MY LIFE IN RADIO
By Dan Hughes
My earliest memories of radio, circa 1950, are fuzzy and swirling. Arthur Godfrey’s ukelele, Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club, Art Linkletter’s House Party, and easy-listening songs like The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane and How Much is that Doggie in the Window.
Then later, on those rare days when childhood illnesses kept me home in bed, with the only TV on the other side of the house, in desperation I listened to the clock radio on my headboard. I found programs like Gunsmoke and Our Miss Brooks. I knew the shows from television, and the radio versions seemed about the same to me. It didn’t really dawn on me in those days that I could enjoy a cowboy show without the pictures just as much as with them.
In seventh grade I discovered rock and roll. Top 40 radio! Hit Parader magazine became my constant companion, providing me with all those secret lyrics I couldn’t quite decipher when I heard the songs on my little, tinny-speakered transistor radio, my favorite Christmas present of 1960.
Radio was my best friend through high school. Quiet and shy and mostly a loner (I pretty much fit the profile of your typical Unibomber), I constantly dreamed of being as hip and funny as the DJs I idolized.
I started college as an engineering major. I didn’t particularly like engineering, but I scored in the top one-half of one percent on the math part of the SAT, and everybody said I should go into engineering. Big bucks, and I would be good at it. Why not.
Purdue and General Motors
After my freshman year at Purdue, I got a summer job as a draftsman with General Motors. I spent three long months re-drawing German plans for a military tank, changing metric dimensions to English and changing the three-view drawings from German style (front view-left view-bottom view) to American style (front view-right view-top view).
I was in a large room full of draftsmen, many of them in their fifties or sixties. And I noticed a disturbing phenomenon. It began at about one o’clock each afternoon. Several of these older employees would stop drawing, stare at the clock in the front of the room, and slowly and sadly shake their heads. Then they would go back to their drawing boards (no pun intended).
And I thought, what a miserable life! The only thing these guys look forward to is quitting time.
And that’s when I decided to follow my dream.
My father was not happy when I told him I was switching my major to broadcasting, but he accepted it and I was on my way.
The fall of 1966 found me in the biggest dorm on the Purdue campus, Cary Quad. Cary had two radio stations, both called WCCR. They were at 600 and 650 on the AM radio dial. The 600 station was the “formal” station, carrying classical music, Broadway showtunes, and folk music. The 650 station carried rock and roll.
On Sundays, when WCCR was broadcast to all the dorms on campus, the signals were combined into stereo. The left channel was sent on 600 and the right channel on 650. And since virtually all the dorm rooms were doubles, and each student had a radio, students could tune one radio to 600 am and another radio to 650 am, and voila! Stereo! On AM radio!
WCCR was not broadcast through the air, but as a “carrier-current” radio station. That means that the signal was carried on the electrical system throughout the dorm (which was actually five buildings arranged around a large courtyard). It went right into plug-in radios through the electrical system, and it could also be picked up on battery radios as long as they were near an electrical cord.
I did my first radio show on WCCR in the winter of 1966-67. I wish I knew the exact date, but I really can’t even recall the month. Anyway, I soon had two weekly programs. Sunday evenings I did a folk show on 600, and Monday nights I did a rock and roll show on 650.
Fans! I developed a fan base! I had phone calls requesting songs! My high school dreams were coming true.
Meanwhile, I was taking a lot of classes that had nothing to do with broadcasting. Science, History, Philosophy. I found out after the fact that if I had taken a one-credit Rat Lab course, I would have earned a minor in Psychology. I had to take two years of French, and I never could figure out how that would do me a single bit of good in radio. I knew I’d never broadcast in French.
I hated French. I couldn’t do the pronunciations, I couldn’t understand the grammar, I was totally lost when the instructor spoke only French in the classroom. So when I could have been learning more and more about radio broadcasting, instead I was devoting two-thirds of my study time to French, a class that was totally worthless to me.
It took me three years to get through two years of French, and to this day I feel that my college experience could have been so much better had there been no mandatory foreign language requirement to steal time from the important stuff.
24 Credit Hours!
Because of the French debacle, and a physics class that stymied me (the instructor was from another planet where they spoke a language even more difficult than French), I was 24 credits shy of graduating as I entered my last semester.
My counselor told me I couldn’t take 24 hours in one semester. But I told him I’d be drafted at the end of the school year, degree or not, and he relented and okayed my schedule, with the stipulation that I would drop any classes that were holding me back.
That spring semester of 1969 was a blur. Besides taking 24 credit hours (12 hours being a full load), I was the program director of WCCR and I also wrote a weekly music column for a campus newspaper. I don’t remember any of it. (And no, I didn’t drink or do drugs).
The broadcast classes I took at Purdue were disappointing. My goal was to get into radio. But I had to take television classes, which had nothing to do with radio. And the radio classes I took didn’t really help me much either. I had a class in radio drama, for example. The school didn't understand that radio drama pretty much dried up when that new medium, television, came along. Other classes covered educational broadcasting (Classroom of the Air stuff), which was pretty alien to what I wanted to do, too.
There were no classes at all in contemporary or commercial radio. I learned more about the real world of radio at WCCR than I did in any of my classes. And I vowed that if I ever taught radio, I would teach the real world version, not the educational world version.
I graduated from Purdue that spring, and spent the next fall working as a carpenter for a prefabricated home company. And then in November, the Air Force called.
Okay, let’s talk a bit about the Air Force. Specifically, how they assign duties.
The military has two classes of soldiers: officers and enlisted. Officers are the ruling class, and enlisted are the slaves. When I signed up, the only officer openings were for pilots. And pilots had to join for six years instead of four.
Now, I joined the Air Force because I didn’t want to be drafted into the Army and go to Vietnam. Virtually all Army draftees went to Vietnam. So did virtually all Air Force pilots. So becoming a pilot was out of the question for me. Besides, I thought, I’m a college graduate. Surely as a college grad, I’ll be given a plush assignment in the enlisted ranks, right?
My first clue was that in my basic training group of 40 men, 28 were college graduates.
My second clue was that the drill instructor hated everybody, but he especially hated college graduates.
And my third clue was that he hated northerners even more.
But basic training was just six weeks. No problem. The important thing is that when I was in basic training, I took a qualification test for a broadcasting position in the Air Force, and I aced the test.
Because by passing the test, I disqualified myself from Air Force Broadcasting School. Now here’s the crazy part (as if they weren’t all crazy parts): Broadcasting school lasted three months. There were no openings for broadcasters when I finished basic training, but there would be openings in three months.
Had I failed that test, I would have been sent to broadcasting school, and then I would have gotten one of those broadcast slots and spent my Air Force career in the field I knew best: broadcasting.
But since I passed the test, and therefore already knew everything they taught, I was ineligible for broadcasting school. And they sure couldn’t just hold me for three months to wait for those jobs to open up.
So I was put in storage (they called it "casual") for two weeks before they shipped me out ... to medical school.
While I was waiting for my orders, I saw two guys with degrees in biochemistry shipped out to broadcasting school. So the medics became broadcasters, and the broadcaster became a medic.
Now tell me again why I shouldn’t hate the Air Force.
After medical school, I was sent to a tiny base in Selma, Alabama to be a medical administrator. Selma had three radio stations, and one of them, WHBB, had an opening for a nighttime DJ. Since I worked days, I was able to get permission to take the radio job. For the rest of my four years in the Air Force, all in Selma, I was a medical administrator by day and a DJ by night.
I also did the Sunday morning shift at WHBB, which consisted mostly of running the controls for ministers who came in every week to do live programs. Deacon Henry Smiley, a black preacher, was my favorite. While I was there, his church sent him to a convention in Washington, DC, and he was as excited as a kid. He was 45 years old and had never in his life been more than forty miles from the shack where he was born.
Deacon Smiley had sponsors for his program, and it was a bit disconcerting the first time I heard him do commercials for roach poison in the middle of a sermon.
When I got out of the Air Force, my wife Kathy was teaching fulltime, so we stayed in Selma. I started a photography business. I made a deal with the owner of the black newspaper in town – I’d write and do the photography for the paper in exchange for free studio and office space in the newspaper building. So for six months, I was the only white employee of the black newspaper in Selma, Alabama.
But I wanted to get back into radio. Lo and behold, the local CBS affiliate (WAMA – “Wama in Bama”) needed a midday DJ, and I was lucky enough to get the job. The pay was horrible - $130 a week I believe - but I was also doing wedding photography and shooting Friday night football games for the local daily, and my wife was still teaching.
I was at WAMA until they went out of business in early 1975. I knew they were having problems, but I didn’t realize it was that bad. The out-of-state owner had brought in a new general manager, and the format was changed from rock to a rock-country hybrid. But sales were horrible, and one day I came to work to find the doors padlocked. I never did get my last paycheck.
Radio Electronics Institute
About that time, I decided I should have an FCC First Class License. In those days, all radio announcers who kept broadcast transmitter logs were required to have a Third Class License. That meant you had to pass a fairly easy test on FCC rules and regulations and basic electronics.
The First Class License allowed you to legally build and repair transmitters. The test was very technical and very difficult. But a First Class License would open a lot of doors for you. A side note: before you could take the FCC test for the First Class License, you had to have a Second Class License, which was a huge step up from the Third Class License. Arg!
So I attended a five-week school in Fredericksburg, Virginia, called REI, the Radio Electronics Institute, in early 1976. I think it took four weeks to learn to pass the Second Class test, then just one additional week to learn the First Class material. All went smoothly, and with my First Class License in hand, it was time for another move.
We took a week’s vacation to visit Atlanta. We loved it and moved there without jobs. We rented an apartment, and I found work selling ticket packages for the Atlanta Braves while Kathy worked at a home for unwed mothers.
Atlanta had a community radio station, WRFG (" Radio Free Georgia"). A very strange station, run by volunteers who programmed some very eclectic radio shows. You could hear world music, counterculture political discussions, live bluegrass from the station lobby, and lesbian poetry. The most popular show was called The King of Schlock program, with bizarre music that made Dr. Demento sound mainstream.
I put together a sample program and applied for a show on WRFG. The board of directors approved, and I was soon on the air every Monday night for two hours. My show was called the Bargain Bin, and I played music I had bought from closeout tables in record stores - those three-for-a-dollar albums that nobody wanted. What a dream job! I could play what I wanted to play, and the audience liked it. I stayed with that show until we left Georgia.
Two days before Halloween, 1979, I happened to hear a brand-new radio station called WKRP. It was in Dallas, Georgia, about a half-hour’s drive from where I lived, and on a whim I took a tape and resume to the station.
My luck was unbelievable – one of their DJs had just walked out, and so the next day - Halloween - I was again a fulltime DJ. It was a hoot, because I was called by a lot of radio stations around the country and interviewed as the program director of the real WKRP. I held that slot for a year.
Just like with WAMA, there was a lot of turmoil at that station. In my year there, I served as DJ, sports director (doing play-by-play of the local high school basketball games), news director (putting together a half-hour newscast each afternoon), public service director, production director, and program director.
I also did Sunday mornings. Another preacher story: One of the ministers who had a 15-minute show every week was very dramatic, and I was afraid he was going to damage our audio board. He would talk normally for a while, then suddenly he would whisper. "My friends, do you believe?" Then even softer. "I said, do you believe?" As his volume dropped, I had to crank up his mike volume. Then a long pause, then suddenly he would shout at the top of his lungs, "DO YOU BELIEVE!"
The first time he did this I almost fell out of my chair. The little red needles on the volume meter flew to the right so hard they almost wrapped themselves around the stopper pin. I soon learned to keep my hand on that volume control whenever he was on the air, and to be ready for anything when he took a long pause.
Because the station had the call letters of the famous fictitious radio station/TV show, our secretary was nicknamed Jennifer. And incidentally, her husband John was a first cousin of the singer who did Ahab the Arab, Ray Stevens (or Ray Ragsdale, his real name).
The owners of WKRP were local builders who knew nothing about radio. The manager, who had been a TV newsman in Atlanta before he was hired to run the radio station, made many townspeople angry when at a local Rotary Club meeting he insulted the local newspaper. Thanks to that gaffe, some local sales were lost. He was soon replaced with a new manager who talked big but didn’t sell much. The format changed from rock to a rock-country hybrid. Deja vu! I knew the end was near. I didn't get along with the new GM (nor did anyone else at the station), and I wanted out.
And just about then, I got a phone call from my sister in Illinois. She read me a newspaper ad – the local community college needed an assistant general manager for their radio station.
That was the job I had wanted for years! To teach radio as it was in the real world, not the ivory tower version. I figured a two-year community college would be more receptive to a nuts-and-bolts, hands-on teaching style than would a four-year university.
Back to WKRP's problems: Sure enough, the station changed hands soon afterwards, and after failing to make any money for the new owner it was actually donated to a college when nobody would buy it, and even the college gave up on it after a while. Last I heard it had returned as a religious station.
I applied for the community college job and had an interview scheduled for Christmas eve morning, 1980. I was to talk with the Fine and Applied Arts department chairman and the director of broadcasting. There was a bad snowstorm the night before, and the school's director of broadcasting was snowed in at home.
While I was talking with the department chairman, a security policeman came in to tell us that if we didn’t leave in ten minutes we’d be snowed in. Neither of us wanted to spend Christmas in that office, so my interview was cut short. I did get to talk to the director of broadcasting by telephone, and he was sold on me because he was impressed with my First Class License (he was a ham and he knew radio engineering), but he was even more impressed with my knowledge of obscure sixties rock bands.
I started my new job when the new semester began, in January 1981.
The Parkland College radio station, WPCD, 88.7 FM, had a good signal with 3,300 watts. It covered several surrounding counties. The potential listening audience was over a quarter of a million people, and in the mid-1990's we raised our power to 10,500 watts.
After a year as assistant general manager, I was promoted to general manager, a position I held until I retired in June 2007.
In August 1981, I began teaching the basic radio broadcasting class. As I had vowed so many years earlier, I ran WPCD like a commercial radio station.
When I arrived at WPCD, there was a three-hour disco show followed by a three-hour country show followed by a three-hour rock show followed by a one-hour senior citizen discussion group. It was insane, and any audience the station might have had was sorely confused, I’m sure.
I reduced our “educational broadcasting” segments to short programs (three minutes or less) that aired at the bottom of the hour. I keyed our music playlist to the Billboard Top 40 chart (later the Radio and Records CHR chart), and I was very strict in making everyone stick to the playlist.
Our Students Get Hired
We began to sound like a professional radio station. And guess what – the local commercial stations started hiring our students in greater numbers than ever before. At one time, every single announcer (except the manager, who did morning drive) on the local oldies station had taken my class at Parkland.
I often got phone calls from program directors: “Who’s that on the air right now? Do you think they’d be interested in a job?” My students knew they were being heard and being hired, and that gave them the incentive to do their best whenever they were on the air.
Wall of Fame
As for success stories, we have hundreds of plaques on our Wall of Fame – students who went on to commercial radio and television. One of my students now does mornings on a show that is simulcast in both San Francisco and Sacramento, California. Another was a production director at the American Comedy Network before he started his own production company. One is doing television news in Orlando. Two others have left broadcasting for live comedy work in Los Angeles and Chicago.
True, most have left broadcasting. But even those whose trip to the stars fell short tell me that their radio careers were the most exciting times of their lives. And being in radio impresses people - including job interviewers. Several of my ex-students have told me they think they were hired because of their radio experience – even though their jobs have nothing to do with broadcasting.
Feel Good About Yourself
I tell potential students that taking a radio class will teach you a whole lot more than how to run an audio board. It is much like taking a basic speech class, in that it will boost your self-confidence and thereby make you a more vibrant, interesting human being.
Students can bring mom and dad through the radio station and say, “We have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment right here, and I know how to operate it, and they let me.”
I throw that last part in because I’m 60, and my mother still won’t let me touch her stereo.
Copyright 2007 by Dan Hughes