I tried out for a DJ shift on WDBS in the fall of 1988. WBDS was the “training station”, available via a cable hookup in the University of Illinois dorms on FM 101. I remember you had to read an “Inside Word” PSA, the weather and read some copy. The copy included “YNGWIE MALMSTEIN”. I think if you could pronounce it, you were hired.
I had the coveted 4 – 6 am airshift on Sunday morning. Usually, I would get to bed around 1:30 or 2:00, grab a short nap and then do my show under Weston Hall. One night though I got back late and decided to skip the nap. We had a mix of music on cartridge and record albums then on WDBS. I had my stack of carts, a few records and all my copy arranged. I cued up a record and put it on and blinked —
— and it was 30 minutes later.
I remember waking up with my head on the console listening to “scratch… scratch… scratch…” I looked over and realized the entire album side had played and I was broadcasting the inner groove. I sat up and salvaged the break as best as I could and finished my show.
Sadly, very few people listened to WDBS. Most students didn’t want to bother with the cable hookup and WDBS essentially played similar music as WPGU (just in lower quality). However, that night, the WDBS program director happened to be playing cards in his dorm room, heard my show and – needless to say – I was not asked back as an on-air personality the next semester.
The nice thing about WDBS was that the staff completely changed from year to year. So, no one remembered my snafu from the previous year when I tried out in 1989. I was a lot more relaxed and got a pretty decent air shift on Friday afternoons. I even got to be a music director in charge of the “MASSIVES” list. All songs on WBDS were categorized into lists: currents, recurrents, local, etc. The Massives category consisted of songs from the 60’s and 70’s that were still relevant in the late 1980’s. One of the problems I ran into though was we had updated the sound of WDBS and we were now “progressive 100.7 FM”. It’s hard to come up with “progressive” songs that are 10 – 20 years old! My first list caused a big controversy. It was the WPGU-wanna-be jocks versus the jocks who were all for college music. I was pulled into the PD office to come up with an “approved” list of artists. That took a few hours, as I recall. My definition of “progressive” was music that changed as the artist progressed. The PD’s definition was something that sounded like Robyn Hitchcock. Again, that was a little difficult to come up with music that sounded like that from a couple of decades previously. However, we did agree on a few artists and I ended up putting on a lot of David Bowie, Bob Marley and Neil Young.
My favorite part of the job was being able to go into the WPGU music library. It was two rooms lined ten feet tall with record albums and reel to reel tapes. The shelves in the back room were arranged in a spiral, so you walked in and then circled around and found yourself surrounded by music. WPGU had been around since 1953 and had been under Weston Hall since they built it in the early 1960’s. It was really neat to pull out some dusty old album – say, Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix – and see the notes typed on it from some MD back when it came out. I think I had to have 20 songs recorded onto carts; that would take me a couple of hours. However, I would plan to be in there all afternoon so I could grab interesting looking albums and just play them to see what they were.
I also enjoyed learning production and playing with all the toys: the mixing board, the reel-to-reel recorders, the cart recorders, the satellite feeds. Instead of writing letters letters to my friends, I would record tapes to send out. Some of them were even “sponsored” with authentic drops from Good Vibes and other area advertisers. I also started playing around with my own stuff to make customized liners for my airshift.
At the same time, I had auditioned for WDBS News and ended up with two evening shifts: one on Monday nights and one on Wednesday nights. Each shift included two newscasts: one each hour at the :50. WDBS “newsies” shared the WPGU newsroom, but weren’t allowed to rip the wire, touch the police scanner, answer the phone; we weren’t even allowed to use the electric typewriters! The WDBS news booth was about five feet long and two feet wide with a tall metal stool that you had to climb over to sit on. The booth was too narrow to scoot around the stool. The end had a small piece of countertop, an old microphone and a pair of headphones apparently made of duct tape.
My Wednesday evening shift was more interesting from a news perspective: this was the during the fall of Soviet dominated Eastern Europe and it seemed like every country that decided to switch to democracy did so on a Wednesday afternoon. My Monday night shift was more interesting from a broadcasting perspective because I worked with Nick Kanel and Al Muniz; two guys who really put the “personality” into on-air personality. On one of my first newscasts, they decided to score a theme for me using an album of national anthems from around the world. I wasn’t exactly expecting to start my story on Lithuania and suddenly hear a blast of martial music in my headphones. I somehow managed not to stumble during my cast and apparently survived the “hazing”. After that, I’d do the news and then we’d stretch the break out to 15 minutes, half an hour, an hour, whatever, and talk about whatever was going on. It was my first “zoo” experience on the air.