Mt. Rainier and Lenticular Clouds - Dec. 2008 copyright: JMM

October 27, 2007

Radio Days

Brian and I were chatting earlier about his radio show and so forth, and how difficult it is your very first time facing that microphone, having to talk off the top of your head, coherently, to no one in particular. It took me back to my first time in front of a radio mic, in 1978 when I was in the 8th grade, and how that experience threw me into the amazing world of radio.

I was a radio nut, having received my first transistor at age 8, dialing in WRKO in Boston and becoming hooked on the music of the early & mid 70's. I idolized 'RKO jocks Harry Nelson and Mike Adams. On clear nights I could dial in WABC in New York City, and sometimes CKLW in Detroit.
When I was in the 8th grade, I had an amazing English teacher, Mrs. Webster. She was one of those creative, outside-the-box, quirky teachers that encouraged students to explore music, reading, arts, poetry, etc. In fact, she would make monthly trips up to The Harvard Coop, a huge record store in Cambridge on the Harvard campus, to buy records; their prices were way better than at Musicsmith in the Cape Cod Mall. If you gave her your list and your money, she would buy records for you. Mrs. Webster was also in charge of our high school's radio station, WSDH. This was an FM station, on the educational band at 91.7. She bought albums for the station to use, with her own money. This wasn't a dinky little station either. It had a 30 mile radius, and the station was run as professionally as any other radio station. WSDH had program logs, a teletype machine for news stories, and a set format. Students did shows during study halls and lunch, and after school. The station signed on at 9:00 a.m. and signed off at 7:00 p.m.

Mrs. Webster asked me if I would like to write and record a special, to be played on the radio, about one of my favourite bands. Any band I wanted. I was a little overwhelmed; I had just turned 13. She really encouraged me to do it and she wouldn't take "no" for an answer. So I wrote up something about ELO's history & music, and one early Sunday morning, toted my ELO records and script to the high school to record it. Mrs. Webster ran the board and we did a few run throughs, but man alive was I ever nervous. I couldn't stop my voice from shaking or my hands from shaking the papers; my breathing was all off and I sounded breathless. Thinking back on that memory is even giving me butterflies in my stomach as I write this. The special aired one afternoon, but I could not bring myself to listen to it. My parents recorded it and were SO proud of me, but to this day, I have never heard it.

At the end of my 8th grade year, Mrs. Webster invited me to take a new class in Radio, for the first half of my 9th grade year. The school had hired a real station manager, Herb Andrews, to run the station, and teach the class. There were only 5 of us who were invited to take this special class, which would also give us credit towards graduation. Mr. Andrews' job was to teach us the FCC materials that would help us to pass the FCC Licensing Test, given in Boston, that upcoming February, 1979. We had to learn Elements 1, 2 and 9. 1 was mostly radio's history and that was really easy. 2 was more theory and technical information - like "AM" means Amplitude Modulation and "FM" means Frequency Modulation. 9, well, I never understood 9 from the minute we started. It was extremely complicated and I think it had to do with complex formulas about hertz and watts and circuits. I will never forget when Mr. Andrews was prepping us for the test that December, which was coming up fast, he asked, "OK, do you guys need me to go over anything again?" and Kris Olson said, "Yeah, Element 9!" He goes, "Which part?" and Kris goes, "All of it!"

In January, 1979, we were studying like crazy. Every spare minute I had, I was studying for the FCC test. Imagine our shock and chagrin when out of nowhere, the FCC decided that licenses would not be required for on air talent, a permit card would suffice, and they were discontinuing the test. We laughed about the cruel irony of spending months studying, but I have to tell you I was pretty damn relieved because I there ain't no way I was ever gonna pass Element 9.

At first I started just reading the news and sports for Kris when we got our own show in the spring of 1979. That was fun. She and I had the same taste in music and I didn't mind if she ran the board...I just didn't have enough confidence to do it myself as on-air talent. We did our show through the summer, and in the fall I switched to working with Holly instead. Meanwhile, behind my back, Holly and Mr. Andrews schemed to force me into having my own show. I don't remember how it happened, but I do remember that it took me off guard.....they sort of told me I was doing it and I don't recall having a choice. It was a very amusing conversation too, that I recall as well. Holly was one of my best buds and I was quite fond of Mr. Andrews, so I figured if they really thought I could do it, then I owed it to them to try. This is a picture of the board at WSDH, that I took in 1980.



I took to radio like a duck to water. I knew a lot about music. I read all the trades - Billboard, Rolling Stone, New Musical Express & Flexipop when I could get my hands on them, Creem, and many others that I can't remember off the top of my head. I was already amassing a collection of albums and 45's of my own, and I started bringing them in and playing the stuff I liked. We suffered a terrible blow in the spring of 1980 when Mr. Andrews died suddenly. We didn't even know he was sick, and found out that the administration knew but they kept it from us. We were absolutely devastated. All of us "AV Geeks" that worked at WSDH were pretty closeknit and we all took it very, very hard.

The school talked about shutting us down. We panicked. Some of the guys wanted to have us take over the station...you know, all of us just barricade the doors and take over, like in the movie "FM", which was based on something that WBCN jock Charles Laquidara actually did at 'BCN. But instead we decided that if we all pulled together and really organized the station, cleaned the place top to bottom, we could prove to the administration that our station was worth saving. One day during April vacation in 1980, we all met up at the school with the permission of the principal of course, and parceled out tasks to everyone. We were off the air, but we spun tunes anyway and just cleaned and cleaned, organized the records, put all the logs in chronological order, washed the windows and dusted. One of the guys who had his license went out and got us tons of pizza. It was a really fun day.

When I look back on that now, I cannot believe what a major feat that was. We were in 9th, 10th and 11th grades and we thought of this on our own, and did it on our own. It wasn't even a question. So the school let us go back on the air, with some supervision from another teacher who had assisted Mr. Andrews from time to time, Mr. James, till they could hire a new station manager. Mr. Malcolm came on board in the summer of 1980. He was a gross man. He was into country music and was extremely conservative and a Ronald Reagan backer. My very first shift that summer when he was there, I was in the teletype room getting the news. He came in and we were talking. He put his arm around me. I looked up at him in surprise and the dirty old man kissed me on the lips.

This was 1980 and no one talked about stuff like that. I told Liz and Holly, but none of us knew what to do. It never occurred to me to tell my parents and even if I did, they wouldn't have done anything about it anyway. I didn't want to quit radio. So I just decided I'd have to keep my distance and make sure I was never, ever alone with him. He and I did not have a good relationship from that day forward. His relationship with Holly deteriorated completely one day when they got into a huge fight over the music she was playing....I was sitting there at the table rapidly turning the pages of Billboard with my heart pounding, wondering if Holly was going to get expelled for talking to a teacher like that. Fortunately she didn't. Holly moved to Oregon in 1981 and I did her last show with her and boy did we have fun. One time during February vacation in 1980, she and I did a marathon 12 - 8 show, alternating running the board. We ended up playing really long songs like "Alice's Restaurant" if we needed a break. Long songs were good for bathroom breaks as well.

Meanwhile, Liz and I were playing more and more of our own music by this point. We were into new wave and punk, and we were actually getting a following of regular listeners from all over the Cape and as far as Plymouth. They'd call up with requests and dedications. My time slot at WSDH was Mondays from 2:15 to about 4:00 or 4:30. Then Liz had her own show after school during the week, and then she and I did a show together Fridays from 2:15-7:00. Mr. Malcolm was a stickler for playing the popular top 40 songs and wanted to see our playlists. Additionally, at 5:00, the station switched to a "soft rock" format. But I got around it. What I'd do is play all the top 40 songs from 2:15-3:00 because that's when the kids were all still on the school buses getting home. So when they got home after 3 and called in to hear Loverboy or some other lame crap, I'd say, "I'm sorry but I played that at 2:25". If Mr. Malcolm bitched, I'd show him the playlist and say, "I played them all already." So he had no choice but to back off. I'd start playing punk at 3. Then when the station would go to soft rock at 5 pm, Liz & I would play all the slow new wave songs like "That's Entertainment" by the Jam.

One time Liz and I were hanging out in our fave record store in Hyannis, Wave Records which sold punk and new wave imports, and we were laughing about something. One of the people browsing in the store, who we didn't know, looked up and said, "Hey! I know those laughs! Are you Liz and Joanne from WSDH?" That was so freaking weird.

Mr. Malcolm, Liz & I had our final falling out during the summer of '82, after she and I graduated but were still doing a punk show on Monday afternoons. He started in on us and we told him to fuck off. We packed up our records and walked out. Left dead air. Left him in the lurch for Monday afternoons too. Incidentally, while I was at St. Joe's my mom told me about the huge scandal at Sandwich High, how Mr. Malcolm touched a girl inappropriately and she told on him and he was fired. I said, "I'm not surprised. He kissed me." My parents were, of course, horrified.

My radio days were numbered though. I went to St. Joseph's College in Maine because they had one of the only Mass Communications programs in New England at the time, other than Boston University and Emerson College neither of which I could get into because of my SAT scores (but I did transfer to Emerson for my junior and senior years). I was on the air at WSJB at St. Joe's with Michelle and we had a great time. Unfortunately, I learned that I suck at audio production, which is an extremely huge part of being in radio. It's not just being a DJ and spinning your fave rave tunes. I have always had a hearing problem in my right ear from a childhood ear infection. I just could not do audio production at all. I worked at WOCB in West Yarmouth on Saturday nights in 1983, but not as on air talent. This is the WOCB/WSOX building.I just had to keep the station on the air, power down the transmitter at 8:00 pm, change the music tapes on the FM-side of the building, and do sign off at 2:00 a.m. By my sophomore year at St. Joe's, I don't think I even had a show, at least I don't remember having a show that year.

I switched my major to TV Production and transferred to Emerson College, but I still dabbled in radio. I had a show on WECB, Emerson's little AM station, in my junior year, sharing air time with my bud Charlene. We had a good time doing the show, but no one listened. Emerson has an FM station, WERS, that is critically acclaimed & well known around Boston, and the kids that worked at WECB were really looked down on by the WERS kids.

My last foray into radio was my senior year at Emerson. My bud Ellen scored a job at WZOU, "Boston's Zoo". A lot of our WECB friends were working at the Zoo, so she got me a job answering the request line there during my free afternoon from classes. As luck would have it, my idol Harry Nelson was working at the Zoo, and my #1 idol, Mike Adams, was working at their sister station down the hall. I remember when Ellen took me over to introduce me to Mike, I was so speechless and shy, but I asked him for his autograph and he was so sweet and seemed flattered that I remembered him. Here's fellow Emerson student, friend, WECB member & WZOU employee Fil Kovisars in the Zoo van, in front of my dorm. The position was called "Phone Research". Here's a trade secret: When you call up to make requests, they never make it on the air. The person answering the phone had a list of all the songs that were played. When someone called up to request one, all we did was make a little mark next to the song. Based upon that research, the playlists would change to put most requested songs into heavy rotation, and drop songs that got few requests. Every now and then the DJ would call out to me that he'd take the next call and then he'd throw that person on the air. That was the only time requests were ever actually played.
I'm glad I had a chance to be involved in real radio when I was young. It was a great time in my life and I'm happy to see that Brian's picked up the torch and is having so much success with his own show, Shakedown Street.

18 comments:

  1. wow! what an amazing life you've had joj! i can't believe you guys had your won radia show that young! the sad thing is that most school i know of would never have a budget for anythign like that.

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  2. Kris - you are so right. My high school, which was new in 1976, had so many amazing amenities. We didn't have to pay for anything b/c the school provided everything.

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  3. Kristy2:25 AM

    Wow, that is freakin awesome! Your school had its own radio station? Unbelievable. High schools around here will never have anything like that--know why? Because radio communications isn't part of the WASL. I'm so sick of high school programs contracting around that stupid test to the detriment of the sort of programs that actually spark kids' imaginations and talents--like your radio station did for you. That's amazing!

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  4. Lizzzard1:07 PM

    Thanks, Jojo, for an amazing trip down memory lane. There is soo much of high school I don't remember- i.e. the leaving Mr. M. in the lurch- I had forgotten that. But I will never forget our humourous assistant principal acting like a kangaroo when we were reading a story about Capt. Kangaroo appearing before congress and his acting like a monkey in an efffort to make us crack up on air. We had soo much fun there- it was the saving grace of high school! Thanks!

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  5. very interesting...i too was crazy for radio from the mid 70's until 1981. i interned at ksml @ tahoe & ktim in san rafael. amazing times, those radio days.

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  6. That's astonishing. Even if we'd had one at school, the boys would have made sure they monopolised it. I remembember them "introducing" us to the Blues three years after I'd become a fan.

    I didn't come across a students' radio station till I went to Uni, and then I only sat in the studio once with a friend playing with the cueing whatever-they-were-called-thingies. I used to phone in to a London golden oldies station and chat on-air with the DJ, but he would always check off-air whether he had what I wanted to hear. Now the management had ruined the station and I no longer listen.

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  7. Val - when Holly, Liz & I went to Sandwich High, it was ranked in the top 3 best public high schools in the state. We had a lot of amenities that are not available to kids today which sucks. Radio, journalism/school paper, graphics department, arts, wood shop, band, chorus, colour guard, sports...and no one had to buy anything for their kids. If a team or the chorus wanted to take a special trip, then they'd raise the money with bake sales, but other than that, the school provided uniforms, transportation, text books, records for the radio station & the subscription to Billboard, etc.

    i look back on it now and see how lucky we were and how i just didn't appreciate it at the time. Youth is wasted on the young.

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  8. ah, yes, radio days! What a great story. I, too, was a radio nut, and helped start KAZU 90.3 FM in Pacific Grove, CA. 10 whole entire watts. Whoa. Now it is a big station that was purchased by a local college. Basically an NPR whore at this point.

    We did live music shows late, late at night so we could broadcast to distant places; I did folk music shows and hosting a poetry show that feature locals reading their work. What fun. You've brought back some great memories for me!

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  9. Oh, thats so interesting Jojo!!

    I wish I could actually listen to Brian's show...
    You always have these wonderful memories to share and it always makes my day a bit better, you know?

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  10. Dngrkitty5:07 PM

    Makes me weepy, but in a good way (mostly)...

    To this day, I'll never forget the smell of the nerf ball over the microphone, getting locked in the closet with the *cough* teletype machine, or, sadly, the day we learned our beloved Mr. Andrews had died. Thanks for sharing such special memories.

    Oh, and one more thing-- we musn't forget STUBBY!

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  11. Oh jeez, "Stubby".....lest we forget how much trouble we got in for that little stunt.....at least Mr. A was good natured about it.

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  12. jojo, you blow me away with your experiences and your memories... gee my life was and is soooooooooooo boring...

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  13. sounds as if we travelled parallel paths...i spent my very young days listening to WABC, and at night to KDKA or anything that i could pick up on my little transistor. when we moved to michigan, i had the good fortune of living in the same city as WJR, and CKLW and still being able to listen to WABC, KDKA, WCBS, WRKO at night as well as WLS in chicago. we had a radio station at our hight school, but, by then i was too self concious to be on the air.
    hey, gotta ask...do you have a copy of the "Nine Tape"?

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  14. A few years ago we had a monster blizzard, the power went out I spent the night curled up in bed listening to AM radio. I got stations out of Phoenix, Salt Lake, LA. It made the night bearable.

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  15. That is the beauty of AM Radio; you can pull in stations from far away late at night. We've picked up KGO out of San Francisco on early mornings.

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  16. kathleen10:57 PM

    I'm not even sure my university has half of that, Jo.

    I do remember touring Emerson's radio dept... hmmm...

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  17. Kathleen! Good to hear from you! How's UofT?

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  18. Great post! It brought back memories of my radio daze in college.

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