(Pictured: the Pointer Sisters circa 1980. Not exactly rock ‘n’ roll.)
It was the spring semester of 1979 at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and at WSUP, the campus radio station, some of the jocks were a little discontented.
Each year, at the end of the fall semester, a new executive staff was elected: people ran for various management positions and were chosen by ballot, and the new staff would take over in January. WSUP had been playing the hits like a Top 40 station for a long while, and it even had jingles singing the call letters. But in January 1979, the new executive staff decided to dump the Top 40 elements and turn WSUP into an album-rock station.
Platteville is in the far southwestern part of the state, deep in farm country, about 70 highway miles from Madison and 20 miles northeast of Dubuque, Iowa. Platteville’s population back then was about 10,000. The university enrollment in 1979 was another 5,000 or so. While there were some kids from Milwaukee and Madison, a significant plurality came from small towns and cities in Wisconsin, and they pretty much reflected the farm-country demographic. Thinking back, I can recall maybe a half-dozen minority students in the broadcasting program the whole time I was there. If those numbers held across campus, that would have made the school more than 95 percent white.
While a program director is the person in charge of day-to-day on-air stuff, a music director has a great deal of influence on the station’s sound. As it happened, an African-American student had been elected music director in December. And although he was onboard with the decision to adopt an album-rock format, he programmed music so that WSUP became an album-rock station with a distinct R&B/jazz/funk flavor.
While there was a format clock to follow that specified which categories of music to play and when, the jocks had some latitude to pick and choose within many categories. We could go back into the record library closet and dig for obscure oldies if we wanted to. But the current music categories were fairly limited—we had to play whatever was in the studio bin. And that’s where the R&B, jazz, and funk were the heaviest. So a jock might find himself playing a set of Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin, and Cream—followed by Bobby Caldwell singing “What You Won’t Do for Love.”
A lot of the jocks—most of whom were white boys between the ages of 19 and 22—didn’t like it much. In the disco-drenched spring of 1979, we felt we were being asked to play a lot of music that didn’t belong on an album-rock station. We wondered why so many current rock hits were missing, and why we were playing Pointer Sisters album cuts instead.
I cannot say that there was general racial tension around the station because I don’t remember that. But I do remember to complaining to friends (and hearing them complain as well) that the format was schizophrenic—and too black for a campus with such a small minority population.
One day on the air I came out of a set that rocked pretty hard and said, “You aren’t gonna hear that stuff at Studio 54.” It took 30 seconds for the music director to come into the studio and tell me that he considered my comment to be a personal insult.
He wasn’t wrong.
I don’t know what went on behind the scenes among the executive staff as the semester went on. I was still only a freshman, and not entitled to be plugged in to any of the high-level decisionmaking. But I seem to recall that by springtime, we were rockin’ a little bit more and funkin’ a little bit less. And if I’m recalling correctly, the music director left school at the end of the semester. In the fall, his replacement turned us into the kind of album-rocker we thought we were going to be in the spring.
I’ve got no philosophical point to make here and no conclusion to draw. This purpose of this post is simply to narrate an incident from 40 years ago this spring.
It seemed like a big deal then, as many things do in the moment, as many things do when we’re 19. Looking back, maybe I wish that 19-year-old-me had been a little more open to things that didn’t comport with his opinion of the way the world should be.
And not just in that instance.