Stories Told, Ten Years of Down the Road

The Electric Breakfast

Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.

Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.

mewmhd1989aI got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.

Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.

Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.

I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.

WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!

mewmhd1989bOur station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.

I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.

But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.

This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.

My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.

But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.

I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!

I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.

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42 thoughts on “The Electric Breakfast

  1. Great story Jim. Sadly radio (music) is big business nowadays, I’ll say no more. Probably lucky here in the UK as we have the BBC, it’s not quite as it used to be but it’s commercial free and still has most it’s independence. :>)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A great story. One thing that hasn’t changed since the time of your second sample: the world is still screwed up. :)

    I seldom listen to commercial radio now but remember back when I did. A regular DJ got to be a friend, someone I felt like I knew. It was, of course, a 1 way friendship because the DJ had not the slightest idea who I was. With blogs today, I can at least be like the guy from Seeleyville.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In small-market radio, you really can get to know some of your listeners. When I worked for WBOW/WZZQ I had regular callers on both stations. I was always very happy to hear from them, and if they were in a chatty mood and I had the time I’d just keep them on the line. I met a couple of them out and about, when I was at a station event wearing my swag.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jim, Today’s story brought back memories from high school. In the early ’60s, Carmel H.S. was one of the first to have a radio station. I finally got my chance to be on the air my senior year. I also had the morning shift and had to do everything you mentioned, but I had to get up and drive six miles to do it. I was rarely on time. I wasn’t very good either. However, I did enjoy it so much I majored in Radio-TV at IU. A broadcasting career never materialized, but I was able to apply many of the principles I learned to a long career in marketing.

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    • I used to listen to Carmel HS’s station when I moved to Indy in the mid 90s! I can’t remember why I stopped. Might have been hip hop music, which I don’t enjoy.

      I can well imagine that your broadcasting education prepared you for a marketing career!

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  4. Andy Umbo says:

    I still love radio, and listen to the jazz station I can get in Indianapolis: 88.7, The Diamond. Symphony from midnight to noon, jazz from noon to midnight. Back in the early days of FM, that’s what it used to be: long form symphony with a lot of evening jazz.

    Someone just hipped me to 91.9 WITT Zionsville community radio. They’re a 6,000 watt station, with studios in Broad Ripple and a tower out in Boone County somewhere. It’s really the radio station all my radio pals always wanted: they call it “Unpredictable Radio”! You can stream it on-line if you can’t get it, and they have a “roll” on the site telling people what they are playing now. It’s wild! One morning I turned on my car radio, and heard some sort of euro-trance, followed by a 30’s blues number, followed by an Irish folk song, followed by a French chanteuse, and then a Bob and Ray comedy bit! You think the programming, if you can call it that, would be to jarring, but the joy of it is, if you don’t like the number, wait 4 minutes and something else is going to come on!

    I’ve got people all over the country streaming it now!

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    • I listen to WITT sometimes! I’ve taken to listening to my music collection off my iPhone in the car, but when I just want a little radio WITT is usually a great choice. Driving around the Northwestside and in Zionsville as I do, I can usually pick it up.

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  5. I haven’t listened to radio for many years. The programs and DJs just aren’t that interesting or even good.
    In 1998, I was in Darwin and volunteered at the only station, located out at the university. I enjoyed it for the brief time I was there, and even got to be on air one afternoon with an aboriginal female broadcaster named Roxy, her stage name. She had a large following. I liked her and what she did. We had fun. I learned a lot. She invited me back after I was finished with my time working on a cattle station, Bullo River Station. Unfortunately and foolishly, I never took up her offer.

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  6. Who is that 12 year old in the station t-shirt I “designed”? You were never THAT young, were you?

    It’s important to note two things about WMHD’s signal, for those who weren’t there:

    160 watts was about 1/4 the power rating of the largest speakers we rented out for party DJ setups.
    Thanks to the vagaries of geography, signal characteristics, and if the wind was favorable, we could sometimes be picked up as far as the federal pen south of town, a whole 7 miles away. More than one of us got requests from inmates using a rationed phone call to ask for a favorite song. Like Jim said, connection.

    I find the best radio connection is listening to the local NPR station’s variant on cultural or public affairs call-in. Then again, until recently my NPR morning guy was the legendary Soterios Johnson, and I still get to listen to Brian Lehrer ace Leonard Lopate. Not so much music, though.

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    • Somehow your message got caught in the spam filter. Sorry!

      You might remember the day that photo was taken, as after the shift you accompanied me and my friend Kathy out for drinks. I have photos to prove it!

      I loved the calls from the federal pen, except when the callers felt a little too chummy with us and said they’d come look us up when they got out.

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  7. Jason Shafer says:

    You’ve dredged up some old memories here!

    The two weeks I spent at Indiana State University in Terre Haute was spent learning about radio, TV, and film. At the time I knew I could enjoy but doubted having any real ability. Maybe I suspected I had a voice for radio and a face for print journalism!

    Also in high school, I spent a few Saturday’s at WKRO in Cairo, Illinois; a high school friend was a disc jockey there and literally played whatever he wanted. Country singer Linda Davis might be followed by Led Zeppelin.

    Thanks for bringing this all back.

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  8. George Denzinger says:

    I listen to radio on my commute to work, but for the 15 minutes I’m in the car, I get about 13 minutes of commercials. Here in Grand Rapids, we have 88.5 WYCE-FM, which is community sponsored radio. A mix of most everything (except hard core metal and rap) and some “interesting” on-air personalities.

    But like everyone else, I listen either to a streaming service or stuff on my phone. Progress, I guess.

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    • Don’t get me started on the ridiculously long commercial sets. When I worked in radio, the maximum was three minutes. That’s six spots of 30 seconds each. That seems long enough!

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  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this read! Thanks for sharing. When I lived in Orlando in the late 80s early 90s I used to listen to wprk Rollins college radio and also one from Tampa which I forget the station now. I still have a few cassettes I recorded from listening. I was in the punk scene and later in the evening is when I could hear what I liked at the time. I miss that, It’s funny because over the past few years I’ve been reminiscing a lot about those times and music always played a big part in my life. I actually bought a cassette deck so I could play the hundreds of tapes I still own, even though I’ve since bought cds or have them digitally on Apple Music. Something about manually putting that hard copy cassette or vinyl on and having to change it when it’s over, it’s engaging and such a simple pleasure. Maybe it’s part of a mid life crisis, who knows, but it’s something that I won’t let die in my house. Thanks Jim!

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  10. Keith Milsark says:

    Jim, your story reminds me of my college radio days at the University of Alabama. Like you said, we were pretty much allowed to play what we wanted, and it was great when you really nailed a segue. One day I went from the studio version of Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” to Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”. Joni ended with light piano fading out, and Billy starts with light piano fading in. Both songs are in the same key, and just by luck I segued the two perfectly; you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. A listener called to say how great it was. I felt good for days after that.

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  11. Thanks for the show, Jim! After all these years, it’s still great radio. I used to listen to a station in Saginaw, MI at that time which had a show about like that; they called it album rock, probably because it wasn’t all top 40 singles. You brought back some memories.

    Like

  12. I LOVED this post, Jim. For the few minutes it took me to read, I was with you at your old university. The photos are great and I look forward to listening to the recording later. I listen to the radio a lot but not the music stations I was glued to in my youth. I love news, current affairs and documentary radio on our ABC News Radio and Radio National. They have programmes from NPR and the BBC and DW Germany. I still buy my music on CDs and rarely listen to music on radio, now. When you say radio is now automated in the US, I almost imagined a computer generated voice introducing the line up! I guess that could happen one day.

    PS I guess I should add that the truth is, I used to like news, but The 🍊and his crew are turning up in so many bulletins that it has lessened my enthusiasm somewhat. ☹️

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    • Aw gawrsh! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I get most of my music from my CDs now too, except loaded up onto my iPhone and played through my car stereo speakers.

      I have little enthusiasm for watching anything to do with 🍊 but now more than ever I feel like I need to follow the news. Trouble is, it’s hard to find a source that isn’t pandering to an audience.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I didn’t know that about the radio, to be honest. I only ever listen to BBC radio 4, everything else is fakery and pop music and people saying things that don’t make sense and spewing word vomit. I liked the little clip you shared, and also your experience. I am now going to find out more about this ‘internet tail’ you speak of. I am glad I stumbled on your blog! :)

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      • DougD says:

        I can just pull in NPR on WBFO from Buffalo on my drive to work, and JazzFM runs BBC news on the hour. Mostly I listen to CBC One in the morning, you might like it Jim.

        Totally cool that you recorded some of your radio programs, what a great thing to keep through the years.

        Like

  14. My radio experience was limited to substituting for a friend at the university radio station one day while he was away. I rather liked it but I didn’t feel I knew enough music to have a programme of my own.
    My wife and I listen to an evening programme here in Korea called “Bae Cheolsu’s Music Camp”. He was a famous musician back in the 80s and then quit the music business to host a radio programme. I think he’s been on the air for twenty-five years now doing the same show. He plays Western pop and rock and he’s a funny guy. Very honest. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about music. Although he uses the latest technology to play some music, he gets LPs from the music room whenever he can. I can’t tell the difference on my small radio but he seems to prefer it.
    His Sunday show is pre-recorded but from Monday to Saturday is live, mistakes and all. Although he takes requests and plays what he wants, he’s a slave to the advertising schedule and sometimes songs are cut off after they start. After the commercial he starts the song again. Annoying, but maybe unavoidable on a national radio station where national programmes have to fit into a schedule with local programmes.

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    • I didn’t know enough music when I started. But I kept listening to new (to me) music from the station’s library and just trying stuff live on the air until I found my way!

      That show in Korea sounds like a hoot!

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  15. Great story, mate!
    I need to get back to this post a bit later, as being at sea with extremely limited bandwith is not going to make that thing download in the right key, to put it that way.

    Like

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