March 10, 2016

Adventures in College Radio

New Orleans: French Quarter studio of radio st...
New Orleans: French Quarter studio of radio station WWOZ; turntables and cd players. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
College was a time for exploration and risk-taking. It marked a key transition point for me in terms of both atheism and freethought. I was already an atheist, but I lacked some of the more important skills and insight necessary for freethought. When I look back on the sum total of my college experience, it is easy to see how the many novel experiences it provided helped me advance on the path toward freethought. This post is about one of these experiences.

The university I attended had a small college radio station. This was the early 1990s, and college radio was still very much a thing. So-called alternative music had not gone mainstream yet, and college radio was where one could hear bands one would not hear elsewhere. I liked about 20%-30% of what they played on this particular station, but I jumped at the opportunity to work for them as a DJ. Even though I found the idea of doing this somewhat intimidating, I just had to give it a try.

I did not have any relevant experience, but that was okay. According to the station manager, the only criteria were that one had to have work experience of some sort (he wanted to make sure that we'd be responsible enough to show up when we were supposed to), love music, and make it through an interview and orientation phase where he'd decide if we were what he was looking for. I think his decision was based on a combination of whether we seemed dependable enough to count on and whether he liked us. I was one of a few who were selected and worked into the station schedule.

With the station being on a college campus and staffed primarily by students, there was frequent turnover. Students graduated, were fired, or just quit. This meant that new people were always coming on board. There was a system of seniority in place so that those of us who were new would get stuck with the worst shifts until we had proven ourselves. Most shifts were no more than a few hours, so it wasn't too bad.

In the beginning, we had little freedom. When I showed up for a shift, I was given a copy of the playlist. All songs had been selected by the station manager and were coded by rotation frequency. Most of the ads had been prerecorded; others were scripts I'd need to read. I was told what to play and when to play it. In hindsight, it was a good thing that everything was so scripted. Learning the equipment was challenging enough without also having to make decisions about content.

In addition to a complex soundboard and multiple microphones, there were a pair of turntables, a pair of CD players (most of the music was on still on vinyl, but this was beginning to change), some sort of machine for playing prerecorded ads that reminded me of an industrial-grade 8-track player, and a few other gadgets with mysterious functions. For the most part, the work consisted of pulling records based on the playlist, queuing them up in advance so that one could start each song at the right point seamlessly, and doing the right combination of introducing songs, reading ad copy, playing records, and playing the prerecorded ads and station promos. Of course, all this had to be done while answering the phone and taking requests or dedications. It does not sound all that difficult, but it was terrifying initially. There were so many ways to screw up, and I managed to find many of them.

As I learned what I was doing, it became much easier. Operating everything no longer took so much intense focus, and I was able to relax and enjoy it a bit more. My shift schedule improved, the degree of supervision dropped considerably, and I was permitted to plug in some song selections of my own. I would be in the booth by myself for most shifts without anybody else in the way or making me nervous. This was the point where the boredom set in. Only liking about 20%-30% of the music I was playing and having little control over what I was playing took some of the fun out of it once the initial anxiety faded.

Around this time, the station manager called us all together and announced some changes. He invited those of us who had been there for a while to propose our own shows where we would set our own playlists. He wanted shows that would focus on certain types of music so that listeners could tune in at particular times to hear more of what they liked. This was my chance to get away from the rotation and play music I liked. I had a good friend who had been working at the station as long as I had, and we decided to propose a show that we would do together. We had similar taste in music but somehow managed to have record and CD collections that were complementary and had little overlap.

Our show focused on classic hard rock recorded between the late 1960s and mid-1980s (e.g., Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Pink Floyd). Our idea was that we would play the sort of music we were listening to with our friends when we were partying. The station had little of the music we had in mind, but we had this covered between us. We'd also make a point of going beyond the most popular songs and play some of the deeper album tracks. It was fun, and we quickly discovered that working as a pair made things far easier. One of us could cue songs while the other was doing something else. And yes, one of us could step out to do other things (e.g., throw up from the previous night's drinking bout) when necessary.

The show was not terribly well-received for an extremely obvious reason we did not anticipate: nobody was tuning into this radio station because they were searching for this type of music. Some of it was available elsewhere, and it was not what this station's small audience was seeking. I doubt anyone other than a few of our friends was bothering to listen to our show. We did have fun doing it, but it was doomed from the start.

I learned many things about myself through this experience, including the fact that I was not cut out to be a radio DJ. I enjoyed much of it, but was never particularly good at it. The best DJs seemed to have something I lacked. I was never really sure what that was, but it was quite apparent that I didn't have it. Still, I was glad that I took the risk of throwing myself into a completely new experience and sticking with it even though it was challenging.

Trying new things, especially those that do not come naturally and may initially seem scary is often an important part of one's growth. Such experiences teach us about ourselves and others. They put us in a better position to accurately assess our strengths and weaknesses, something that seems to be a vital part of developing a reality-based worldview. In this respect, it seems like my many failures have been every bit as helpful as my successes.