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.

mewmhd1989a

I 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!

mewmhd1989b

Our 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.

Do you enjoy my stories and essays?
My book, A Place to Start, is available now!
Click here to see all the places you can get it!

Standard
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)!

Standard
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?

PICT0317
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.

PICT0308
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.

PICT0320
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.

PICT0321
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.

PICT0306
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.

PICT0338
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.

Standard
Stories Told

It’s a shame what’s happened to radio

I signed off the air for the last time 20 years ago tomorrow, capping a nine-year side career on the radio. People still sometimes ask me if I miss being a disk jockey, and for a long time I always wistfully answered yes. But not anymore. It’s not that I would be rusty as heck after all these years – and boy, would I. It’s that radio has changed drastically, and it just wouldn’t be any fun for me today.

MeOnWZZQ

I listened to a lot of radio when I was a teen. It was a companion when I was by myself doing homework or whatever. I called in requests and tried to win contests (but never did). I had a few favorite DJs, the ones who kept you listening because you wanted to know what they’d say next. The fun they were having made whatever I was doing more fun.

So when I got to college and found out about the campus radio station, WMHD, I had visions of being the kind of entertaining on-air companion I had enjoyed. I asked for and was given a weekly two-hour shift, just like every other disk jockey at the station. We could play whatever music we wanted, but my musical tastes were pretty narrow and I had trouble filling my time without always playing the same handful of artists. And I found out that wit failed me when the mic was open; I was lucky just to announce the next song without tripping over my tongue. My early shows were really pretty bad! Fortunately our puny signal covered just a few square miles, so hardly anybody heard me. Here’s a brief clip from the oldest show I have on tape, from 1986.

Needing to expand my repertoire, I had fun discovering classic and progressive rock of the ’60s and ’70s and even dabbling in heavy metal. I brought the music I found to my shift and learned how how to match key and tempo to transition smoothly between songs. I also started to find my on-air voice, as you can hear in this 1988 clip.

When I got my first part-time professional radio gig at WBOW, I had fun building and honing my on-air skills. There was a lot more to pro radio than what I’d done in college and it took time and practice to be good at it. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the station in your town that everybody turned to for news, community information, and inoffensive music; in Terre Haute, that was WBOW. I was supposed to provide some “personality” between songs. Here’s a clip from 1992; you be the judge of whether I succeeded!

When I moved down the hall to the company’s rock station, WZZQ, I had fun connecting with listeners. I loved hearing from them when they called to make requests and play the contests. Over time, a handful of listeners came to know me on the air and called during my shifts to just say hello. I looked forward to their calls and meeting them at station events around town. It was great to know that I was providing the same kind of pleasure for them that radio gave me when I was young. It gave me the energy to do my best work, as you can hear in this clip from 1994.

After I left Terre Haute for Indianapolis I tried to get on part-time at a few stations. One polite rejection letter essentially said that I might have been fine in Terre Haute, but I wasn’t ready for the big time in Indianapolis. I decided to take the hint and went back to being just a listener, and now I’ve been out of radio more than twice as long as I was in it. In the intervening years, a number of things have changed that have made radio less fun to listen to and, I’m sure, to work in.

First, now that I’m in my 40s, advertisers don’t care about me anymore. Radio stations choose their formats to appeal to the groups that advertisers think spend the most money. Advertisers love thirtysomething moms, by the way, which is why there are so many country and adult-contemporary stations playing eleven hits in a row or forty minutes of uninterrupted music. No one radio station really reaches me.

Second, thanks to government deregulation radio is now big business. Owners have always been in it to make money, even when ownership was local or regional. But now very large corporations own so many stations and cost management seems to be more important than the quality of the on-air product. Live and local talent is increasingly being replaced by satellite-delivered formats and a form of prerecording called voicetracking. The evening jock on your favorite station probably recorded tonight’s shift this morning in a studio in Tampa or Minneapolis. Try calling the station you listen to in the evening or on the weekend. Nobody will answer, because nobody’s there. It’s cheaper that way.

Third, a change several years ago in the way radio ratings are measured has changed radio programming. As long as there have been ratings, radio stations have formatted themselves to maximize listening among the average, everyday people the ratings companies ask to track the stations they listen to. But the new way of measuring ratings, which uses a listening device called the Portable People Meter, showed a very different picture of actual listening from the older paper-diary method. It pinpointed exactly what caused listeners to change the station. This has led to stations framing programming in much shorter blocks with less human interaction with the audience. It’s why many stations have become anonymous appliances. Why listen to a station that doesn’t relate much with you when you can just listen to your iPod on shuffle instead?

I’m painting a pretty one-dimensional picture of radio’s problems; they are actually layered and complex. I don’t pretend to get all of it, but what I do get is that it has squeezed all the fun out of the business for me. There are few on-air jobs left where you can hone your craft and relate to the listeners.

When I first posted this in 2009, I called out my two favorite local on-air talents, both of whom were among my last reasons to listen to commercial radio: Steve Simpson at news/talk WIBC and Tom Berg at classic-rock WKLU. But since then WKLU was sold, changed formats to contemporary Christian, and sent poor Tom packing. Steve was shifted to mornings and later fired when the station wanted to shift to a deliberate conservative bias and Steve said he didn’t know how to play along.

I’ve given up. When I want to hear music, I listen on my iPhone now. When I do listen to the radio, it’s almost always to hear the news on NPR.

Meanwhile, every station I ever worked for is off the air now. The fellow who owned WBOW and WZZQ got into legal trouble that cost him his licenses. Both frequencies are “dark” today, meaning no stations broadcast on them. WMHD gave up its license last year as student interest dwindled and airshifts couldn’t be staffed.

It’s foolish for a middle-aged man to assume that the institutions of his youth will endure forever. New things will come along and replace them. But at least half of why radio has become irrelevant is its own fault. And that’s a shame.

This is expanded and updated from its original posting in July, 2009.

Standard
Stories Told

A radio station that lost its will

Me on the air at WMHD in 1987
Me on the air in 1987

Last November I shared with you that my alma mater’s radio station, WHMD at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, had shut off its transmitter and gone Internet-only.

Last week’s Indiana Radio Watcha weekly e-mail digest of statewide radio happenings, reports that Rose-Hulman is selling WMHD to crosstown Indiana State University for $16,465, to be a companion to ISU’s existing WISU.

This is a sad end, but probably only for those of us who gave our hearts and a lot of our time to this radio station during our college years. Terre Haute and even Rose-Hulman students probably barely noticed WMHD’s passing. Radio’s place in our lives has been pushed into a niche role, now that YouTube breaks new music, which we listen to on our iPods or on Internet streaming services such as Spotify. WMHD, always a niche station, simply never found a way to remain relevant in this landscape. I don’t think the station even tried.

Me at WMHD
Me outside the station in 2012

Indiana Radio Watch speculates that ISU might make one of its two radio stations an NPR affiliate. NPR is available in Terre Haute only on a weak signal that repeats Bloomington’s WFIU. NPR’s news and talk programming is a great radio niche. When I’m not listening to music from my iPhone as I drive around, I’m listening to Indianapolis’s NPR station.

Something similar is happening in Atlanta. Georgia State University recently handed over control of its station WRAS to Georgia Public Broadcasting, which wants to make it an NPR outlet. Read the story here. Georgia State is keeping the student-generated programming sort of alive by allowing it to continue on the Internet and on HD radio. But do you know anybody who has one of those? Me neither.

But here’s the big difference: when the news broke, hell broke loose, because WRAS has a dedicated and vocal audience. I’m sure WRAS’s audience isn’t large by Atlanta standards. But those who listen love their station, probably because it remained well programmed and interesting.

WMHD, on the other hand, was neither of those things in its last several years. Students simply lost interest. Over the past ten years or so, more and more of the broadcast day kept being given over to an automated music stream. Listenership was never large in the first place, but with nobody running the show I have to think it fell to zero. I’ll bet that if you search the Internet, I’m the only person lamenting WMHD. Search for WRAS and you’ll find lots of anger and hand-wringing.

Any radio pro will tell you: people will listen to a station where the programming is thoughtfully chosen, where there human beings on the air relate well to the listeners, and when these things come together to make listeners look forward to what will happen next. The days of radio commanding the enormous audiences of 30-50 years ago are probably permanently over. But a university- or college-funded station that tries can still find enough of an audience to at least justify its existence. WMHD simply lost the will. Here’s hoping that WRAS, which hasn’t lost the will, finds a way.

Hear me on WMHD’s air here. Hear me on the air professionally here.

Standard
Stories Told

Death of a radio station

Word reached me the other day that my college alma mater’s radio station, WMHD at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, is permanently shutting down its transmitter and will only stream on the Internet from now on. I guess it was inevitable. I don’t think college kids really listen to the radio anymore.

That wasn’t true a quarter century ago when I was a student. The iPod and Pandora were way off in the future – and more importantly, so was industry deregulation, which led to big companies gobbling up stations and watering down their programming so much that there’s no compelling reason to listen.

Radio was once a strong drive among Rose-Hulman students. It started in 1969 when students built a carrier-current AM station they called WRTR. The signal ran through the campus’s electrical system; you had to plug your radio into the wall to pick it up. But students dreamed of over-the-air broadcasting on FM. In 1981, after completing a bunch of engineering studies and filling out a pile of FCC paperwork, they got their license.

Me on the air in 1989
Me on the air in 1989

By the time I reached Rose-Hulman in 1985, WMHD was an active, thriving station. I joined the dozens of students who did weekly two-hour air shifts. There were enough of us that we were on the air from 7 am to 1 am on weekdays, and 24 hours a day on the weekends. We were a free-format station – you always heard whatever music the student on the air wanted to play. We hardly sounded professional, but none of us cared much. Listeners could hear the fun we were having.

Unfortunately, that listenership was small, thanks largely to our weak signal. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard only within about two miles of campus. (We did get request-line calls from inmates at the federal penitentiary way across town, though. I never figured out how they heard us!) We yearned for a signal that covered the city.

It happened in 2003 when a religious broadcaster wanted to build a station that would interfere with WMHD’s signal. They paid to move the station to a new frequency and increase power to 1,400 watts. At last, you could hear WMHD all over Terre Haute!

But it was for nothing. Every time since then that I’ve visited Terre Haute and tuned to WMHD, I heard nothing but music, with no DJs ever. I don’t know why they didn’t fully staff the broadcast day, but I do know that they increasingly relied on some software that a student wrote to automate the station. Meanwhile, the station started streaming on the Internet. You can hear it here, if you want, but I wouldn’t bother. What’s the point of a radio station that’s just an iPod full of somebody else’s favorite music?

Because I found work in Terre Haute after I graduated in 1989, I kept doing weekly air shifts at WMHD into the early 1990s. Here’s 45 minutes of one of my last shifts, from January, 1992. You’ll hear my favorite music at the time, which was heavily influenced by 1970s progressive rock. Even if you aren’t a prog-rock fan, I think you’ll find this to be very listenable – because I took great care to mix the songs well, creating good transitions based on mood, key, and tempo; and because I came on the air from time to talk to you, which made it personal.

A lot of things have to happen to make a radio station viable, including a good signal and strong promotions to attract listeners. But once you get listeners to tune in, what keeps them there is compelling programming. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think that the magic formula has never changed: it’s about the people on the air as much as or more than the music that is played. It’s people that make radio fun and interesting. When a station forgets that, it quickly slides into obscurity and irrelevancy. That’s what happened at WMHD. That’s what much of the industry is doing to itself. It’s no wonder kids today don’t listen to the radio.

I did the morning show on WMHD for a couple years. Hear it here.

Standard