Radio Days — Winter Break

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

This was my favorite time of the year at the college radio station. Technically, FCC rules allowed educational, noncommercial broadcast outlets to go dormant whenever their associated institutions were on a break, briefly abdicating the responsibility to the public to actively use their assigned sliver of the airwaves. I didn’t know many college stations that actually took advantage of that carve out, and those of us staffing WWSP-90FM, the student-run station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, certainly didn’t want to let the transmitter go idle. (To be fair, when I was an undergraduate, there was some concern that leaving our lovely old transmitter off for too long might cause it to conk out for good, like a car left parked for an entire season.) Although we occasionally truncated the schedule, including starting our broadcast day at 8:00 a.m. rather than 6:00 a.m. during most breaks, the student staff committed to airing programming every day of the year.

Because I was either program director or station manager for most of the official university winter breaks while I was a student, I was one of the people with a presiding responsibility for keeping the schedule filled. We had no automation system at the time — partially due to the expense of such a tool, largely by choice — so there was no locking up the studio and letting a computer run the show. Every moment on air, there needed to be a human being present and at least somewhat attentive. By early January, enough students had drifted back to town to allow us to cobble together a reasonable skeleton crew, but those of us in leadership roles still had to put in extra time on the air. It wasn’t unheard of to draw two or three shifts a day during winter break. There was almost a guarantee that one of us with a executive staff title was going to handle the weeknight Jazzsides shift, probably by playing the longest cuts we could find while getting some production tasks or other off-air work done elsewhere in the station. That’s the “somewhat attentive” situation referred to above.

I’m sure I groused about all those blocks of airtime at the time. Now, spending my days that way sounds heavenly. The aspect of working at the college radio station during winter break that I always appreciated, including a keen awareness of it back then, was the feeling that we were quite nearly the only people working at the university. During summer break, the university remained fairly busy, with supplemental classes, a succession of conferences, and lots of tours for prospective students. Winter break had none of those things. Most buildings were locked up tight, and professional staff operated on a much looser schedule, if they came it at all. For good stretches of the break, it was us and campus security, that’s it. In the Communication Arts Center, where the station occupied most of one first-floor corner, it was quiet as could be, save for the clamorous tones emanating from our turned-up studio speakers. The sense of isolation was compounded by looking out the window at our frozen surroundings under a winter-gray sky. The entire community slowed down, and it felt nice to put good programming out to the hibernating masses.

The core of the appeal was easy to discern: For a few weeks every year, I and my college radio cohorts got a sense of what it would be like if operating the station were our only concern. There were no classes and homework tugging at our attention, and outside social obligations and part-time jobs even felt less urgent. It was just us, a whole bunch of great records, and some adequately maintained broadcast equipment. We were in our favorite place, and we didn’t have need to be anywhere else. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

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

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