Saturday, April 9, 2050

How I Became An '80s Rock & Roll Radio Disc Jockey

Gerry Moylan on-air 1982 Photo by
Marcia P.
Near the end of first semester of my sophomore year at Southeastern Massachusetts University, Darmouth (today it's UMass Dartmouth), I was looking for some extra-curricular activities. One of my English professors suggested that I write for The Torch, the university’s weekly school newspaper. So I did.
I started writing funny stories about benign things like the shepherd’s pie they served in the school cafeteria. What did they put inside that pile of mush anyway? Then I moved onto deeper, more thoughtful stories. A young man I knew had gone missing after an off-campus party one night. I had attended the same kegger. Months later, after the winter thaw, his deflated body was found on the bank of the Westport River. He must have become
disoriented when he left the party that night and walked across the ice-covered river out behind the house, thinking it was the snow-covered field that led to the road, then fallen through and drowned.
In addition to writing for the school newspaper, I had also helped with production and laying out the paper late into the night before we went to press. It was an impressive operation, and working with a couple dozen other students to put out a quality newspaper each week was exciting. Drinking soda and eating pizza while music from the college radio station blared from the stereo in the production office, we painstakingly cut and pasted stories and photos onto large layout boards that would then be sent off to the printer. The next day, stacks of newspapers would greet students and faculty at the campus center and other strategic locations around campus.
One night, just before we went to press, a couple of us were in the Torch offices talking about what great new music the campus radio station was playing. It was nothing like what I had been used to hearing on commercial radio. They were playing The Pretenders, Talking Heads and Joy Division. Working at the paper was how I discovered WUSM. Another writer told me they were looking for disc jockeys, since a bunch of them had just graduated and left the school station short-handed. The Torch office and production space was directly across the hall from the radio station’s broadcast studios. I was nearing the halfway point of my sophomore year and was content working for the paper, but the thought of playing music and being a disc jockey was intriguing to me. It had never occurred to me that there was a radio station on campus when I had applied for enrollment. Is this how the DJs I’d grown up listening to on the radio got started? I wondered.
One afternoon, I decided to take a walk across the hall and check out WUSM. The hallway leading to the radio station was not quite what I’d expected. The walls were gray concrete, typical of those throughout the campus. SMU was one giant block of concrete, very modern and futuristic for the time. There was a story circulating over the years that the architect who had designed the university in the early sixties had climbed the tower in the center of campus and jumped to his death, once construction had been completed. The same tower a friend and I had climbed freshman year while tripping on acid. I recently googled the architect and found the story was not true.
Architect Paul Rudolph lived to the ripe old age of seventy-nine when he died in New York. Like the story of a famous musician who swallowed so much sperm after giving blow jobs to an entire soccer team that he had to have his stomach pumped, the story was just another urban legend.
For some reason I thought there would be all kinds of cool people hanging out in the winding hallway that led to the school’s radio station. Strumming on guitars or dressed like punk rockers. Nope. It was deserted. Maybe this was a bad time, I thought. No rock star posters on the walls. I crept along the hallway, following the signs toward the studio, stopping every few feet to contemplate heading back to the newspaper office and forgetting the crazy notion of maybe becoming a radio DJ. But for some reason I continued, driven by something, maybe those voices I’d idolized all those years as a kid as I listened to my portable radio.
As I got closer, I heard music coming from further down the seemingly endless hallway. I became more nervous. Do you really think they would let you become a DJ? I thought.  This would just be embarrassing. Here’s how I thought the conversation would go:
Do you have any DJ experience?
Just listening to the radio, but other than that… no.
Do you have a good voice?
I’m not sure.
I’m sorry, but who are you kidding?
As I neared the end of the hallway, there was a large white sign with black lettering. WUSM Studio A. Next to it, a light box sign read ON THE AIR, but it wasn’t lit. God, this was a huge mistake, I told myself. This is probably a restricted area. My heart raced like it had the times when I got into trouble with my friends back home after stealing liquor from a neighbor’s house or siphoning gas from a car across town. I took a deep breath and opened the door to the studio. That led to a confined space lit only by the dim light coming through a small window. I stepped up and peered through the double-paned plexiglass.
There was a surfer-dude looking guy, with long dirty blonde hair that hung over one eye as he sat at a big control panel, his head tilted to one side. He was putting a vinyl record onto a turntable. A microphone hung in front of his face, attached to a spring-loaded boom so you could pull it close to speak or push it out of the way. Holy shit!  He was the DJ.  I turned around to leave, but the studio door opened and the muffled music now boomed. I froze. Out stepped a lanky, almost cartoony guy. I turned to face him. He was maybe a couple years older than I.
“How’s it going?” he said. He reached out to shake my hand. “I’m Joe Parola, Program director for W-U-S-M.”
Hi, I’m a red-headed geek that’s wandered into a place where I shouldn’t be, with some crazy notion that I could actually be a DJ.
Those were just my thoughts, since I seemed to have lost the ability to speak. We shook hands, and I finally got out one word. “Hi,” I said.
“Are you here to apply for a jock position?”
I thought about his question for a moment and then just said the first thing I could think of. “Yeah, I was kinda thinking of checking it out,” I said. Not much confidence. “I actually just started writing for the school newspaper across the hall and noticed you guys over here.”
“Oh, very cool. Ever been on the air or run a board?”
I shook my head.
“That’s okay,” he said. “You gotta start someplace.” Joe then waved his arm, directing me to enter Studio A. “Come on inside. Let me show you the main studio.”
Like a lost puppy, I followed him into an actual radio station’s on-air studio. Once inside, I found myself gazing at shelves of records. More albums than I’d ever seen in one small space, except for a record store. Across from the album collection sat that good-looking DJ with sandy blonde hair and a moustache. Al Haskell. Even his name sounded like a radio guy. Surrounded by all kinds of electronics and equipment, he snapped on a pair of headphones and gestured to us with his finger that we should all be quiet. Then he flipped a switch and the music from the speakers cut out. He put his mouth right up to the microphone.
“That was New Order here at W-U-S-M,” he said. “I’ve got more of your requests coming up. Right now, this is David Bowie… Cha-cha-cha-changes on ninety-one-point-one F-M… W-U-S-M.”
The music came back on through the speakers. Al removed his headphones and stepped over to shake my hand. A real DJ, I thought. I’d grown up listening to Dale Dorman at WRKO and then Mark Parenteau and Ken Shelton at WBCN in Boston, but I’d never met a real live DJ. It was exhilarating.
They both showed me the high end, speed start Techniques turntables with felt pads so you could turn the album backwards just before the start of a song. That was the first time I ever saw anyone queue up a record. And then the control board. At first glance, very intimidating but not far from what I’d imagined. About seven or eight large knobs. Each controlling a different thing—turntable one, turntable two, turntable three, the main microphone, two cart machines, a guest mic.
“When you flip the microphone switch, the music from the speakers here inside the studio automatically cut out so you didn’t get feedback when you talk on-air,” Joe said. “The only real way to hear yourself talk under music or properly segue into another song is to wear headphones during an “air” break.”
After the main studio briefing, Joe took me to a smaller production studio. Studio B. The board was pretty much the same as the one used in the main studio to broadcast live. He placed a cardboard cutout over the board. This showed a novice like me exactly what each knob did. He also showed me how to queue up a record in preview so it was ready to go as soon as you hit the green start button. But anyone listening wouldn’t hear you queue up the record. He had me pick out some albums and start practicing.
“Can you start tomorrow morning?” he said. “The guy who usually does the six a.m. show is out sick.”
Every muscle in my body locked-up, and I could barely get a word out. “Uh… sure,” I said. What was I thinking? I thought. I can’t do this.
“Fantastic!” Joe said. “Play around with this board for a little while to get the hang of it. I’ll check back in a few. You’ll be great.”
And off he went. He later instructed me that when I come in the next morning to remember to turn on the AP news feed ticker and tear off some current news stories and weather.
“You break in between every couple of songs,” he said. “Be creative. Read some news stories. Talk about maybe seeing the band you’re about to play in concert. Read the weather. And always remember the last thing you ever say before ending your break are the station call letters. W-U-S-M. That’s it.”
Thousands of people would be listening, on campus and beyond to Cape Cod and down to Providence, Rhode Island.
WUSM logo/bumper sticker designed by Maria Mobilia
another fellow DJ

Just a little over twelve hours later, I stepped into studio A. The sun was barely cracked. It was dead silent. I used the keypad and turned on the twelve hundred watt transmitter to the radio antenna, which was perched high atop the tower in the center of campus, the one from which the architect did not swan dive to his death and where my friend and I almost did. I picked out some albums and sat myself down at the control board. Tried on the headphones, which were actually connected to a regular stereo receiver tuned into the station. If you heard music or yourself talking, you knew you were on the air.
I queued up two records and put a station ID and a public service announcement cartridge (cart) into the two free slots. It wasn’t a commercial station so we played public service announcements not advertising spots. Then I set up the mock cardboard control panel Joe had given me the day before so I knew what knobs to turn and when. Laid out a couple of news stories from the AP ticker machine and the weather. Pulled out a Rolling Stones magazine. That was my idea. I figured I could find something musically related to read, if I got stuck and didn’t know what to talk about.
I looked at the clock and took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was 1980. Two minutes before six o’clock on a Saturday morning. I flipped the mike switch to the on position and turned up the volume control knob. And my first moment of radio broadcasting began.
“Good morning, everyone out there who can hear my voice,” I said. I felt surprisingly calm for someone who was terrified of public speaking. “My name is Gerry Moylan and this is my first day here at W-U-S-M. Actually, it’s my first time ever doing radio.” I chuckled. “I’m gonna start things off with one of my favorite new songs from an album titled Wild-Eyed Southern Boys, here’s Thirty Eight Special…”
I hit the start button and the song’s familiar opening guitar riff kicked in. Dah-dah-dah… This was going to be cool. I continued to talk over the song’s intro. “Pretty appropriate for my first day on the radio,” I said. “This is Hold on Loosely, which is going to be released next month, and you’re hearing it first right here at ninety-one point one F-M… W-U-S-M.”
You see it all around you, good lovin' gone bad. And usually it's too late when you, realize what you had. And my mind goes back to a girl I left some years ago, who told me just hold on loosely, but don't let go. If you cling too tightly, you're gonna lose control…
Those first three hours on the air went by so fast. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever done in my entire life. I was nineteen, but had been transported to another world that day. As I got more comfortable speaking at each break, I was no longer thinking about any issues I might have been dealing with in my own life at that time. I was simply lost in the most wonderful way.
WUSM Staff
In just three hours, I had transformed into a radio disc jockey. Within days of my first on-air show, I was officially put on the schedule with two or three shifts a week. Soon after, I could do radio in my sleep. In fact, I often found myself planning clever things to say as I lay awake in bed at night. And forget my fear of public speaking. I got better and better at thinking quickly and saying just the right thing. And my low self-esteem was almost non-existent when I was on the air. A lot of students got to know me as one of the DJs from WUSM. My confidence grew. I liked that no one could actually see me when I spoke into the microphone. It was just me and the music. The real world non-existent.
Soon after starting to work as a regular DJ at WUSM, I quit writing for the school newspaper and devoted all of my spare time to the radio station. If I wasn’t on the air, I was helping out with promotions or programming. Classes took a backseat to radio and my grades showed it, but I managed to still get by.
Not long after beginning my instant career in broadcasting, other students were required to go through a strict orientation before getting on the air. Some of them never even made the cut. Walking into the studio that first time was fate. Another significant part of the equation of my unfolding life.

I had never latched onto anything in life like I did to radio and music. Even though I maintained friendships with the people I’d met in the dorms and on campus, and a few of my friends back home in Scituate, I quickly bonded with my fellow disc jockeys. We became a family. Partied together. Ate together. Talked music constantly. Went to shows almost every night. I had finally found a purpose. I knew I was right where I was meant to be.

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