Godspeed You, Boy

(Pictured: How we imagined our typical listener. Like every other memory, this one is subject to error.)

Here are a few more random recollections about being the album-rock night guy at WXXQ in Freeport in the summer of 1980.

—One of the interesting characters on the staff was a newsman named Bud. Bud seemed old, although it occurs to me he now may have been 60. He had a somewhat irreverent attitude toward his job that occasionally crept through on the air. He once referred to a particularly heavy rainstorm as a “toad strangler,” which is a term I have used myself ever since.

—When you turned on the microphone in the news studio, it automatically triggered a continuous tape loop that played a teletype sound effect (something like this), intended to provide the ambiance of a busy newsroom underneath the newscast. The real wire machine sat right outside my studio window. I remember ripping and reading the story about Richard Pryor setting himself on fire, 35 years ago yesterday.

—I would occasionally bring the small portable TV from the newsroom into my studio and set it up under the control board to watch the Cubs while I worked. I also had it on when Ronald Reagan very nearly chose former president Gerald Ford to be his running mate at the Republican convention that summer.

—The jock who was on before me was a guy I had listened to when the station was in its previous incarnation as a Top 40 blowtorch. He had a stalker, a young woman who was quite profoundly in love with him, she said. She’d call the studio line at 6:05 and ask if Jeff was there. I’d look right at him and say no he wasn’t. Did I know where Jeff was going ? No I didn’t.

—The station had an AM sister that operated only during daytime hours. At the start of the summer, the evening shift, 6:00 until sign-off, was split between a couple of high-school girls. One of them seemed to have potential; she’d ask questions of me—the grizzled veteran in the next studio, with 18 whole months of on-air experience—and take the answers to heart. But the other had a nice voice with nary a thought in her head. On those nights when the weather went sideways, I collected the warnings off the wire and took the pertinent ones to the AM studio. One night was especially busy, with several warnings in effect at once. I took the latest one into the studio and found the girl just sitting there, dead air, stricken look on her face, overwhelmed by the requirements of her job on that particular night. In memory, I manage to gently coax her into doing her job. In actuality, I probably yelled at her to get something on the air goddammit and then read this warning. It wasn’t long before she quit (or was fired). The other girl was demoted to weekends.

—I wasn’t officially the station’s music director—Jeff was. But it wasn’t long before he was letting me pick new songs for airplay and set up the rotations, figuring that if I wanted to do what he considered tedious clerical work without getting paid extra for it, then godspeed you, boy. I tried making a hit out of Billy Joel’s “Sleeping With the Television On,” but I’m still waiting.

—In August, we did a promotion with the local Dr. Pepper bottler to sponsor self-propelled paddleboat races on the Pecatonica River. We promoted the thing to death, encouraging our listeners to enter and race, only to have maybe a dozen people show up on the day of the event. It was a disaster. I can still see myself in one of the paddleboats, trying to muster up some sort of excitement among the dozen, and in myself. Not long after that, my week of shows at the Winnebago County Fair bombed, too. Perhaps our promotional strategy was not very well thought out.

I wish I could remember more about that job in the summer of 1980. It was exactly the kind of experience every young broadcaster should have, thrown in and and expected to swim, but in a safely shallow pool. I was lucky to have had it.

4 responses

  1. Yup. Well-written account of memories many of us guys have.

  2. If it helps, “Sleeping with the Television On” was a hit in my house.

  3. There was something special about it. Being on the 11th floor of the State Bank building in downtown Freeport, Illinois and overlooking the city. Even though Freeport wasn’t very large…population around 25,000, it just felt like “the big time.”

  4. JB, as you would say, “Perspective from the Present:” The summer of 1980 was one year after the FCC dropped the requirement for persons operating a radio station to possess a 3rd Class license. Typically, persons who did an airshift on the radio held the responsibility of operating the station and those persons possessed a 3rd Class license. Prior to 1979, it was required to pass a written test to obtain a 3rd Class license. It really wasn’t a license to be a “DJ,” it was a license demonstrating your knowledge and ability on such things as what to do in an emergency, how to properly identify the station, how to calculate power, etc.

    To me, the test for a 3rd Class license separated those who had a desire to pursue a career in broadcasting and the wannabes who thought it would be cool to be on the radio and play their favorite music. Small market station owners lobbied for the FCC to relax their rules because it was difficult to find employees from smaller populated areas who wanted to be in radio and make it a career…and be able to pass a written test to begin that career. Station owners wanted to hire persons who simply applied for a job at their stations and, in return, teach them how to handle the neccessary details. “What could possibly go wrong,?” they said…so, the FCC relaxed the requirements. Well, JB, you saw what could go wrong on that one night in the summer of 1980.

    Those girls back in 1980 didn’t know any better. (I believe one of them was named “Alicia” and their forensics instructor coaxed them into working at WFRL/WXXQ when the station called looking for some part-time help at night.) They didn’t have any broadcasting skills, nor had a desire to acquire any broadcasting skills. (Ironically, you and I were able to get the station to bring aboard a friend of ours to do his broadcasting internship in that 6pm-8:30pm time slot on AM.) That is why the industry is the way it is today…poorly voice-tracked airshifts, music logs that are not proofread, salespeople just selling widgets, and slapped-together news/sports.

    It was great to work there and get our feet wet in an industry we love, but it was also the beginning of the end…OK, it was the beginning of the end of the industry when it was great.

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