OK, OK. Disc jockey may not be a totally accurate description of what I did, but I did sit in a small booth, equipped with two turntables, a tape recorder and small control panel where I played records for the public and offered occasional words of wisdom. The radio thing actually felt quite natural for me.
I had a crystal radio as a young boy which, although limited to one station, was magical to me. In the mid-1950s, I often fell asleep to Don Cole's coverage of the Omaha Cardinals baseball team on KOIL. I soon graduated to shortwave radio, butchering the assembly of a Heathkit unit that was salvaged by a kind grandfather. From shortwave, I moved into broadcast band DXing where I met a few honest-to-goodness radio types, like Paul Lotsof who was a newsman at an FM station in Buffalo, New York, that was owned by George "Hound Dog" Lorenz, one of the truly legendary U.S. jocks.
Paul and I shared the (then) quirky trait of tracking down old 78s and 45s from thrift shops, garage sales and cut-out bins. We also had tape recorders and were soon swapping reels of our latest finds. Paul often included snippets of radio broadcasts, some from his own WBLK-FM, others from his travels around the country. Two things I learned from Paul's tapes: the Hound Dog was very good and most of the other radio announcers Paul recorded were very bad.
That's probably where I got the confidence to take a run at my college radio station when I learned it was looking for announcers. I was well into my fourth year of college when I answered the call, but at least a year away from my degree. There were just a few of us as we heard the pitch for KWOU, the campus "station" for Omaha University.
First of all, KWOU wasn't a station in the traditional sense. You couldn't hear it on any radio since it was only piped in from the studio to one location, the often-rowdy Ouampi Room of the student center. As I recall, anyone could amble up to the student center reception desk and ask that KWOU have its volume adjusted or turned down altogether. I believe there was a jukebox in the mix, too, but I could be mistaken about that. (It was the 1960s, after all.)
In any case, prospective jocks could sign up for available slots in the schedule and were expected to show up promptly for every shift. I don't recall how many shifts there were, but I took just one, an hour or two weekly. I suspect legitimate radio and TV students took the bulk of them. The studio was approximately the size of a closet and overlooked an honest-to-goodness TV studio, although I don't recall ever seeing any activity in there. Jocks didn't have to talk at all, though it was strongly suggested that you identify music selections and give a station ID and time check every so often.
There must have been some rudimentary instruction of how to cue a record (just to show you how hep I was, I was fond of "slip cueing") and how to run the board ("spin the pots," etc.). When they got to the part about what music was to played, I instantly understood why they were in need of fresh bodies. The university had apparently signed a deal with the devil (Mitch Miller) because the only records in the library came from Columbia's pop music division. That meant endless spins of Johnny Mathis, Robert Goulet, Steve Lawrence, Barbara Streisand and John Davidson - good singers all, but hardly the type of music to compete with the noisy frat tables of the Ouampi Room.
Despite my limited "air time," I quickly tired of all that MOR pap. I started bringing records from home. I borrowed my theme song from "Hound Dog," Otis Redding's Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song). I was playing Buffalo Springfield, Aretha and the Lovin' Spoonful, but I was saying Andy Williams, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Brothers Four. If anyone noticed the deception, they never said anything to me.
I was really looking forward to the fall semester when I planned to go even more radical, playing more early Dylan, the Seeds and Mothers of Invention. But my perceived role as a change agent was preempted by station brass who declared that Columbia pop was out, rock was in. We even printed music surveys (one is at the top of this post) to tout our new format. I think we did that for two weeks. There were a few sketchy signs that people were actually listening.
One sign was the unruly crowd of fraternity brothers that clamored outside the studio when one announcer dedicated Neil Diamond's Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon to them. Another was the time I cleverly decided to conduct a quiz to gauge audience interest. During the course of my program I presented three questions. The first person to show up at the studio with the correct answer to all three questions would win a prize, which (unbeknownst to them) was a stash of 10 Tootsie Roll Pops (retail value: 20 cents). Honestly, I never expected any takers but three or four people showed up after the second question to claim their prize. Thrilled, I sent them packing with the admonishment that they needed to come back with the answer to all three questions. After they left, the truth hit me: how will they react to winning a fistful of suckers? Hopefully, better than those fraternity brothers reacted to Neil Diamond. Any concern I had dissipated when nobody showed up after the third question.
Truth is, there was so much going on at that time, that I lost interest in my radio gig.
The preceding summer of 1967 is still known as "the summer of love." Somewhere around that time, I went with a few friends to an actual "love in" in Lincoln, a 50-mile drive. We thought nothing of parking our car on a roadside and hiking in to the festivities, which were much more tame than we were led to expect. Opposition to the fighting in Vietnam was taking root, even on our conservative campus. Eugene McCarthy would be a popular Omaha visitor in the months ahead, as would Peter Fonda. The truly enlightened would hang out at the Aruba sandwich shop where the world's woes were discussed ad nauseum over meatball sandwiches. Many stories that found their way into the school's underground newspaper, The Lone Haranguer, were doubtless hatched at the Aruba.
Personally, I was transitioning from radio to newspapers. Success in several journalism classes that I stumbled into in my quest to extend my student draft deferment as long as humanly possible, led to a position on the student newspaper and, eventually, to a real, paying job at a real newspaper. I just kind of faded away from KWOU and I'm pretty sure nobody noticed. I lost my full-time job at Union Pacific Railroad that year and the deferment went away as well.
Like most able-bodied young men of that era, I served in the military, got married and started a career and a family. I never looked back on my radio "career" and have never lost my love for the music I've grown up with. Sad to say, Otis Redding lost his life about the same time my radio career was fading. He was just 26.
Here's Redding's Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song):
Author Larry Lehmer is putting the finishing touches on a book about the Philadelphia years of American Bandstand. The book is called Bandstandland. It has lots of details about the show you've never read before. In conjunction with the book, he writes a blog called Bandstand Beat.