Radio gaga

In the Winter of 2004, at the behest of our store’s promotions coordinator I participated in my first radio show. In Lansing there is a local city newspaper named City Pulse, founded and edited by a fellow named Berl Schwartz. I was asked to call in on a Saturday morning to comment on something, in fact, one of my employees was also asked to participate in the show. I will always remember him calling his Mom to tell her. I can’t remember what the topic was now all these years later. I called in, lying in bed at my apartment on Lake Lansing Road. It felt natural,(the talking, not the lying in bed) talking about this and that. He asked me a question about music, I responded. We jawed a bit and when asked about one more thing, I brought up the new CD of music by local actor Jeff Daniels. My ease contrasted nicely with my employee, who was stilted and frankly bricked when asked about a certain film. Hey, maybe he was nervous. With the show over I was told the next Tuesday that I had impressed Berl and found myself invited onto the City Pulse’s hourly slot on WDBM 88.9, the monolithic MSU campus radio station. I jumped at the chance but bricked myself by bringing in Christmas music as opposed to music for the busy Christmas season. No matter. I remember having fun and feeling natural, feelings that were lacking on my next appearance on the show in Spring 2005.

Summer of 2005 showed up and I moved north, returning to the city I had called home from 1978-1984 while returning to the life of college, heading towards the degree that I now have in a cardboard sleeve under my desk. As I signed up and started taking classes one thought stayed first in my mind: How was I going to be able to keep getting free CDs? One of the true treats of working in a music store is the promotional disc, essentially a free copy of a commercially released CD that you as employees would play in the store to drum up interest. The promo is the true lost commodity in the digital world we inhabit now. You can’t sell your MP3s when you are starving and need money for food or if you need to clean out your shelves and realize that since you spent nothing on the promo it is essentially free money. Hell, I used to tip the pizza guy with 3 promos figuring he could get anywhere from 9-5 dollars by selling the discs. My one insider connection, at EMI, had already sent me a final thank you package of Rudy Van Gelder promos, 12 total. I scrambled my brain thinking of ways to get more, or at least keep it coming. I found a way: WNMC 90.7 FM.

Before I moved to Traverse City, my girlfriend would often tell me of a local station pointed out to her by a former co-worker who had moved north to be with her wine-making husband. Whenever I drive north on a Sunday, the first things I will always remember are arriving at her door, opening it and walking up the stairs to the top half of the house she lived on. I would smell incense, smell the apartment, and hear WNMC on the dial. I have strong memories of visiting and listening to the station upon arriving in TC on a Sunday. I’ll write about the shows on the station in the coming weeks, for now I’ll focus on the fact that there was a radio station on campus. I hopped onto their website and found the form for volunteering. My plan was to offer to write reviews for the website, thus keeping my connections fresh and creating a need for me to ask for promos. Can’t review what you can’t hear, after all! What happened instead caught me off guard, I was called and asked about DJ-ing a show. I scheduled my first training and nervously wandered into West Hall on a Thursday to sit and watch a DJ handle the board and deliver his show. I’ll never forget it. Second training was spent talking with Blind Dog Sandy, a heckuva fellow. Great times just jawing. Third training I hosted the show for an hour, live. I was scared in my boots during that hour, but I did it. And within a few weeks I was on the air, live, three hours a week, every other Tuesday. I hosted the Afternoon Jazz block on the station and I would go on to host the show in one form or fashion on one day or another for the next four years. I didn’t let my presence on the air stop simply with Jazz, no, I would host anything, any opportunity to get on the air and spin tunes and have fun. I hosted the Afternoon Jazz show and, for a time, the Morning Show that broadcast from 6am-8am. I would occasionally host the free-form Friday night show, playing three hours of nothing but the music I brought from home, an ultimate mix tape for the town. When our son was born, the GM allowed me to bring him into the studio.

Every Wednesday around 1pm I would bundle Jack up, snap him into the giant blue stroller I called the Blue Meanie, and walk the half a mile to the station. Once there I would DJ, interact with my son while he was awake, and spin tunes. Generally he would nap when I was on the air but I always noted his presence in the show. One time a gentleman caller phoned me to complain about me talking about or to Jack. I almost quit. I remember Eric, the GM, calling me up out of the blue the day after Thanksgiving to see how I was doing — I was that upset about the caller. Bob, our esteemed folk director and program director at the station was the next caller that day and when I told him that someone had complained he was succinct, “Aww the hell with him!” This was the sense of comraderie that made the station so much fun for me and such a valuable asset in my transition in life.

When Jack got too big to bring in, I jiggled my schedule and started hosting the Mid-Day Jazz show from 11-2pm on Mondays. This was the last consistent show that I hosted on WNMC and while my shows were different after Jack left my side in the booth, I still enjoyed it.

More than anything what I loved about the station, and what I continue to miss, was the sense of community. I’ve always had work friends, they can be easier to pick up and forget than real friends. Work friends have always fulfilled that part of me that needs to be social, a part of me that needs to interact, the part of me that people like. What made this better was I felt as if the audience I drew were all my work friends. I was, basically, talking. Into the void if you will. I knew the radio waves were sending the signal out as far south at Cadillac and as far north as Petosky. I knew there were ears out there, invisible, listening to me yap. If you have the misfortune of knowing me you know that I am longwinded. Not ready to call myself a blowhard, nor a raconteur. I talk. And I can talk quite a bit. My shows were three hours long and I didn’t talk for three hours, but I had the information in my head ready at a moment’s notice to talk about the artists I was playing. I spent 30 minutes on Sunday playing and talking about Hank Mobley, the legendary tenor. All the retail learning, all the selling, allowed me to talk about this music in a very natural manner. Sure I tried to be funny, to make jokes, sometimes I cracked myself up. But I always felt completely comfortable talking about any music we were playing. Some Jazz artists, some artists I love and cherish, I could talk and talk about. Others made me draw comparisons. No matter I was ready to talk and all these facts in my head, all this useless shit I remember and never forget, was at the tip of my tongue and ready to roll.

Being a fan is essential in any aspect of music, but especially if you are a DJ. The one critical thing I would teach trainees when it was their third hour on training, when the manned the board for an hour, was start with something you know and love. Take that music, play it, maybe play two songs, and when it comes time for that first break when your heart is pounding and all you hear on the cans is the spit in your dry mouth and how high your voice sounds, simply talk about what you played and what it means to you. This familiarity breeds the comfort you need to not think about speaking in front of a large audience of undetermined size. A local jazz singer did a third traning, she was off to study at Berklee in Boston that fall. You could hear the nerves in her voice. And this was a performer! And also a feature I loved about the station was the quality of off-air converstarion. The GM is one of the smartest dudes I’ve met, able to talk about anything in an interesting, cogent manner. Normally this is what killed the second hour of my Monday shows: Eric would be sitting in the booth doing something and a question would pop into my head and I would bring it up.

“When was the biggest West Indian/Jamaican emigration to London/England? Was it the 50s?”

“My sister loves Russian History. She has the Gulag Arpiellego but is looking for post-Czarist Russian stuff”

“What was Ethel Merman’s biggest hit?” (This one I actually posed on air and got some pretty interesting comments.)

My last show actually took place on a Friday, hosting Eric’s 11am-2pm slot. I played favorites and reminisced about my time on the station. As 2pm drew near I wasn’t emotional but caught up in the silliness around me. I joked with people off-air, I made fun of myself, and I told the listeners that I always planned on leaving in one of two ways.

The first was to just FREAK OUT on air! Figuring I do live in town and need to work here I chose the second, playing the song “Farwell” by Lawrence Welk. I thought it summed me up. The following Monday I was going to start student teaching, a five day a week commitment. I couldn’t host a regular show anymore. Not only that but the addition of my daughter, not even two months old when I left the station, made any daytime shifts nigh on impossible to host.

This is not to say that I’ve vanished from the station. Every April 29th (or thereabouts) I have been allowed to host a three hour long tribute show to the music of Duke Ellington in the honor of his birthday and, as it happens, my son’s birthday. And from time to time the great Ben Hamper calls me and I pinch-hit on Soul Possession, the funkiest show in Northern Michigan. I still feel a part of the WNMC family, I still jaw jack with the crew that I really like whenever I stop by the station. And I still help out during the fundraisers, lending my tones to the airwaves in an attempt to get people to PAY to stop me from talking.

Terrestrial radio as we know it is dying, like so many other mediums that gave so many of us color and imagination. I’ve worked in record stores, bookstores, and radio stations. Now they feel obsolete. But these places are only as obsolete as we make them. WNMC is a quality station, run by people who volunteer to discuss their passion. A friend of mine called DJing making your advocation your vocation. I think that is true.

Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.

One Response to “Radio gaga”
  1. Eric Hines says:

    Nice! Don’t think radio is going to die too soon, though. Most forms of media, in fact DO NOT die when new media comes along. They assume new roles. Handwriting was not “killed” by printing. Print was not killed by radio. Radio was not killed by television. Nor was print killed by television. Etc. etc.

    We tend to talk too loosely about one technology killing another, or the phenomenal growth of new media (e.g. tablets constitute, what, 2% of Internet traffic? Will that number ever be 10? 20? 50?). Anyhow these phenomena are a lot more complex than we usually recognize if we just read novelty-driven media. Past forms and technologies often hang around for way longer than anyone tells us about. There are probably far more people using explorer 5 (released in 1999) than are using tablets.

    Radio will assume new roles as stuff like customized music channels assume theirs and broadband-based media reach more and more places. But I imagine broadcast–one-way, yes, but very very efficient, and, at its best, communal–will have a role. What will it be? I have some ideas ;-)

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