You don’t hear much Wishbone Ash on the radio anymore, except maybe on satellite. Every time I hear them, I am reminded of a former college radio colleague and her terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.
We will call her Kristin, because that is not her name. Kristin was a pretty good newscaster, but she wanted to be a disc jockey, too. Alas, she was not good at it—without a script in front of her, she got flustered easily, and as a result, she didn’t have a great deal of confidence. That made nearly every break a walk on the high wire. I wondered why somebody who struggled so much and never seemed to get any more comfortable would keep on doing it.
Now, before I can tell you the rest of this story, I have to tell you another one.
We have mentioned before how it used to be that the jock on the air was also the transmitter operator, required to pass a test and get a license from the FCC. The operator had to take regular readings of transmitter power to make sure the station was operating legally, and adjust power if it was not. If the station dropped off the air for some reason, it was that person’s responsibility to get it back on, and to document everything in the station’s transmitter log. In addition, that person was responsible for the station’s programming during their shift. It was made clear to every jock from day one that all of this was Very Serious Business, because the FCC was always watching, like God. The looming presence of the FCC was why we had our own homemade, bitch-free edit of “Rich Girl,” and why Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” bore a warning label regarding the single “shit” in the lyrics. Nobody wanted to be the person who brought down the hammer of federal justice.
One afternoon we heard through the grapevine that an FCC inspector had been in Dubuque, just down the road, that morning. (Somebody who worked at the city’s lone TV station tipped one of our staffers that the feds had dropped by.) Word spread through the station like wildfire, and we immediately went on high alert, obsessively monitoring our transmitter to make damn sure we were legal. We got all the old logs in order, in case the inspector wanted to see them, and we probably slicked up the place a little bit too, all in anticipation of the fateful visit.
As it happened, Kristin was on the air that afternoon, and the news that the FCC might be listening did absolutely nothing for her barely detectible confidence. On one of her first breaks, she cued up a Wishbone Ash record and promptly introduced it as Wishbone Ass. After it dawned on her that she had just said “ass” on the air while possibly being monitored by the FCC, she was distraught. She was sure that she was about to get her license revoked, and the station’s, too.
Some of us took more pleasure than we should have in her obvious discomfiture, but at the same time, we worried that she might be right. As you might guess, however, the Great Wishbone Ass Incident didn’t cost anybody their license. The FCC didn’t show up that day, or on any other day as far as I can remember.
Years later, it seems to me that our concern about the FCC was not unlike a child’s concern about the monster under the bed: a mysterious presence, amorphous in the dark, ready to bite our heads off at the slightest provocation. We could feel it, even though we couldn’t see it. Surely, even back in the 1970s, FCC field officers had better things to do than monitor 420-watt college radio stations. Nevertheless, we acted as though they really were out there, because it seemed safer than to risk being eaten.