by Akim Reinhardt
As far as human experiences go, there's not much that tops doing something you love. But when doing it means you're not only indulging your personal creativity, but also sharing it with hundreds or thousands of other people who are appreciative, and you're contributing to something larger by helping to keep a valuable public institution alive, the feeling is hard to describe. It's transcendent, really. To have a creative outlet that allows you to be free and individualistic, yet at the same time to be part of something bigger that provides a service to your community is simply exhilarating. From 1988-2000, I got to have that experience in public radio. And it was not even something that I bothered pursued; rather, I was lucky enough to have it find me.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s I was a DJ at WCBN-FN, a college radio station in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The University of Michigan provided space in the basement of the old Student Activities Building while also footing the bill for electricity and equipment, but none of the DJs got paid a dime. Instead, most everyone down there, including some local older non-students, spun records and CDs because they loved music and wanted to share it with the public.
Working in radio had never been a goal of mine. I only got involved with the station my junior year because a friend was working there as a DJ. I did love music, both listening and playing, and had already taken to writing about it for the student newspaper, cranking out record concert reviews. But radio had simply never occurred to me until he suggested it. Nevertheless, I took to it almost immediately.
My first show was from 6:00-9:00 AM on Sunday mornings. Newbies (I don't think that term had actually been coined yet) had to work their way up. I'd open each show with “You've Got to Move,” the Rolling Stones cover of a Mississippi Fred McDowell song. Barely two minutes long, once it ended, nothing vaguely commercial would float along the airwaves for the next three hours.
CBN was (is) a freeform radio station. DJs had complete freedom in choosing their set list. But beyond that, CBN was also fiercely dedicated to alternative programming. The basic premise was: If it can be heard on a commercial radio station, then why on earth would we play it? Let people go tune in to those other stations if that's what they want. But for those who want to hear something they're not going to find anywhere else on the dial, 88.9 FM is their stop.
As a kid, I had spent a lot of time listening to various forms of popular music on the radio. Both contemporary pop like disco and top 40, as well as what's now known as adult contemporary, oldies, and classic rock. By the time I showed up at the radio station, I had fairly wide ranging musical tastes for a 19 year old. But I still needed to get my head around the idea of programming as an act of discovery. Freeform radio: that's the CBN way.
Soon I was reveling in the station's large record library. And yes, the library was actually composed of vinyl records for the most part, CDs still being a fairly new medium.
As each show became a journey of musical exploration, I developed a taste for improvisational programming. Sometimes, particularly when I was first starting out, I'd drag bags of records into the studio with me. But as time went by, more and more I'd show up with less and less, and just wing it.
There's a nightmare that almost every DJ who worked in the pre-computer age has had at some point. And I don't mean a metaphorical nightmare. I mean a real one: middle of the night, cold sweat, wake up with your heart racing. Back then, the nightmare would go something like this:
You're in the studio. It's the middle of your show. A record's playing. You look down and realize it's about to end. But wait. Oh shit. You don't have anything cued up for the next song. You look around but see nothing nearby. You hadn't pulled anything else. Panic. You run to the library and grab something. You go back to the console and slap it onto an open platter. Or you try. But the hole doesn't want to fit around the turntable's spindle. Or you just keep missing, like a kid with no blindfold who for whatever reason still can't hit the piñata. Christ, why is this so hard? And the song that's playing on platter #1 is just about to end. Finally you get the new record on and you grab the needle to cue it up. You slide the the tone arm over the record and try to place the needle on the dark groove between songs, but you keep missing. You can't get it to the right spot. So you decide to just play the first track on the side. That's always easy to cue. But every time you try to put the needle down, it bounces all over the place. Shit! And that song that's just about to end? It's still just about to end! It's forever about to end, creating a hamster wheel panic. And you just can't get this shit together. The ultimate radio disaster, dead air, is forever imminent, and you are perpetually inept, always on disaster's brink.
It's as if Sisyphus were a DJ.
Variations of that dream afflicted me several times, lurching me into consciousness and tangled, sopping sheets. It finally stopped haunting me after the nightmarish scenario played out in real life.
At first you're always nervous and super careful. Then you get more comfortable, more relaxed. Indeed, even a bit lackadaisical. And then, boom. It happens. That song you're playing is about to end, and you've got nothing else cued up. Shit, you don't even have anything nearby. What the fuck do you do?
You just think on your feet and deal with it. You sit down and take a deep breath as your adrenaline starts to surge. The song ends and you turn on the mic. You rundown that last set of music, maintaining a calm tenor despite all that nervous energy. As you hide the crisis from your listeners, you reach behind and grab a cart. A cart was kind of like an 8-track tape that radio stations used to play pre-recorded announcements such as commercials. We didn't have commercials at CBN, fuck that. But we had Public Service announcements (PSAs) and station IDs.
So you reach back and grab a cart. Which one? Who the fuck knows. Whichever one your blindly outstretched hand can grasp while still managing to keep your mouth in front of the mic. You slide it into the cart machine, wrap up your spiel, turn up the level for the cart machine, and hit Play.
The segué is both, the DJ's art and craft, and this segué was seamless. Or close enough.
Then you look over and see that it's a 10 second ID. Shit. So you grab another cart. That one with the PSA about free mulch available from the city, the one that prattles on for like 45 seconds, which in this case is a goddamn eternity. You play that one next, then go grab a couple of records. You cue up one with time to spare, and unlike your bad dream, the needle easily drops right into the blank groove between tracks 2 and 3 because you've done this hundreds of times by now and actually know what the fuck you're doing, or close enough for jazz.
Spin the disc back and forth til it's right where you want it; I used to like the record to be about 1/3 of a rotation from starting, a quarter if I was feeling cocky.
The PSA on mulch is done. Let it rip, and boom. Listeners are none the wiser.
That happens once and you don't have anymore nightmares. It happens twice and you feel like you fuckin' own the joint.
It wasn't long before I felt like I fuckin' owned the joint.
After about four years at WCBN, I returned home to New York City and went three years without doing any radio. There's a great station nearby in New Jersey, WFMU-FM. Long time boss man Ken Freedman had gotten his start at WCBN, and it would've been a natural fit. FMU was like CBN for adults. But I didn't have a car and had no idea how to get the fuck out there via public transit from The Bronx or Queens or wherever the hell I was living at the time, so I never got involved. The withdrawal was tough.
Then I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska for graduate school in 1995. KZUM-FM is a beautiful thing. Like WFMU, it's community radio, not college. The DJs are all adult volunteers, playing whatever they want, and I got to run loose on the airwaves for another five years. Afterwards I moved on and became a college professor in Baltimore, which has no station like KZUM or WFMU. That was almost 14 yeas ago. Sigh.
It is a special thing and not to be taken for granted if you can find an outlet in life that lets you build craft and express yourself creatively; something that you do for the love and joy of it; something that you can share with others in a way that at least some people will appreciate. And when you hit your stride, you know it's right. How do you know you've hit your stride? Sometimes there's a moment.
One day back at WCBN I was talking to the Program Director, a fellow student. Like me, she loved radio very much, probably more than I did in some ways. But unlike me she didn't really enjoy being on-air. She preferred working off-mic, finding ways to keep the station running, and to make it better. Indeed, unlike me, she would go on to make a career for herself in radio, largely off-mic.
We were in the studio during my show and she was explaining this to me, her love of radio and her ambivalence about being on-air. I was having a little trouble understanding because I was young and stupid and sometimes had trouble understanding things that contradicted my own experiences. And my experiences on-air were generally very joyful.
She said, you know, in professional radio, not this college stuff, you have to hit your marks. For example, if the next segment's starting at exactly the top of the hour, and you have to talk for exactly 45 seconds, you can't come up short or go long. You have to turn on the mic, say what needs to be said, say it well, and say it in the exact amount of time allocated to you, no more no less.
Like this? I asked.
I turned on the mic. I spoke smoothly and comfortably about something relevant, and wrapped it up exactly at the moment the second hand on the big analog clock on the wall above us hit the 12. Then I started the next song and turned off the mic.
Yeah, like that, she said, and we both smiled.
When I first started writing Monday columns at 3 Quarks Daily nearly 4 years ago, the editors told me that essays should be about 2,000 words in length. But they're not sticklers. Some people write shorter pieces. I often go long, averaging closer to 2,500. Three-thousand isn't unheard of for me.
But sometimes you hit your stride and no longer fear a song ending or a looming deadline. You're not the best, but you love and enjoy it, and are happy to support something bigger that provides a service to the public.
And when that happens, you give them exactly 2,000 words just as the second hand strikes 12.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com