Radio Days — 90FM’s Jazzfest

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

There were two times per year that we preempted the entire weekend schedule at WWSP-90M, the student-run radio station where I spent countless hours during my tenure as an undergraduate. In the spring, we had a trivia contest that could — and still can — fairly claim to be the world’s largest and was without question one of the biggest events of the year in our modest Midwestern college town. Jazzfest was the weekend-spanning programming effort in the fall.

Less monumental and yet dearly treasured by a certain group of devoted listeners, Jazzfest provided fifty-four hours straight of jazz music over the station’s airwaves, drawing from an in-house collection that was widely considered to be one of the very best in the state. We staged a couple concerts on campus every year, too, but for me the main appeal was the radio programming was the main appeal. Most of the shifts were four hours long, and each DJ selected a featured artist for their time on air, circling back to that particular performer at least a couple time per hour. In truth, most of us who cycled through the weekend schedule had no better than a passing acquaintance with the genre. What we lacked in knowledge, we made up for with earnest enthusiasm. Genuinely, that music library really was that good. Random draws from the stacks would result in a fantastic radio show.

At that time, we didn’t broadcast between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Jazzfest weekend was one of the exceptions to that rule, and I made a point of always nabbing one of those overnight slots, adhering to the romantic notion that jazz music sounded best in the depth of the evening, when most of the world was asleep. I loved the solitude of being in that broadcast booth, slipping records out of weathered jackets to play for a dwindling audience, ideally drifting to sleep as the artistry of Miles Davis or Nina Simone came through their speakers.

I name Davis and Simone as an examples for a specific reason. They were artists that I indeed chose to feature during different shifts. In fact, Davis was the featured artist just about a month after he died, in 1991. Leaning on a couple reference materials — commemorative articles in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone certainly included — I tried my best to recount the astounding scope of his influence on jazz and really all of popular music. Somewhere in the midst of the show, I got a call from the host of our weekly blues program, a person whose knowledge of blues and jazz was formidable. He commended the show, one of the greatest compliments I ever received for my broadcasting efforts.

Decades lates, Jazzfest still gets its proper turn on the fall schedule at my beloved radio alma mater. Although my antenna resides outside the 90FM broadcast range, I take advantage of modern technology to listen in. As the hour grows late, I think about how much I’d like to cross the threshold of that station and take my turn on the air. I even know which Kind of Blue cut I’d play to start the shift.

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

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