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Memories of Drunken College Hippie Radio Madness

This guy is obviously so 21st century. No convenient GUI interfaces were there for us back in the late 80s/early 90s. But what fun it was! Image by Matt McGee via Flickr. Image cropped. License.

I began my college Friday afternoons all enthusiastic, picking stacks of Oldies out of my very own dedicated cabinet, adding in more of my very own collections I hauled to the station in a couple of egg crates. I started out with a plan, a theme, like animals, or drugs, or drunken geniuses, you know, whatever struck me at 1:45 p.m. to make my 2:00 show about. (Well, sometimes I planned it, but it was usually scribbled on the back of an old playlist.) Hour one was usually fairly tight; then I would switch out with my co-host and walk down to a local bar/restaurant, where I would down a couple of drinks and say things to the patrons and bartenders that I might not remember later.

Then the return; the slur is evident in my not-quite smooth DJ voice, but the element of play is dancing beneath each badly intoned syllable. I’m a drunk DJ; only on college radio. No, I’m sure it happens in professional radio too, only they’re more ingenious in the coverup. Maybe they just had more practice. I just don’t care. I get in the groove, play the music I like, because it’s my specialty show — pop and rock from the 1950s to around 1975. When I started the show, 1975 was only 11 years past.

I would switch out with my co-host and walk down to a local bar/restaurant, where I would down a couple of drinks and say things to the patrons and bartenders that I might not remember later.

I carry on a stream of consciousness between mandated PSA’s and station drops, and the all-important top of the hour Station ID. Every now and then there’s the discord of an EBS test.

By the time the show ends, I’m pleasantly plastered, but not so much that I can’t stand up and drag my egg crates full of records into a handy production room that I can lock and keep them safe inside until I sober up enough to drive home with them. They’re a pain to lug manually. Or I hang out with the people doing the show after mine.

There were other nights when I gave up sleep to do an overnight show, because I felt at home spinning records. I could say really off-the-wall stuff at 3 a.m., things I’d get in trouble for if I said them at noon.

I hung out so long that I became part of the show, and that production room became my palace. I produced comedy skits on cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes while the DJs spun their magic on the air. Then I dropped the skits onto “carts” that played like 8-tracks and delivered them just in time for their allotted spots. That show was a favorite of 7th graders everywhere, but it was supposed to be for college students. The comedy was real lowbrow but intelligently written.

I ended up spending my Friday nights pretty much living in the radio station. There were other nights when I gave up sleep to do an overnight show, because I felt at home spinning records. I could say really off-the-wall stuff at 3 a.m., things I’d get in trouble for if I said them at noon. I preferred the life of the night DJ. I developed my skill for pulling records out of their sleeves and twirling them several times, before plopping them expertly onto the turntable. Sometimes I altered the music by pulling the record back and forth under the needle as it played (the characteristic “record scratching” of early rap music). It was sooo much fun.

The movements were different than they would be today, the groove a series of small easy gestures, a dance of voice, records, and magnetic tape.

As with all things, the magic drained out of it eventually, probably because I was thrown off the air by a station manager whose political motivations were obvious. He had thrown the DJs that did the show after mine (see above) off the air, and because I was their ally, he went after me. He took my show, and I had to clear out all my personal records. Now they take up a bunch of room in my dining room area, opposite the bookshelves that make up my Amazon Marketplace storage.

Every now and then, I dig the junk off a 1966 console Magnavox record player and spin some favorites. That console is loud and reminds me of the immersion into pure sound that was the insulated radio production room or the On the Air cubicle that felt like the joy of aloneness but connected me to so many across that little college town.

The station headquarters has devolved from a groovy student hangout, to a dentist’s office, to what looks more like a Federal building than a college one.

I wonder if I could still DJ. The boards would be different today, computerized. The one I worked on had dial potentiometers; I would mix channels with the smoothness of a slowly rotating wrist. The movements were different than they would be today, the groove a series of small easy gestures, a dance of voice, records, and magnetic tape. So different from the flow of the computerized system.

Arrakis…Dune…desert planet* — that was its name. It was a computerized radio station system that I never learned to use, as it was installed a year or so after my unceremonious ejection from the station. I lived through a few restructurings of the college radio station, from its original incarnation as a couple of converted classrooms in the basement of a particularly iconic 9 story building on campus to its move to a different basement that was more like a dentist’s office — in fact, that’s how we referred to it.

Now I find that the campus radio station operates out of a building that wasn’t even a twinkle in the architect’s eye when I left back in the mid-1990’s. The station headquarters has devolved from a groovy student hangout, to a dentist’s office, to what looks more like a Federal building than a college one. It seems like everything is getting more clinical, less spontaneous. But I still have the memories, although the bodily memories, the mindless performance of complex radio operations, have faded. I wonder if I’d have the potential for an online radio station? But where would I PUT it? 😎

*The system brand was Arrakis, but I always said that mantra “Arrakis…Dune…desert planet,” because that was a voiced thought of Paul Atreides (played by Kyle MacLachlan) in the 1984 move Dune. My little scifi referential…


Endnote: The idea for this story was dredged up by Jack Preston King (perhaps unbeknownst to him), because he fished out a reference that resonated with my radio days here:

I used to call Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” my “bathroom song.” At nearly 20 minutes long, I had time to read a newspaper and do my business in time to get back before the wrap-up. I always loved this tune. Thanks, Jack! Loved the cartoons.

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