October 1978: Right Down the Line
In the fall of 1978, I became a radio guy. I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, majoring in radio and television. I couldn't wait to start working at the campus radio station, WSUP. I was on the music staff at first, having sufficiently impressed the music director with my knowledge of the arcane. One of my first assignments was to pull 45s from the library to put in the studio bin for airplay, and I still remember how it felt to hear on the air one of the songs I had picked.
But I wanted to be behind the microphone. Before I could do that, I had to get my license. In those days, on-air people who operated a station's transmitter needed a third-class radiotelephone operator's license. To get that, you had to pass an actual federal test. In October, I took the four-session prep course the university offered, but was disappointed to find that the test wouldn't be offered at the Federal Building in Madison on a Saturday until December. However, I found out I could take it in Rock Island, Illinois, in November--and so, one fine Saturday, I went there--2 1/2 hours each way.
I passed the test and got the license. A couple of weeks later, it came in the mail--a government-issued certificate with seals and signatures and everything. Next, I had to make an audition tape in the station's production studio ("The Cave") and submit it to the chief announcer so I could be "cleared for air." I must have impressed him. Normally, freshmen didn't get to do morning shifts, but it was finals week and the chief announcer badly needed a morning off, so on Thursday, December 14, 1978, from 6 to 9AM, I did my first real radio show. (First song: "Everybody Needs Love" by Stephen Bishop.) With a little help from the newsman (who's now a writer and anchor with ABC Radio in New York), I made it through the morning, and shortly before the end of the show, the program director came into the studio. He asked, "Are you sure you've never done this before?" Almost 28 years later, it's the highest compliment I've ever gotten for anything I've ever done. To tell the truth, however, I had done it before--in my head and in my dreams for a lot of years leading up to that day.
There were better songs on the radio than "Everybody Needs Love" in October 1978, including:
"Hot Child in the City"/Nick Gilder. On my second day on the air, I played the album version of this, from City Nights, which has a different ending, instead of the single, as the station's format required. I must have felt pretty comfortable to be breaking the rules on my second damn day.
"Reminiscing"/Little River Band. This song is capable of transporting me back to my dorm room in McGregor Hall, which I occupied for only a couple of months before moving in with a friend from home, who lived in another dorm. There were nine of us from my graduating class at Platteville that fall. One of the nine was my on-again, off-again girlfriend. We were on again, briefly, at the start of the year, only to end up off again soon thereafter, permanently.
"Who Are You"/The Who. I actually got on TV at Platteville before I got on the radio. For a week in September I anchored sports on the campus station's 5PM newscast. I remember it every time I hear "Who Are You"--Keith Moon's death was the newscast's lead story one night. The experience taught me to stay the hell away from the business end of a television camera--I never went back in front of one.
"Right Down the Line"/Gerry Rafferty. City to City is one of those albums that grows in my estimation as the years pass. There's a warmth and intelligence on that record I couldn't have articulated in 1978, although I certainly felt it. Whenever "Right Down the Line" came on back then, it always gave me a lift, which I often needed as I navigated my new world.
"Love Is in the Air"/John Paul Young. This record doesn't involve very much--an insistent bass line, some high-hat cymbal, rhythm guitar, piano--and the lyrics aren't much, rhyming "look around" with "sight and sound." But put it all together and "Love Is in the Air" works spectacularly well, especially the way it keeps going up the scale and building in intensity. If it went on for 15 minutes, I'd keep listening.
October's almost over, but we'll make it to 1979 before November arrives. Coming next: the girl in the red-and-white sweater.