(Welcome to 1980 week. The link above is an optional soundtrack for this post.)
Thirty-five years ago this summer, I was working my first full-time radio job. I got the gig through a college friend, and from May to August 1980 I was on the air from 6 to midnight, Sunday through Friday, on WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois. Several of my colleagues that summer were people I had heard when I was still just dreaming of radio. Because of my hours, I rarely saw any of them, but it was enough to know they were there. And that I was one of them.
My nightly routine rarely changed. It was my last summer living in Mom and Dad’s house, and I could get to work in about a half-hour. So I’d leave about 5:00, park in the lot of the State Bank building in downtown Freeport, and ride the elevator up to the 12th floor. The station ran an album-rock format, and since the format was very new, we were turning over the strongest songs in our library very, very quickly, so that anybody sampling us stood a good chance of hearing something they’d like. I would sometimes play “Stairway to Heaven” or “Aqualung” twice in a six-hour shift—and I complained about that all summer.
My show did not have a lot of commercials. The first hour, technically a part of afternoon drive-time, usually did, but after 7:00, there wasn’t much, mostly ads for Pepsi products or other ads placed by regional ad agencies that could get the time for next to nothing. But on some nights, especially Sundays, even next-to-nothing was too expensive. More than once I went into the break at 6:50 by saying, “We’ll roll five hours commercial-free right after this.”
After the station signed off at midnight, I would occasionally have a bit of production to do, either recording a script over a music bed or dubbing some produced spots for use on the air. That kind of work happened just infrequently enough to be a treat. More often, however, I’d be in the parking lot by 12:05. On an occasional Friday night, I’d meet up with the two college friends who worked at the station and lived in Freeport. We’d split a pizza, have a beer or two, and talk about the stuff 20-year-old guys talk about. But on most other nights, I’d simply back out of my parking space, get on Highway 26, and drive north.
As I think back on that summer now, the most vivid memories involve the drive home. Having just listened to six hours of music, I wanted to hear voices, so I would listen to WBBM, the all-news station from Chicago. By August, I could have driven home with my eyes closed, navigating by what was on WBBM at any given moment, knowing I was in Cedarville or Orangeville or Oneco based on what I was hearing, up familiar hills and around familiar curves, bugs whacking the windshield. I would roll into the driveway at home between 12:35 and 12:40, let myself into the darkened house and rummage in the refrigerator, where I would sometimes find a plate of whatever the family had for dinner, carefully wrapped up for me to microwave if I chose. Sometimes I’d go immediately to bed, but other times I would stay up for a while, reading and listening to the radio, or watching whatever one might find on broadcast TV in the middle of the night, in the days of the three-channel universe. And in the morning, at 10 or 11 or noon, I’d get up for another day.
I have some letters I wrote that summer, and they reveal that I experienced the same regular workaday frustrations that come with any job—colleagues who seemed dense, rules that seemed arbitrary. I missed my girlfriend and I occasionally chafed at my parents’ expectations. But those are the incidents that will be left out of the story when I tell it years later, the story of a radio man doing radio, blissfully ignorant of what I didn’t know, making $135 a week.