So our story opens in Winter of 1999. I’m not going to recount most of the experience of applying for a show again. People who have actually worked in College Radio or spent any time in a comic book store will have an idea of the snobbish air that permeates things that can otherwise be called “hobbies.” Fleshing out the ways that independent music has changed and covering the general oddness of working at WVUM are both later subjects. For now though let’s delve into the hoops and pitfalls involved in getting your very own radio show and trying not to screw up on it every 10 minutes.
After begging, pleading, sucking up, and hanging around on the couch generally making a nuisance of myself, I managed to get myself wedged from 4 to 7 AM on Thursday mornings. Everyone started in one of these overnights as right of passage and to make sure that if you messed up, you did so when few people were listening anyway.
Somehow Thursdays were thought to be the best day to have a slot overall. Close enough to Friday for people to be excited about life yet not so excited that they’re rocking out to their favorite CD on the way to wherever they were going. This was a time when having a 7 CD changer in the back of your car was the peak of luxury, despite your car being a shitty Civic with a secondhand subwoofer. Also technically the real luxury was having an overnight that fell on a weekend, but I wasn’t that lucky.
I diligently performed my overnight slot just before Ken and Isaac’s drive time show every week. All shows were 3 hours, and in the case of overnights, from 1 to 4 AM and 4 to 7 AM. 1 to 4 meant no chance of decent sleep whereas 4 to 7 meant being able to go to bed super early then power through the day. I learned the power of coffee at this point in my life but did not yet abuse it the way I do now.
My show, like most of the station’s programming, fell into a category called “Rotation.” Rotation shows had a complex structure by which you had three piles of music that got played varying amounts. Hours were broken into 4-15 minute chunks and whatever time you had leftover at the end of the 15 minutes you could play what you wanted. The first 15 minute block had the most songs to play (3, one from each Rotation category) and the last had the least (1 only). Inbetween these you would try desperately to sound coherent while announcing what you’d just played and what was coming up. You would of course fail miserably and no doubt also fuck up the order songs were supposed to be played in, if you managed get anything to play anything at all.
Not the actual thing but close enough. Think you could run this at 4 AM?
While on air, you would attempt to coolly relay that people could phone in their requests at 305-284-5786 and that they should “keep it locked to the Voice.” Doubtless your delivery was far closer to horribly awkward than cool and the only people who are going to call you at 5 AM are insane, incredibly stoned or both.
The phone didn’t audibly ring as you wouldn’t want to be interrupted mid-monotone and be confused even more than you already were while trying pronounce whatever international artist was charting that month (“uhhhh you just heard uuuhhhhh See-bo Mat-oh uhhhhhh”). Most radio stations had a light of some kind attached to the ringer, but we were lucky at the time if all 3 CD players were actually working. Thus the only thing that’d happen was a small triangle would light up on the phone’s LCD panel, basically like in any office sans, y’know, noise. This meant that if you were getting the request line were ringing, you’d probably miss it. It also meant that if a call was coming in from a superior on the “hotline,” you could pretend you never saw it and go back to whatever rule breaking or general screwing-up you were doing.
How the young DJ thirsts for requests, though. Oh how desperately you wanted to know that people were listening, even though you only got to pick approximately one song out of every 4. You would be so willing to sacrifice that one song just to know someone was out there actually cared about what you were depriving yourself of sleep for.
One quickly learned however that the chances you could actually fill a request were roughly zero. This was for a variety of reasons. Some bands didn’t fit with the format or else was overplayed elsewhere, and if someone really wanted to hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers they could go ahead and call Zeta for all we cared. Some artists technically fit with the format but was so overplayed that they’d gotten removed (see: The Smiths and Joy Division). Much got stolen, or at least thieves were always blamed when things fell into the one of the two previous categories.
Then there was the simple fact that WVUM’s rotation programming didn’t usually correspond with what Miami actually wanted to hear at the time. Remember, this was before indie music and college radio generally exploded. For example, Modest Mouse had just released their first album on a major label but it’d take them another 4 years to get airplay on mainstream radio. In terms of the Miami music market, we’re talking about a wholly different world, one into which we were trying to inject stuff like Tortoise with varying results.
The things that were constantly requested were early punk and dark wave. We had new punk (that generally sucked) and newer albums by The Cure and Morrissey (which were like offering people Hydrox when they’d asked for Oreos). As for the old punk, all of it contained profanity and generally speaking we had no way of censoring these albums ourselves. Remember CD burners were not ubiquitous until about 4 years from now. WVUM would eventually obtain a rack mount CD burner that would only record audio live, which was great if you wanted to record 80 minutes of something in gorgeous compression-free audio, but not so great if you actually wanted to duplicate a disc or edit a single song on said disc. This sort of incredibly poor managerial foresight and an inability to provide anyone with what they actually wanted or needed would be the hallmark of the era I was at the station.*
Bringing your own music in was verboten except on specialty shows and all this is to say that unless you climbed the ladder, you never got a specialty show and never got the chance to just play whatever you wanted. Climbing the ladder involving toeing a lot of lines and kissing a lot of ass, and I managed to do a lot of both that first year. It also helped that I lived in Miami year-round and wasn’t exactly working insanely hard to maintain my B+ average as an English major. So I basically lived at the station and managed to start filling in on daytime shows relatively quickly, especially over the winter break.
It also didn’t hurt that I quickly began to love the music. Most people would fill their “B-Time” (the non-rotation time in which they got to choose their own music) with whatever conformed closest to their current tastes. Punk kids would scrounge whatever pop-punk and Fat Wreck Chords releases they could find. The normal Miamian would play a song off of My Early Burglary Years. I found myself falling head over heels for the re-release of Tigermilk** that was in rotation for much of my first 2 months there. I also had the chance to listen to the music I’d heard of but never had the chance to get into, like Pavement and Stereolab.
Prior to this point, the most “out there” stuff I’d listened to was Sonic Youth. I’d bought it for no other reason than Spin Magazine told me to and I had forced myself to listen to it constantly until I liked it, although in 10th and 11th grade I’d just as soon have been listening to Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins. Fast forward a couple of years and I was digging their newer stuff from the stacks and enjoying every minute. Funny how you grow into some things.
So I toed the line but I enjoyed toeing the line. By the Spring of my Freshman year I’d begun only doing daytime shows and by Summer I’d graduated to doing a few morning drive time shows. By “Graduated” I mean “there’s no one here to do anything, for the love of god help us.” When you’re making college students regularly work for nothing, this becomes a perpetual issue.
The following year I was elected to the lowliest spot on the Executive Board, or “E-Board,” granting me a key to the office and some minimal degree of responsibility. I also started doing my first specialty show and being one of the people able to yell at the new overnights rather than being the one receiving said yelling. All that however is a subject for the next post.* I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I share some of the blame for this, but then again we’re getting ridiculously ahead of ourselves here.
** Shortly after this I’d put this on for my former-hippie Mom and halfway through the first song she’d slap me on the knee and and exclaim “you turned out alright!”