Winnebago County is in the northernmost tier of Illinois counties. Last week was the Winnebago County Fair. In 1980, the last thing I did at my summer job as the night jock on WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois, was a series of live broadcasts from the Winnebago County Fair.
Somebody at the station decided I should do my show from the fair, but the whole thing was botched. We didn’t have our own dedicated space, if I’m recalling correctly; we set up in some sponsor’s display tent. We had no signage with the call letters on it (although I may have worn my official WXXQ/Sunkist Countdown to Summer t-shirt), and until one of the other jocks rigged up something from his home stereo, we didn’t even have a PA system. But even with that, I was basically some dude standing there with a microphone looking lost. You’d most likely have had no idea why I was there, and certainly no reason to stop and listen. And people didn’t. Nobody came to see me. Nobody stopped to talk. So for the last three nights on the job that summer, I did my show, anonymously and more than a little embarrassed. It left me wondering what the whole summer had been for.
Nevertheless, I considered saying at WXXQ that fall, sticking with the night shift instead of going back to school. I don’t imagine that I considered it for long, focused as I was on . . . what? Starting my career? My career was already started, and there were worse places for a 20-year-old radio fanatic than a small-town album-rock station. Getting my degree? I imagined it as some kind of magic credential that would open more doors than whatever talent I possessed had already opened—a dubious proposition, as it turned out. Having a girlfriend at school certainly entered into my decision; so did the likelihood that my parents, who were paying the bills, would not permit me to quit. So I bid goodbye to WXXQ at the end of August and went back to college.
In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed. As time would reveal, I wasn’t much better off as the Dubuque afternoon guy I became in 1982 than I was as the Freeport night guy in 1980. If things didn’t work out, I could always go back to college. And that’s what I might have ended up doing. It seems to me that WXXQ didn’t retain for very long its album-rock identity as we’d built it that summer. (It’s a country station today, although it retains the call letters, which were new in the summer of 1980.) I don’t believe that the trajectory of my career would have been that much different.
I was music director at the station that summer, a job I dearly loved, shaping the sound of the radio station (with a lot of input from other people on the staff). The last song I added to the playlist that summer was during that week of purgatory at the Winnebago County Fair. It’s from an album that rode the charts for 100 weeks and contained three classic singles, one of which went to #1 and two of which haven’t been off the radio in 33 years. But that last week at WXXQ, I added the album’s lead single, which stiffed at #30 and is completely forgotten as a result.
I still think it’s the best thing on that album. You can see the original 1980 video and hear the song right here.