Turn It On Again

It’s 25 years this week since Mount St. Helens blew in Washington State, which happened the same week I started my favorite summer radio gig, at WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois.

During the 1970s, Freeport, a town of 20,000 or so about 20 miles south of my Wisconsin hometown, had not one but two extremely good Top 40 stations, although their glory days were not in direct competition with one another. During the middle part of the decade, WACI was the powerhouse, with live jocks in all dayparts. By the end of the decade, WFRL was the better of the two, an AM/FM simulcast with an extremely strong jock lineup–one of them ended up on the air in Detroit and Chicago and eventually went into consulting.

By the summer of 1980, WFRL had separated its AM and FM. The FM, now called WXXQ, had remained a rocker, although it had struggled through a couple of different guises. By 1980, the owner had decided to try a fairly tight classic rock format. My old friend Shark (a regular reader and commenter on this blog) was already working part-time there, and one night that spring I got a breathless phone call from him telling me to stay right where I was, because any minute now I was going to get a call from the PD, who was looking for jocks for the new format. A couple of hours later, the PD did indeed call, and we set up an interview. Just as it took him two hours to call me the first time, the PD was also two hours late for my interview (which happened to occur on the same weekend the woman who is now The Mrs. met my parents for the first time). That I would get the job, however, was pretty much a foregone conclusion. And a couple of weeks later, I became the night guy at WXXQ.

It was a pretty sweet gig for a 20-year-old college kid. I was on the air Sunday through Friday nights from six to midnight, so I had Saturday nights to party with my friends at home. I was paid the princely sum of $135 a week, but I was living at home, so my only expenses were gasoline and beer. And we pretty much rocked all the time–many were the times I’d say, “We’ll roll five hours commercial-free right after this message.”

The studios were located on the 12th floor of a bank building, one of the tallest buildings for miles around, which added to the cachet of the place. We watched the fireworks from three northern Illinois towns on the Fourth of July, but my favorite story involving the building comes from the night Shark, who was doing mornings on the station and had nothing better to do a lot of evenings, came up to hang out with me. He was a maniac air-guitarist, an exhibitionist of the first degree, and put on an extremely acrobatic performance one night to “Borrowed Time” by Styx. Just after he finished, the phone rang. “Hey,” the listener said. “When are you gonna do that again?” Well, the whole streetside wall was glass, after all.

In addition to being a sweet gig for a rock-and-radio obsessed college kid who didn’t need very much money, it was also one of the most agreeable jobs I ever would ever have. The office was already closed by the time I got to work, and after the AM signed off at sundown, I had the place to myself–just me and the AP wire machine and a black-and-white TV set in the newsroom in case the Cubs game was on TV.

(The AM was an adult-contemporary station, and not a bad one, although the PD decided to staff the short evening shift, 6PM to sunset, with a rotation of two high-school girls who had been recommended to him by a speech teacher. They proved to be utterly hopeless. One night during a severe weather alert, I went into the AM studio to find one of them just sitting there, frozen, with dead air and no clue about what to do next. It wasn’t long before Shark recruited another college friend, Ron, to come to Freeport and take over the AM evening shifts. Ron also moved in with Shark, and that meant more than one post-midnight pizza and beer gathering after I got off the air.)

I got to interview Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere from Dr. Hook that summer, as part of the publicity for their appearance at one of the county fairs. (I still have the tape, but I’m afraid to listen to it.) The last broadcasts I did on the station were remotes from another of the county fairs in the region, in late August just before school started again. At the time, I didn’t really consider quitting school and keeping the job–I had one semester to go as program director of my college radio station, and was pretty focused on building a career. (A few months later, however, I regretted it, and even made a call back to the PD about getting my job back, but I couldn’t pull the trigger on leaving school.) Given what my radio career became, I would probably have done just as well without the radio/TV degree I eventually got–although the degree, such as it was, paved the way for the additional education I got in my 30s when I decided to get the hell out of radio for good and all, so it wasn’t a total loss.

When I think about that summer now, I don’t necessarily remember being on the air right away. What I remember first is signing the station off at midnight, and if there was no production to do (and there rarely was), being down in the parking lot by 12:05 and on my way home. In my mind’s eye, I can still drive Illinois 26 through that steamy midwestern summer, across the state line and back to the house I had grown up in. (In the fall to come, I’d move to an off-campus apartment at college and never again live full-time at home.) Many were the nights I’d stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and wake up at noon to start another day–another day in the life of a rock jock, the only life I’d ever seriously wanted to have.

One thought on “Turn It On Again

  1. Anonymous

    That was a GREAT summer. There was a line in a Bob Seger song, “Against the Wind” that didn’t mean much back in 1980, but it sure rings true today—“I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” That was a summer when it was great to be young and foolish…I can still picture you in your “WIBA Radio Free Madison” T-shirt and playing “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” by Elton John late at night.
    Of course, when you’re playing five hours of commercial-free music, you’re 20 years old, and you’re 12 floors up on the the top of a building overlooking a beautiful summer night, you don’t have a worry in the world.
    Ahhh…the good old days!
    —Shark

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