Film Photography, Personal

From the archives: WMHD-FM Terre Haute, 1986-87

I was 20 and thrilled.

So many children dream of being a fireman or a policeman when they grew up. Not me. I wanted to be the voice on the radio. And look: here I am! Microphone before me, Sennheiser HD40s hanging around my neck, my finger on the turntable’s go button. Let’s do this!

Me on the air at WMHD, 1987

I’ve written many times about my time at WMHD (click here to read every story) but have shown few photographs. I dug through my archives to find some. While you’re looking at what I found, here’s 45 minutes of my show from Dec. 8, 1987, to provide the soundtrack!


WMHD was the student station at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a tough engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana. Students built this station from the ground up, including its studios.

WMHD studio

Here are our station’s engineers, Steve and Tim, doing some late-night work to keep the equipment in fine tune. It was their custom to take over the station on Saturday nights, playing album sides into the wee hours as they worked.

WMHD engineers working

This was the lobby of our broadcast studio. If you know your rock album covers you’ll recognize our mural as being a reproduction of the 1981 Yes album, Classic Yes.

WMHD lobby

The station’s office was across the hall. I became station manager in 1987; this was my desk.

WMHD office

Here’s the rest of the office. That’s the Program Director’s desk, our cabinet full of public files behind it. I remember the discussion that led to the drawing on the chalkboard: this is the layout for the booth in the production studio we were building.

WMHD office

My buddies tolerated my random photography but I don’t think they understood it. I simply wanted a record of this place so I could remember it better. Mission accomplished; seeing these images puts me right back in that studio, keeping my good memories fully intact. I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to be a part of WMHD, and to fulfill my childhood dream of being on the air.

Times change. Radio started to lose its luster with the millennial generation, and Generation Z abandoned it in favor of streaming. Student interest in WMHD flagged; the station quit broadcasting over the air in 2013. Rose-Hulman sold the license to crosstown Indiana State University, which operates the station now as WZIS-FM from studios on their campus. The former WMHD studios don’t exist anymore.

The desire to broadcast hasn’t died entirely, however. A small group of Rose students operate an Internet music stream that they call WMHD. You can listen here if you’re curious.

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Stories Told

Playing by radio’s rules

I love this story, which I’ve published twice before (2008 and 2013).

What’s the most embarrassed or humiliated you’ve ever been?

I used to think it was the day a female friend of mine cried out as we parted in a crowd, “But Jim! You can’t leave! What about the baby?”

But that doesn’t come close to the time I was laid low on the public airwaves.

MeOnWZZQ

On the air, WZZQ Terre Haute, 1994

I was in my early 20s, working part time on the air for Terre Haute’s rock radio station. We were proud to be number two in the market in a part of the world where country music was king. The country station commanded a third of the audience by just showing up. We, on the other hand, worked our butts off to stay in second place. We were successful enough that our full-time DJs were all minor local celebrities.

To stay visible we did lots of events. Terre Haute being a blue-collar and college town we wound up a a lot of bars, the kind that serve watery beer in red plastic cups. We’d promote some band that was playing and we DJs would turn out wearing station swag.

Because I wore my staff shirt, people acted like I was their long lost buddy. It was kind of fun until too much beer had flowed, at which point some guy would start telling you at top volume how much your station really sucked because it didn’t play enough Ozzy, or some girl missing her front teeth would ask sweetly if you had a girlfriend. Even if she had all of her teeth, every DJ knows that Radio Rule #1 is don’t date your listeners. It never goes well.

One Saturday night at an event I sat down with the program director and the two DJs from the morning show, “Scott and Debbie in the Morning.” Now, a part-timer like me would not normally spend time with such lofty talent as the morning show, as Radio Rule #2 is part-timers are in the lowest caste, the sort of people the full-timers ignore.

But the program director liked me. “Jim, you are like gold,” he told me, “because you show up for all your shifts and you follow the format.” I said, “Wow, um, that bar’s pretty low. What does that say about the other part-timers?” He wouldn’t answer. But he usually invited me to hang out with him at these events, and when I did, the morning show had to give me the time of day.

A young woman was sharing our table that night. She was sixteen kinds of cute. Young and slender, doe eyed with long brown hair, so nicely built. She increasingly turned her attention to me, moving in closer, smiling big and looking away when I caught her gaze, and giggling a lot. By the time she had downed a couple more beers, her body language said she’d follow me anywhere I wanted to go. It was flattering. It was exciting.

Then she started to talk — of hating her fast-food job, of wanting to get on at the record-and-CD club that employed half the town because it would free up her nights and she could hit the bars with her friends more often, of her three small children from three different dads, and of how she had to call the cops on one ex the night before and how another ex was getting out of prison in a couple months. The look in her eye seemed to say, “Will you be baby daddy number four?” Images of paternity suits and paychecks garnisheed for child support began to fill my head.

sugardaddy2

What I must have looked like

Red alert! Evasive maneuvers! Fully grasping the wisdom of Radio Rule #1, I stared into my empty cup trying to find a way to exit with grace. Which I did, except for the with-grace part. “Wow, lookit the time, gotta go!”

Monday morning as I drove to my regular job, Scott and Debbie were talking about the Saturday-night event, what a great time it was, and all the DJs who were there. They wouldn’t normally mention lowly part-timers, because let’s face it, listeners don’t remember their names. But then Debbie said, “And did you believe Jim Grey, who works weekends here? This super cute chick was coming on to him, she was so hot! I wanted to tell them to get a room! And then he just sat there! He didn’t do anything! He could have done anything he wanted with her that night, but he wouldn’t even look at her! You have to wonder if he likes girls!

My stomach knotted and I saw red. She had just made me look like a geek with no social skills in front of every listener in a 50-mile radius! And this was the kind of screw that no matter which way you turned it, it went further in. I would just have to suck it up. Of course, I barely made it past the front door at work before someone said, with a big question-mark look on their face, “I heard about you on the radio this morning! What was that all about?” Two more people asked about it before I made it to my cube — where I hid out the rest of the day under headphones so I could pretend not to notice people who came by.

That’s how I learned a corollary to Radio Rule #2: uppity part-timers will be put in their place!

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Personal, Stories Told

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone

My brief radio career ended just before Labor Day 23 years ago.

MeOnWZZQ

On the air at WZZQ, Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1994

I’ve written about my broadcasting days many times because it remains a proud, fond memory. As a boy, I wanted to be the voice coming out of the radio speaker. I got my chance in college, and parlayed that experience into two part-time gigs on commercial stations.

After I moved to Indianapolis I sent an audition tape to every station in town. None of them bit. Only one station bothered to send me a rejection letter, which kindly said that I might have been fine for Terre Haute but I wasn’t ready for the big time. I took the hint and moved on from radio forever.

But I still remember the fun I had. And I have lots of aircheck tapes, all of which I digitized a few years ago so I can enjoy those memories anytime.

For my last show, I asked the program director to schedule a certain song coming out of my last break, a song new that year from The Allman Brothers Band. Its first two lines were spot on:

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone
He left town, I doubt if he’s coming back home

Here’s the audio I recorded of that last break. You’ll hear me talk after a song and start the first commercial. Then you’ll hear the end of the last commercial in that break – and then you’ll hear me sign off for good.

I walked out of the building and out of radio forever. I listened to the rest of the song in my car as I drove home.

Eagle-eyed readers will remember this post from the first time I published it, about this time of year in 2012.

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Personal, Stories Told

Knowing when to quit

I think you just know when it’s time to quit. Quit anything, really. Look back at your life, at the things you’ve quit. I’ll bet that you can pinpoint the moment when you knew. Even if you didn’t recognize it at the time.

It was 1992. I had graduated from engineering school almost four years before and had a job with a local software company. I’d even picked up part-time work in pro radio thanks to my experience at my alma mater’s station, WMHD. But I was still doing a weekly show there, too. I had been station manager while I was a student, and was well known and liked by staff and listeners. And so when I asked the next station manager if I could still do a show even after I graduated he was thrilled. “You’d do that? Really? Well, of course you can!”

Me at WMHD

Me outside the WMHD studio in 2012. Some buddies and I painted that wall in 1988.

It was exciting and weird to keep playing records on that little 160-watt pea shooter. Thursday right after work I’d drive over to the station and park in visitor parking, a clutch of records from home under my arm as I headed into the basement studio. Students who remembered me, themselves now about to graduate, would come by to say hello. The phone would ring with longtime listeners on the other end telling me they were glad to hear me and hey can you play a song for me?

For a couple years it was great fun and I felt like a local celebrity. And as the coaching I got in my pro gig made me a better disk jockey, my work on WMHD sounded better and better too. Here’s 45 minutes from a show on a late-January day a quarter century ago.

But it was about this time it started to feel different, like it was time to move on from it. I had the time to do it. It was still fun. And management told me that I could keep doing it for as long as I wanted. But I was just playing the same classic and progressive rock I’d always played, even as the youngest students were starting to introduce hip hop on the station. Students from my era would have had none of that nonsense! But I was about to turn 25. I couldn’t even pretend to feel like a college student anymore. My world had moved on, even if I hadn’t from here yet.

So I quit. I don’t remember when my last show was; probably in February at the end of that academic quarter. I wish I had recorded that show. But I remember telling listeners that this was it, and getting their very kind phone calls telling me they enjoyed hearing me and wished I’d stay. But then the time came, and I played my last song, and walked out of the studio for the last time. And while it felt odd to know it was over, it didn’t feel bad. I could tell: it was time, and this was right.

There have been other times I knew it was time to quit and I didn’t honor it.

I knew it was time to quit collecting coins, a hobby I’d had since childhood, when checking my change stopped being an exciting hunt and started feeling like an obligation. I hung on anyway for years, hoping it would become fun again. It never did.

I knew it was time to quit that first career job when one day the controller, who was kind of a friend, stopped by my desk to tell me that I should go straight to the bank and deposit the paycheck I had just received, as not everybody’s check would clear that day. I made a beeline for the bank. Yet I had been comfortable there, and I hoped in futility that it would become comfortable again. And so I hung on for two brutal years as the company circled the drain.

I knew it was time to quit being a technical writer when I grew weary of writing things like, “Open the File menu and choose Print,” over and over. Yet I did it for a couple years more as it took me that long to push through fears that I couldn’t successfully shift my career into something different.

I knew it was time to quit my first marriage one afternoon when my wife did something particularly ugly to me, something I don’t particularly feel like sharing. There are two sides to every story anyway. Yet I hung on for a couple more years for a whole bunch of complicated reasons, and it about put me into a rubber room. I quit only when she filed for divorce.

I knew it was time to quit riding my youngest son’s butt about doing his homework when I recognized that homework was all we ever talked about. It drove a wedge between us. Yet my fears that he would fail to launch kept me at it for months after I recognized that. I finally forced myself to quit, regardless of my fear. Our relationship rebounded quickly. And then he figured his focus challenges out on his own.

Sometimes even when you know it’s time to quit, you can’t. Not just yet. Maybe it’s a job, and you can’t live without that income. Maybe it’s a marriage, something not to be quit lightly, something to be quit only after all alternatives are exhausted.

Or maybe you simply forget that you have agency, that you get to choose your life, that you are not actually enslaved to the choices you made. Even if you feel enslaved, because you’re addicted to something, there is help out there for you.

Because you can lay plans. You can get help if you need it. You can keep trying to make the changes necessary so that you can quit. And move on into the phase of your life you’re meant to be fully living.

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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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History, Stories Told

Breaking the news of Space Shuttle Challenger

It was my generation’s “I remember where I was when I heard the news” moment: the day Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the air after launch. It happened 30 years ago today.

My “where was I” story is a little unusual — I was on the radio, and I broke the news to our listeners.

CBS News photo

CBS News photo

That makes it sound like so much more than it was. I was a freshman in college playing records on the campus radio station. WMHD broadcast at 160 watts from the eastern edge of Terre Haute, Indiana. Our signal could be heard well only up to about two miles away. I figure our listenership at that time of day was in the dozens.

My friend Michael burst into the studio carrying a portable television. He said, “The space shuttle just blew up,” as he plugged the TV in and turned it on. ABC News was already replaying the explosion over and over.

We watched silently, in disbelief, for several minutes. And then I realized I had a certain responsibility to tell our listeners, however few.

I let the song play out, and then I played our news sounder. I shook as I stood at the mic; my voice shook as I began to speak. I don’t remember just what I said, but I do remember tripping over my tongue. At least I got the word out.

And then I felt useless. WMHD had no real news department, just a couple students who rewrote stories out of the paper and off the UPI wire and read them on the air. All I could do, just like anybody else, was to keep watching TV. I went on the air after every record to update the story, but eventually told our listeners to find a TV and follow the story there.

I finished my shift playing records, I’m sure, for nobody.

Where were you when you heard the news about Challenger? Tell the story in the comments, or on your own blog (and please link back here)!

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