My dad always listened to a lot of music, so I don’t remember when I first got into listening to the radio. I do remember being fascinated by the crystal set AM radio he had, housed in a (probably 1950s vintage) silver Life Savers Sweet Storybook box, and how it operated without any power whatsoever. It was red, had a big dial, and an uncomfortable mono earplug attached with a small wire. I used to keep it on my windowsill, sometimes taking it down at night to listen to spooky faraway AM radio sounds while hiding under the covers.
I remember lounging on the deck in the summer as a kid. We usually listened to Q-98 (“always rocking with you”, if I recall) on our radio-only boombox. They used to call and ask random people in the phone book how much money the station was giving away. If you knew, you won the money. Otherwise, the amount would increase. I think they actually called us once, but we hadn’t been listening that day, so we didn’t win.
In 1983, Y-94 changed to a top 40 format, and I started listening to that more often. I used to listen to the Weekly Top 40 with Rick Dees every Sunday (or was it Saturday?) morning. I always had a tape in the tape deck set on Rec/Pause. When the song started, I would hit Record. If the song sucked or I already had a recording of it, I would rewind and find the correct punch-in spot again.
After a number of years, I forget how many, Y-94 got rid of Rick Dees, and switched over to Casey Kasem’s show. I thought his show was much lamer, but really I had already started losing interest by that point. It seemed as though every passing week brought less wheat and more chaff, as shitty synth pop and even shittier R&B started taking over the charts.
I always thought being on the radio would be totally awesome. One of our neighbors had a ham radio rig available at his garage sale, but unfortunately I couldn’t convince my dad to pony up the $75 for it.
Some time later though, I had an idea. Our neighbor Donald had one of those microphones with a built-in FM transmitter that kids can use to hear themselves on the radio. I think it used one or two 1.5V AA batteries. Meanwhile, my dad had been been taking electronics classes and had either bought or built a DC power supply. So I took Donald’s toy microphone, removed the batteries, and connected it with wires to the battery leads of the power supply, enabling me to crank it up to 15-20V (hard to remember exactly). Surprisingly, I didn’t fry the thing, and it actually increased the range so we could broadcast to each other on FM! We lived out in the boonies, so our houses were a fair distance apart, too. The idea that someone might be listening to us for a minute while driving down the road by our houses really blew our minds.
We would talk on the radio as well as produce pre-recorded programs. My sister, for instance, did a weekly show called “Deed Talks”. Every week she would record over last week’s edition on one of those black 60-minute Maxell cassettes with the red and white label. I think we still have it somewhere. I guess we must have played it back by putting a handheld cassette player in front of the microphone. I think maybe Donald and us took turns broadcasting to each other, but it’s tough when you only have one listener and he loses interest, so eventually we stopped. Either that or I blew up the microphone with too much power; I can’t remember anymore.
At some point my dad bought a shortwave radio, and I got really into that during junior high. I strung up antenna wire all around my room, and eventually set up a long outdoor antenna too, having calculated the proper length to reel in the desired frequency range, which I connected through the window when there weren’t dangerous thunderstorms in the area. There’s a ton I could write about this stuff, but I’ll just say that it was enlightening to realize at a young age how biased our domestic news coverage could be, and it was fascinating to hear communism collapse in real time over the airwaves.
I decided to go to college at Rice without having ever set foot in Texas. Probably not the best idea in retrospect. But if I had visited, I likely would have foreseen the massive culture shock that was to ensue, and would have gone elsewhere, never getting the chance to be a KTRU DJ or meet some of my closest friends.
My folks drove me down to Houston for orientation week. I still remember sitting in the rented minivan in front of the hotel, tuning in 91.7 for the first time to check out my new school’s radio station. I can’t remember if was a spoken phrase or a short snippet of music, but it was seriously weird and seemed to be on endless repeat. We went to get dinner or something, and when we had gotten out, they were still playing the same loop. Whoa, this place was sure going to be interesting!
There was a lot of competition to be a KTRU DJ in 1992. I think Stu was applying to the station the same time as me. The door was locked, but he had already memorized their phone number. That’s when I realized maybe I wasn’t going to make the cut. Listing Pearl Jam on my DJ application was probably also not a great idea, but I felt I should be honest. I was at a disadvantage though, having been brought up on Q-98 and Y-94 instead of KTRU or one of the other cool college radio stations that big city kids had access to. I had only discovered Fugazi that year, rather than already having attended their shows or whatnot.
I did get rejected, and I have to admit to harboring some amount of bitterness toward KTRU that year. I recognize that same stupid emotion in the tone of some people’s critiques of the station as being too out there or whatever. I don’t know if some of these people feel they were rejected by KTRU in some way, or just that they imagine that’s what would’ve happened given the chance, but at any rate, I got in on my second try and quickly realized that no one there had any agenda of trying to out-cool or out-weird anyone else. Rather, it was a group of people passionate about investigating the vast totality of human musical endeavor, who saw no need to pander to artificial or commercially-motivated preconceptions about music. One of the most valuable aspects of being a KTRU DJ was simply realizing how little you knew, and how much there was to learn and enjoy.
So during my sophomore year I started investigating this new world of music, but otherwise I was not having a great time at Rice, to the point that I was seriously considering transferring somewhere closer to home. The summer before my junior year however, the station manager called and asked if I would be willing to serve as an assistant music director. I didn’t know what to say, but I said yes, and thus felt obligated to return to Rice. I could go on and on about KTRU, but I’ll conclude for now by noting that the thrill of being on the airwaves, broadcasting electrons out into the great unknown, listened to by who knows whom, never went away for me, and it’s something I would hate for future Rice students to be unable to experience.