special report.

I look back with adoration on the entirety of my college radio experience, but that night in January holds the single hour that gives me the most pride. We all had our own opinions, but those didn’t seep into the broadcast. We delivered the facts, relied on the expertise of others, and did everything we could to make sure that our little outlet on the left end of the FM dial served the public interest, convenience, and necessity that evening. For us, it was a duty. And it was a privilege.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.

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