(Pictured: two Dubuque, Iowa, landmarks: the Washington Square Park gazebo and the Town Clock.)
During the first week of April 1979, the #1 country song was “I Just Fall in Love Again” by Anne Murray. Barbara Mandrell was in the Top 10 with a cover of the deep-soul hit “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right).” On the Hot 100, the Top Five were the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy,” “I Will Survive,” “What a Fool Believes,” Donna Summer’s “Heaven Knows” and “Shake Your Groove Thing.” Billboard‘s Top LPs and Tape chart was led by the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown, the Doobies’ Minute by Minute, Dire Straits, Love Tracks by Gloria Gaynor, and Rod Stewart’s Blondes Have More Fun. In that same week, I got my first paying radio job, at KDTH and D93 in Dubuque.
It took a fair amount of stones to apply for a paying part-time radio job within a month of doing my first-ever shift on the college station. A couple of people I knew from school were already working at KDTH, and I must have figured why not me? I sent applications to both KDTH and WDBQ, and KDTH bit first. (When the guy from WDBQ called, I said I’d be willing to work for them, too, but “It’s either one or the other, son.”)
At the interview, I sold my thin credentials and glittering promise. They were enough to get me on Sundays from noon til 6. The shift involved board-opping the noon news and running a public-affairs program until about 12:30, then me playing DJ before the syndicated Sunday at the Memories, a nostalgia show that ran from 1:00 to 5:00. After that it was more news and public affairs, and then another half-hour of tunes and topics starring me. I also had to see to the automation system that ran the FM station, D93—change song reels when they ran out, pre-record the weather (which ran an incredible three times an hour in those days), and take transmitter readings for both stations.
I did nothing but Sunday afternoons for a while, although eventually I board-opped Iowa football on Saturday afternoons, played music on Saturday and Sunday nights, and even did the occasional weekend morning. The latter shifts came with their own challenges—Saturday mornings were very much like weekday mornings, with lots of stuff to fit in on a tight schedule, and I got very little training for it, which is to say none. Sunday mornings included a 30-minute buy-and-sell show (“no mattresses, guns, automobiles, or real estate”) that required me to take calls from listeners, usually the same people trying to get rid of the same crap week after week. One Sunday, it was my bad luck that all of the music reels on the D93 automation ran out during the show, and I was trapped on the air in the other studio with no way to get over there to fix it. The automation had a dot-matrix printer that recorded what actually ran, so that it could be verified against the scheduled program log. After I managed to get the music reloaded, it printed error messages for half-an-hour.
I don’t remember much about the program director who hired me, except that he was pretty much all business, he airchecked me on my very first day, and he left shortly after I got hired. He was replaced by a more affable guy who would remain the program director almost to the end of my tenure. I learned a lot from him, but he must have had a saint’s patience too, because I was really, really green, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know, while at the same time thinking I knew a lot more than I did. When I had the chance to work a fulltime gig at another station during the summer of 1980, he was kind enough to let me go and take me back in the fall; when I was looking for a fulltime job at the end of college in 1982, he thought enough of me to jigger the schedule and bring me aboard to do afternoons.
Forty years later, KDTH is still in my head as what a radio station ought to be—a well-equipped, well-run operation with a strong commitment to full service, deeply entwined with the community. Today, I stand on the shoulders of some of the broadcasters I met there. I was lucky to start my career in a place such as that.