Like most colleges, mine had a radio station. WHRB served a large audience in and around the Cambridge and Boston area, with a variety of news and music, ranging from classical to jazz to rock. Like many popular campus activities, if you wanted to work at the radio station, you had to “comp” – which I suppose was short for “compete” to get into the area you were interested in. I don’t know what the requirements were for all the departments, but I knew about two of them: Engineering and Rock.
My friend Steve was really hot on the Engineering department, and I was interested as well. At the time (shortly before the end of the Cretaceous Period), the radio station had turntables for vinyl records, and reel-to-reel tape players, and forty billion knobs, buttons and lights. To become a member of the Engineering department, you had to study for and pass the Second-Class Controller’s Test or SC2T. This test was a high-pressure hands-on simulation of running the studio – cuing up tapes, hitting the right buttons and turning the right dials at the right time, etc. I trained a bit for it, but really basically sucked, so I never took the test. (Steve flew through it and joined the Engineering department.)
As tough as the SC2T was, as hard as it was to become a studio engineer at the station, the Rock comp – which was where my interests really lay – was worse. Others have commented on the pretentious snobbery of college music reviewers. Well, let me tell you, those proto-hipsters had nothing on the Rock department. This was first and foremost a club, and clubs are meant to be exclusive. To comp into Rock, you had to sit for a 50- or 60-question written exam, which essentially consisted of the most obscure music trivia you could imagine. Several of my freshman dormmates were so steeped in the history and arcana of rock music that they breezed through. I listened to a lot of good and interesting music – even some obscure stuff – but I hadn’t made a study of it. I suppose it made some sense to have a high barrier – after all, if you’re on the air, you have to be able to say something about the music you’re playing other than the name of the song and the band – but the snobbery of those in the department to anybody who couldn’t identify the lead singer of the Seeds (hint: Sky Saxon) was palpable and intense.
But I really wanted in. So I took the test, probably two or three times, and finally got into the department. Whereupon I became a raging snobby asshole about music. No, not really. In fact, I had barely scraped by on the test, and I think the rest of the department looked at me like a special-needs charity case. On the plus side, my abortive efforts to handle the engineering stuff meant I was able to operate the turntables and microphones in the studio without too much of that bane of radio stations everywhere: Dead Air. I got good enough that I was able to start a 30-second song, cue up the next song, check levels, and segue the songs without missing a beat.
The Rock department had a regular late-night show – called either “Plastic Passions” or “Record Hospital” at the time, I can’t remember when it changed – and for one summer, I had a shift (shared with another DJ) one night a week. I would ride my bike to the studio and do the show and then ride back to my crummy apartment at 1:00 or 1:30 in the morning. I muddled through the shows as best I could, trying hard not to embarrass myself, particularly since the girl I shared the time slot with knew a boatload more about music than I did. (I still remember one gaffe when, after playing a song by the Descendants, I referred to them as “local,” despite the fact that we were about 3,000 miles away from anywhere they could be deemed local. I tried to cover by pointing out that I had spent the previous year living in Los Angeles. I’m not sure it worked, and I still bear the scars of the scorn in my partner’s eyes and voice. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I do remember the incident.)
Our show took requests, and for a while we had a regular caller, some kid asking us to play Institutionalized by Suicicidal Tendencies. Since we didn’t get a ton of requests, I played it for him whenever he called in, which was every week. The song itself is a shouty emo rant peppered with power-punk guitar and drum riffs, and I can see why it would appeal to a certain type of angsty teenager. I am not sure why he needed to hear it every week – maybe I was the only DJ willing to play it when he asked. After several weeks of this, I was instructed by the head of the Rock department that I shouldn’t fulfill that request any more. Apparently we were giving the song too much airplay. Maybe the song was too well known – it had featured in the movie Repo Man – so it didn’t fit the show’s image of being on the bleeding edge of the rock (especially punk) music world. In any event, I had to ignore those requests. Fortunately, the summer was almost over, and with it, my career as a radio personality. I was still a member, but I don’t think I did much at the station after that, other than use its facilities to record the one and only episode of Time Patrol, an hilariously bad, yet good-grade-garnering, project Steve and I put together for a seminar. Perhaps I’ll tell you more about that another time.