I made friends with the PD and one of the guys working in the newsroom showed me how to use the inter-studio chat program (I'm betting it was two VT terminals using talk) and I saw the AP feed clacking away and asked quite innocently what was meant on the program grid by a show called "Catheter, Anyone?"
I learned some Very Important Ground Rules which have gone on to serve me well: Never talk when the ON AIR light is on unless you're in front of a mic and/or want dozens, if not hundreds of people to hear you. Don't play around with the transmitter. Read album covers before you play any songs so you don't wind up putting on one with cuss words. Keep a log of everything you play (Mr. M. gave me that auspicious task, and I dutifully listed everything and felt quite proud of it.) Turn the record back 1/4 turn when you've cued it up, so that when you start the turntable it doesn't go neeerrroOOOOOOP. (I was also tasked with cueing records, and got quite good at it.) Put on at least two Public Service Announcements every hour. You can either read 'em from the Big Book of PSA Copy, or just play one of those cool carts which never need rewinding.
And most importantly, identify the station every hour as close to the top of the hour as possible. That's a rule the FCC has and it's important. People need to know your station's call letters, where you're broadcasting from, and also (optionally) what your frequency is, just in case they didn't know.
After I'd had my turn at the mic saying "hi" to everybody near the top of the show, Mr. M. asked me if I wanted to do the hourly ID. I boggled. My big break! Could I do it just like a real DJ? Oh hell yes I could. Gimme that mic. Mr. M. had me sit at the secondary mic position and angled the boom to reach me.
"Right here in the studio we've got my friend Rob," Mr. M said, "and he's going to let you know who you've been listening to. Ready, Rob?" I steeled myself and then launched into what I'd heard those DJs do a zillion squillion times before.
"Hi! You're listening to ninety-nine point-- uh."
Wait a minute, that wasn't us! I had been thinking of another station! How could I be so thoughtless? The only station that counted was our station!
"Try that one again, Rob. What station is this?"
"Ninety-one point one FM! WFC-- no."
I'd gotten the call letters wrong! The FCC said it was a bad thing to misrepresent yourself, and here I was giving out the call letters for another college station! Now I'd been thinking about two other stations! And for all I knew, I'd just broken the law and gotten Mr. M into a ton of trouble! All for just saying numbers and letters out loud! So what if they weren't the right numbers and letters? I didn't want to go to jail! So I weakly snuffled around a bit and decided to admit defeat.
"Maybe you should say it, Mr. M."
"Third time's the charm, man. What's it say on the door?"
"It says WMUA, 91.1 FM, Amherst."
"You got it!" And off we went into another song.
I thought Mr. M. would have nothing more to do with me and keep me off-mic, but he brought me back on later to read from the Big Book Of PSA Copy, and not only did I get all the words right, but I'd also impressed him by skittering my fingers along the desk to simulate cockroaches (the PSA was something I think from the Physical Plant, advising those in certain dorms to get fumigated fercryinoutloud.) Right then and there I knew I could do stuff like this and really have fun with it. As long as I didn't, you know, keep messing up.
But in spite of the certain career-killing setbacks, I went home as happy as a clam. My folks had been listening to home, and they said I was great.
"Did you tape it?" I asked. "I want to hear it!" But sadly, they had not taped it. This hurt a bit. I mean, I knew I'd been on the air. I was there, in an actual factual radio station, talking into an actual factual microphone. But I wanted to hear it! It wasn't real without actually hearing it come out of the speakers where radio was supposed to come out of! I had gone and done something so awesome, but my main frustration lay in the fact that I didn't have proof.
A bunch of years went by, and I eventually had my own show on WMUA, where I always got the call letters and frequency right, though I didn't have any fifth-graders to guest-host. And I went on from there, doing spots on several other local stations, and then I moved into the real world and didn't have much chance to do any pro or am work.
Now this is why I'm telling the story today, besides the fact that it's fun. Thanks to the effords of Jude (one of our frequent voicers on the RED SHIFT series) and her friend at MIT's radio station, RED SHIFT's First Night performance of COUNTDOWN TO CHAOS will be broadcast on WMBR, 81.1 FM, today at 4:00 pm EST. (At this time WMBR's online streaming service isn't working right, so unfortunately you will need to be local to Cambridge, MA in order to tune in.) But I'm at work until 4:30, and so I won't be able to hear it.
Now I'm not asking for a tape this time around, so I don't need a recording. I've got the raw take right off the soundboard, fer Pete's sake, and can hear the actual show any time I need to. The frustration this time isn't so much the fact that I won't have proof that our great gang will indeed be broadcast for the first time ever over actual factual airwaves, but the fact that I won't be able to sit near a neat little box and hear the sounds come out as they're plucked from the ether. I've always wanted to hear that, realtime, just like it is, with static and any bleed-thru and all that stuff. That's the experience I want this time around, and airchecks just won't cut it.
Anyway. If you're around and can listen to it at 4:00 this afternoon, by all means, do so and have fun. Talk back to it! Laugh along! Eat some Cosmo-Flakes while you're at it! And marvel at the fact that we're legitimate now, people. I'm sure I'll get another chance to hear my words and my friends' voices emanating from the magical soundy box again some time. It's been a long way from mixing up call letters to this, and I've enjoyed every goddamn step of the way. But I know there will be more steps in the future. I think I can be patient.
Even so, I've hedged my bets by bringing in my old clock radio just in case I can sneak off for a few in the afternoon. Here's hoping.