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Reliving old college jazz radio days

Posted: January 20, 2011 4:59 p.m.
Updated: January 24, 2011 5:00 a.m.

I recently posted a blog entry in the C-I website’s Community section about the music I was listening to during the winter season. I followed that up with a “Note” connected to my personal Facebook page about music from the 1980s I’ve downloaded to or copied from my collection in recent years.

My iPod and laptop computer are crammed with music: classical; pop; smooth, mainstream and classic jazz; R&B; soundtracks; rock; oldies; and even dashes of country and alternative.

At work, I’ll use my laptop to play back what I want because it holds so much more music than my iPod on its own. At home and in the car, it’s the iPod.

I rarely listen to the radio anymore, which is funny, considering I was a radio announcer for 14 years.

One of the reasons I don’t is because of how hopelessly corporate and bland it sounds on one hand or horribly shock-jock on the other.

The other is because most stations don’t play what I want. Some stations play a little bit of what I like, but no one station plays enough of what I like to keep me tuned in.

The biggest problem is the lack of jazz programming in the Midlands, or much of anywhere else in South Carolina.

After starting as an announcer in my teens doing Top 40 programs, I ended up at Memphis State University (MSU), which has been known as the University of Memphis since 1994.

There, I became the production director of the all-jazz radio station, WSMS-FM 92. It was actually at 91.7 on the FM dial; “SMS” stood for the “Spirit of Memphis State.”

When I joined up, I knew nothing about jazz music -- that was something my father listened to (mostly French pianist Claude Bolling). But an early spring snowstorm and the fact that I lived on campus conspired to make me a “jazz lover,” which is still the station’s slogan after all these years.

It was actually around spring break 1985. Most of the volunteer DJs lived off campus and the morning DJ was responsible for actually turning the station on after being dark between midnight at 6 a.m.

The gal who had the morning show one day couldn’t make it in -- her car was stuck in the snow in her driveway.

So, I walked the few blocks from my dorm to the basement of the College of Communication and Fine Arts’ communications building. I followed the steps to get on the air and -- voila -- was on the air.

Not knowing a thing about the format, I simply started grabbing records -- that’s vinyl, kids -- from our Top 30 box and selecting cuts whose titles sounded interesting.

The phones started ringing. The small, but loyal audience actually liked what I was doing.

And I found I liked the music.                                                                                                                       

Not long afterward, I volunteered for shifts myself. Later in the year, I was promoted to program director, putting me in charge of dozens of volunteer jocks and low-paid department heads.

At the time, FM 92 was operating with only 250 watts of power. I’ve always joked that I knew light bulbs stronger than that.

In any event, through graduation in 1987, I enjoyed the heck out of myself running the station and playing jazz and so-called “new age” music.

For the year between the fall of 1987 and the fall of 1988, I worked at a small, adult contemporary station in the north Georgia mountains. I didn’t really like it much and decided to go back to school to earn a masters in organizational communication.

Don’t ask me what that means, other than something that added thousands to my already large sum of student loans.

I returned to MSU and FM 92. For the first semester, I simply volunteered for shifts while teaching a few argumentation and debate classes. The second semester I used my graduate assistantship to help the station with a long-form radio project focused on the Blues with a guy from the music department.

I was then asked to lead the station a second time, during the 1989-1990 school year. It was easier this time around; I knew better what I was doing the second time around.

When I left, I was pretty torn. I really wanted to become the station’s first professional program director, but the college couldn’t afford to create the position.

Still, that eventually led to my coming to the Midlands and getting into radio here. I left the business in mid-1985 and worked as an administrative assistant for five years before joining the C-I. As I’ve mentioned many, many times, I have no plans to leave.

But I do miss those college jazz days.

Last week, I was rooting around the Web and discovered the station’s new website. It’s now known as WUMR (University of Memphis Radio) and broadcasts at 25,000 watts of power -- a 1,000 percent increase from my days.

I also discovered that they broadcast on the Web. I can actually listen to the station I once helped guide so many years ago. They’re also trying to raise money to move into bigger digs.

But what made me smile most was realizing that a man I hired as the station’s music director in the late 1980s -- Malvin Massey -- is now the station’s general manager.

That’s a legacy to be proud of. And one I can follow again, thanks to the World Wide Web.

Check it out!

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