I was at home last week working on the computer for the group. My TV was on with no sound. I only use it to keep me company. It was tuned to a cable news channel showing the Donald Trump rally in Chicago. There were supporters, protesters, and police there. The clashed, and reminded me in a very small way, of the Democratic Convention of 1968. What really got my attention was the venue. It was being held at UIC campus – the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hey, that’s my school!!! The one I attended and graduated from. The cameras scoured the streets showing a parking garage. The camera panned to the right and showed a building. “That’s the BSB building,” I yelled out, although there was no one to hear.
BSB stood for Biological Studies Building. Now the BSB held nothing for me. My science goals had disappeared long ago, but in the building, down deep in its bowels, were the studios of WUIC, the college radio station. Myself and a friend and classmate, Rodney, both got a job there. “A Job” – I use the term loosely. We were interns. We were given the morning show – 7am to 11am, I as the host and Rodney as my engineer. Let me get this out of the way – no pun or joke intended – Rodney’s full name was Rodney Watts. He must have been meant for this.
So there we were – a 5,000 WATT radio station awash in a sea full of 50,000 WATT stations. The format was chosen by the station manager. It consisted of playing 20 year old National Public Radio tapes of the “Grand Ole Opry.” I mean Earnest Tubbs and Minnie Pearle, and other people you probably never heard of. 5000 WATTS! As we used to joke, on a clear day you could hear us all the way across the street.
So we started our job. The music was so terrible that we only checked our headphones once in awhile to make sure the tape had not broken. Soon we conspired to make the show a little more relevant. After all, Country and Western music in the inner city? It started small. I would play some records from home during the top and bottom of the hour when we paused for station ID, news and weather – The Doors, Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, etc. We got no reaction. The phones sat quietly on our desks. We then decided to give less than accurate weather reports like . . . “It will be mostly dark tonight, turning light by morning” or “Today’s high will be in the mid 40s, so if you are in your mid 40s go out and get high” or “The extended forecast Tuesday through the rest of the week is, Chicago will have no weather at all.” Still no reaction. The phones remained silent. No one was listening, we agreed it was clear. My wife used to listen, but she said after a week that, hearing that voice coming over the radio that was the same one she would hear in our darkened bedroom at night was just too creepy, and she tuned out. At least that was what she said.
We added fictitious news reports like, “There is a traffic jam on the Dan Ryan Expressway, and traffic is backed up to Pennsylvania” or “The US Corps of Engineers are going to drain Lake Michigan and construct a walkway from Chicago to Ottawa, so Illinois folks can avoid Wisconsin speed traps.” The phones still silently stared at us. Was anybody out there? Hey, Federal Communications Commission, do you hear this nonsense we are broadcasting?
In desperation we started a contest akin to “Name that Tune” so popular years previously done by other stations. We tried using such songs as “Happy Birthday” and “Home on the Range” with the same results. We tried to convince ourselves that the prize, a copy of that day’s show, could account for the lack of interest. Finally, we tried our last hope. We offered a week’s vacation, including airfare, to Tahiti. We assumed that would be attractive in mid January. The song chosen was “The Star Spangled Banner.” Rodney and I just rolled our eyes as nothing happened. Suddenly the phone rang! We looked at each other, eyes full of hope, fear and anticipation. Rodney picked it up. He said “Yes” a few times, then “OK,” and hung up. He looked at me and said the station manager wanted to see us in his office as soon as our non-annotated show was over. We went to the office with the strains of Marty Robbins’s “Down in the West Texas town of El Paso” still ringing in our ears.
He sat us down and firmly explained to us that we were unauthorized to hold such a contest and we put the station, the university, indeed the state of Illinois in a financially libel situation. Then he fired us and banned us from the WUIC studios in the future.
A few months after this, I graduated from the university, and flew to Tucson in search of a job. I was certain my exploits at WUIC had not preceded me. I applied for work at every radio and TV station in the city. Every one of them expressed no interest. Even the TV stations, where I not only submitted my resume, but also a proposal for a new aerobic exercise show I came up with called, “Little or No Sweat Aerobics,” the premise of which was – every time you feel like exercising, you should lay down ‘til the feeling passes. After so many rejections I began to see the sun setting on my broadcasting career future, and I had to get a “normal” job. As Ray Davies wrote:
Everybody’s a dreamer and everyone a star
And everybody is in show biz, it doesn’t matter who you are.
But those who are successful, be always on your guard,
‘Cause success walks hand-in-hand with failure down Hollywood Boulevard.