In 1991, I was a freshman at Syracuse University. I was a business major, though I had yet to take a real business course. Despite this, my years of caddying in Memphis had convinced me that I was going to be a big shot business guy, the next big man in a grey flannel suit.
But life enables sidetracks here and there, thank god. For me, before I plunged into the flames of business school / business life, I was a DJ for WERW.
Syracuse University is renowned for its communications school. As a result the school boasts three radio stations. The biggest is WJPZ, or Z89. Z89 is a commercial juggernaut that competes with local stations for market share. Students who longed to someday produce a morning-zoo type show worked here. The second station, WAER 88.3, or Jazz 88, was for those students who had more of an NPR inclining.
The last and smallest campus station was WERW. Its tag line was 'Real College Radio'. This was to remind listeners that WERW was not commercially or structurally bound, that it was free to determine its own format and that it was avant garde as college radio should be.
Another way WERW distinguished itself was that listeners were actually not able to listen to its broadcasts on a conventional radio. In order to pick up WERW, students had to find a university televisions set (located in dorm lounges, perhaps working or not) and tune into a designated UHF station.
Despite this seemingly futile existence, the station did manage to fill a roster of DJ’s for the week’s 56 three-hour shifts. DJ's at WERW had no real ambitions to become professionals someday. We were just people who liked to sit in a little room playing records for three hours.
I was drawn to the station’s credo of ‘Real College Radio’. Syracuse was a breeding ground for commercial media neophytes and I liked the idea that a station existed with an amorphous format and free form structure. As a new DJ, my programming instructions were simple. If I wanted to play bagpipes…great. Follow it up with punk..great. Whatever. Everything and anything. In fifteen minutes, I was given a tutorial in the basics of the microphone and turntable console. With that, I was ready for my first shift … I was now a DJ.
I’d spend summers between semesters with my family in Memphis. It provided a polar opposite to my Syracuse experience, like a separate life completely. I’d been playing guitar since I was fifteen. I’d gotten hooked on blues. It was easy in Memphis. I’d been transplanted there at age fourteen. The impossibility of seamless high school assimilation left me often alone, enabling me to rack up a lot of time listening to WEVL, the city’s public station that specialized in blues. My guitar meant a lot to me. It still does but not as much as it did then.
For college beer money, I worked at a country club. There was something about the long days spent in the Memphis sun that my consciousness tried to liken to some indigenous blues experience. I found Pop Tunes in Memphis. It was a time capsule of a music store that still sold blues records, real records, LP’s. This was the early 1990’s and LP’s were about to fade into oblivion. But I found Pop Tunes.
So in the last dying days of the LP, I stocked up all I could. I arrived at Syracuse with an armful of blues LP’s – classic music on a forgotten medium ready to be played at one of the last LP-playing radio stations that’d broadcast without a conventional bandwidth to a minuscule, unidentifiable audience.
At midnight on Wednesday nights, I’d show up for my shift. I’d let the record of the last shift run out and then I’d hit the green button for the live mike:
“Hey, what’s up…this is Slimbo. It’s really late. I’m going to get us started with Le Freak, by Chic….” I had three hours to fill. I’d randomly pull records out of the library and literally play anything my hands pulled out. I’d put on an entire album side and let it ride while I went down to the Wimpy Wagon to get a cheeseburger. No one was listening. What did it matter?
But at the top of hour three…it’d be 2am at this point…I’d start my blues hour. I’d pull out my LP’s, that burdensome pack of artifacts I’d schlepped up from Memphis. And then I’d have my blues hour.
My voice would go down an octave. Everything would slow down. Now I'd carefully pick the tracks, always sure to give some deep, meaningful narrative I'd lift off of the back of the LP - liner notes from the original album's issuance. My voice would trail off into a whispering coda and then I'd ease into, "it's sixteen degrees outside right now at 2:43am. You're listening to the Slimbo Blues Hour on WERW."
Occasionally, I'd offer the station's phone number for requests - a kind of lonely call out into an empty forest. Though one time the phone did ring. Startled, I answered it. The person on the other line said nothing.
By my sophomore year, the station had gotten a real station identification. There were now playlists. A new student took over as station manager. He was a hard core communications major. We were now given playlists and format requirements. Another senior got the sole blues show that the station was permitting. I think I must have played U2's Achtung Baby about eight thousand times.
My business courses started to heat up. I joined a fraternity because I realized I wasn't going to meet girls sitting in a DJ booth playing old blues records to an audience of one. I quit the station.
I always wondered who that caller was though.