If I had intended to become a rock D.J. I wouldn’t have known where to start.
With resources and the recognition of opportunity
Anthropology degree in hand, my one practical job skill was broadcast DJ, hard-won such as it was on a few graveyard shifts at the college radio station. To be clear, I was terrible. Having been in the Youth Symphony and lettering in Madrigal vocal music in high school, mixing music came naturally. But I was painfully bashful behind an open mic. Who cared what I had to say.
I followed my roommate to her hometown in Nashville to start my new life with the only entertainment connections I had through her family. First there was the job doing distribution of a nascent culture-politics weekly paper. Our workspace was an antebellum waterfront warehouse with no amenities — toilets, cooling/heating, clean air, decent lighting.
Me being the only one who knew how, I got the task of producing our paper’s weekly promo spot for the two big rock radio stations. At night we’d go to WROC’s swanky corporate studios to record. I’d hand the tape to the DJ and next day it was on the air. For the other radio station, WKDF with the huge hearts-and-minds listenership, the tape was hand-delivered to the Program Director.
Except the second time, the Saturday of Independence Day weekend. Being conscientious, aware of the agreement between the station and our paper, I called the DJ on the air. He was understanding but no, he could not accept the tape if I dropped it off, much less get it on the air.
Then he says, “Hey, aren't you the new female DJ? You just moved here, right?”
“Well, get over here! We need a female jock.” *
Note taken. The following Monday WKDF’s Program Director was filling in on the morning show, giving away tickets to a concert. I was the winning 6th caller. I told him my name and also by the way I had the promo tape I’d produced. He informed me that I needn’t call in to get concert tickets — the first moment I realized I had some power.
Later, seated in his office he gave me the tickets and I passed him the promo tape. Then I told him I heard he was looking for a DJ.
FCC license: check. Air sample tape: check.
Cut forward a week. I earn a pathetic salary with no useful benefits. I’m covering the six-hour graveyard shift. I’m terrible. But it’s okay because overnight is the one daypart that is not Arbitron-rated so I wasn’t affecting revenue. Every night I identify my own inadequacies to fix by the end of the week, starting with conversationally reading the weather forecast without sounding like a dork.
Participant observation as a female rock D.J.
This being Nashville, the station consensus was that I needed a relatable persona. Specifically, it was said, I needed to be a motorcycle momma. Exhibit a less extensive vocabulary, they said, and more of an attitude.
Me doing this would require taking up smoking and drinking hard liquor excessively. I was impressionable and wanted to succeed, but no. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know that woman, and anyone who did know that woman would know I was faking it.
Cut forward several years later. Same station, different program director. Now I’m on the 8-midnight shift — the hardest hard core rock daypart. It’s the nighttime sound track for students, grocery store clerks, people in their cars, and the Nashville recording industry.
By this time my vocal delivery shtick was down and I was a master mixer of LP vinyl. In the early 80s people didn't know it was a cultural renaissance; they just knew it was a party. Euro New Wave, punk, rap/hip-hop, LA garage, heavy metal. “Dearly be-lov-ed…”
But I was no motorcycle momma. Did market expectations change? Or did my station underestimate their audience’s tolerance for female stereotype range? I think a bit of both. Nashville had been a hard rock and Southern rock kind of town. With the national influence of MTV, ingrained locally by East Coast-native Vanderbilt students and session musicians, the Confederate flag-waving good old boys retreated for a while.
The comedian Chris Rock says that on stage he’s just a larger version of himself. I made an oath to myself early in my career that I would never say anything on the air that I would regret when I got home. So that’s me, too. I was myself, only expanded — more of a presence.
But “who” was I? I was not a Southerner and no party girl. I grew up in a strictly classical music household. Still, I had the highest ratings of any regional radio station during my daypart.
The station management suggested I do a poster a la Stevie Nicks. Like this:
One day my Program Director, a New Yorker, decided he knew who I was.
“Your audience is a 13-year-old boy. He’s got an older brother in high school who he looks up to. This brother has a girlfriend. She hangs out at the house, and she talks to the younger brother, shares popcorn him.”
“She’s friendly, but the girlfriend is also a romantic figure. She is unattainable but approachable. The boy can smell her perfume, watch her brush her hair, and see how his brother takes care of her. To the boy, she is a girl-next-door version of Marilyn Monroe.”
“You’re the girlfriend.”
There were other visions. Backstage at a street concert someone told me I didn’t look how he expected.
Me: “Let me guess. You thought I’d have flowing jet black hair, wear a bustier and high boots, and carry a whip.”
Him: (meekly) “Yeah...”
Different 13 year old boy, different imagination.
Seems that identity can be formed with just a voice and personality (with a soundtrack). I still sometimes resist conforming to or even adopting contrary identities imposed by others’ imaginations, how they expect me to be. Being a public figure brings out the most vivid, the easiest to spot from a distance and duck.
- A few years later that DJ shot himself. A Vietnam War vet casualty not on that wall in Washington DC. RIP Steve.