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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Personal, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now he’s weeks away from his final year of college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record

On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 10,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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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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Photography, Stories Told

Rose-Hulman, Spring, 1986

What was I doing on the roof of my residence hall that spring day my freshman year of college?

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Deming Hall, oldest residence hall on campus

Nothing more nefarious than taking photographs. I’m sure the administration would not have approved of me being up there, but when an upperclass friend with an illicit building master key bade a few of us come, we went.

Baur-Sames-Bogart Hall, from the roof

Baur-Sames-Bogart Hall, from the roof

This is our building, Baur-Sames-Bogart Hall. That summer, BSB would get new windows — thank goodness, because these aluminum-framed crank-out jobs gushed heat like a sieve all winter. In the photo you can see the guy wires stabilizing the antenna mast for WMHD, the now-defunct campus radio station.

Hulman Union

Hulman Union

We ate our meals in Hulman Union, across the muck pond from BSB. It’s been expanded and remodeled so much that you’d hardly recognize it as this building today.

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Moench Hall in background; Olin Hall at right

When I wrote about my visit to Rose-Hulman last fall, I shared a current photo of the quad pictured in the distance here, all landscaped and pretty. In 1986, a long driveway led in, and that was that.

Templeton Hall, RIP

Templeton Hall, RIP

Templeton Hall doesn’t exist anymore. A classroom and laboratory building stands on this spot now. Like most schools, Rose has been on a building binge in the last 20 years or so.

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Moench Hall entrance

I also took some ground-level photos, like this one of Moench Hall’s old main entrance. This brick sign was brand new. The campus switchboard used to be behind those doors, and for about 10 hours every week I operated that switchboard for pay. I was working when I took this photo. The switchboard’s bell was loud enough that I could hear it all the way out here, as long as that door was open. But on a weekend afternoon like this one, that bell seldom rang. I got a lot of homework done working the switchboard.

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Olin Hall and some green space

Looking west from about the same spot is this uninspiring photo of Olin Hall, which was just a few years old. Rose does a nice job maintaining its buildings. When I visited in October, Olin looked just as fresh and new as I remembered.

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Moench Hall demolition

Moench Hall was being renovated when I arrived as a freshman. The building is divided into five sections, A through E. When I started at Rose, A section had already been renovated. B, C, and D sections closed for demolition halfway through my freshman year. Some buddies and I broke in to record the detritus. My crappy 110 camera wasn’t really up to the task. A buddy of mine with a Pentax SLR took much better photos. I should get him to share them. Anyway, a day or two after our covert operation a memo went out to all students warning us to stay out of the construction area. We had been detected!

Demolition of Moench Hall

More demolition

Old Moench had hardwood floors everywhere. In the hallway on the second floor, you could see through the gaps in the planks right down to the first floor. I was not at all pleased to see that the wood was being ripped out in shreds and splinters.

We found some remarkable stuff in Moench, including an old teletype, a giant bathroom mirror into which “Class of 1932” had been etched in enormous letters, and miscellaneous ancient equipment. We wondered what would become of all of this cool stuff left behind. We took some inconsequential souvenirs that night. I wanted the room number plaque for room E-104 — and Rose students will know the significance of this room — but it was already gone. So I swiped the plaque for room D-122. I still have it.

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A portrait of the photographer as a young man

This is what I looked like in those days. Could my glasses have possibly been any bigger? Oh 1980s, thank goodness your fashion sense did not endure.

That upperclassman with the illicit master key gave it to me when he graduated. The worst I did with it was let myself into the building before it was officially open at the beginning of the school year, as I liked a couple of quiet days to myself before students arrived en masse. And I used it to get toilet paper out of the supply closet on the weekends when the bathroom ran out. I don’t recall ever again using it to go up on the roof.

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