(Above: Me, in the studios of WCKS student radio, 2015)
I guess I never expected that there would be a last radio show.
I mean, I should have expected it. When I decided to go back to school in the fall of 1999. working to piece together the wreckage that was my undergraduate education by hopefully earning an associate of arts degree from Grand Rapids Community College and “seeing where that gets me,” I did so with the expressed purpose of one day working with a college radio station of my own. I got my first taste of it serving as Professional-in-Residence for WXAV at St. Xavier University in Chicago under their advisor, Dr. Rob Quicke (the founder of College Radio Day), and knew I one day wanted to be in the business of teaching radio. About a year after launching WGVU-AM as the country’s first NPR station with a full-time oldies playlist, I got the chance to serve as the faculty advisor for GVSU’s student station, WCKS The Whale. (No, I don’t know why they call it “the Whale.” The Great Lakes possess fresh water, of course.) Almost immediately I convinced the coordinator of GVSU’s broadcasting program, Keith Oppenheim, that there should be a radio course for credit. I was enlisted to teach it in the winter of 2011 to reasonable success, and it was offered again in the fall of that year, and I was also asked to cover a section of Survey of Electronic Media, a de facto broadcasting history course.
But by the spring of 2012 I noticed radio was taking a back seat. I was asked to teach two courses at GVSU – Speech and Issues in Communication – which didn’t directly pertain to it. I was also asked to start advising the student television station, GVTV. I had completed my master’s degree the year before and was working with a piece that I wrote on Grand Rapids’ radio history. There were days that I had to interrupt my working with students to go and do a radio show, and it started annoying me to do so. I had never NOT wanted to be on the air, and this change wasn’t lost on those around me. So when I got a phone call from Keith Oppenheim at the end of the term asking if I’d “entertain the idea of leaving radio to teach full-time,” I replied that I’d not only entertain it, I’d welcome it. By June it was decided that I’d become a visiting assistant professor for the broadcasting program, and the radio duties would have to cease.
I gave a quiet notice at WGVU, where the management was very understanding. (The nice thing about working for a university radio station is that they can’t boo when you are asked to do more teaching.) They understood that these types of jobs are rare, and I had to take the chance to see if teaching suited me as a full-time occupation. Not only that, I was one of four (!) journalism students accepted into Michigan State’s Media and Information Studies PhD program, and a full-time job with regular hours would make that impossible. The shift in career had to happen.
My last live radio show was Friday, July 27. That morning, David Moore, who had delivered news on the station for about thirty years, did a story on my career change – how I was “hanging up the headphones” to move to the classroom. I explained that I saw it as an opportunity to help affect change in the radio business – that I didn’t like what I saw, but that there was no way one man could walk into the offices of a conglomerate and say that they were doing it wrong. “But if I can reach a hundred people a semester, and we all start saying it…” there could be radio anarchy in the U.S.
At 3pm on Saturday, July 28, my final pre-recorded show began. (I recorded the show because I suspected that I might not be able to get through it without a little emotion.) Needless to say I stacked the playlist a little bit. I saved it, and thought I’d share some of the highlights.
-I opened up with “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. This was an inside joke to the staff. Upon sharing the news of my departure, I made light of it by saying “besides, if I have to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ one more time I may lose my mind.” I still like the song, even more now that I don’t hear it every few hours.
-Among the rarities I put in the first hour: Bob Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” Nick Lampe’s “Flower Garden” (a song that made it to #1 in Grand Rapids but failed to chart on Billboard), and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” by Patience and Prudence. I also wanted a lot of Sinatra on this show, so I put in “That’s Life” in that hour. I remember playing it at an unacceptably loud volume in the last dying days of WFGR across the street, and wanted to play it for a positive reason.
-The second hour featured “Out of Time” by the Rolling Stones, “L.A. Goodbye” by the Ides of March (the song that reminded me of leaving the US for New Zealand in 1994), “Tainted Love” by Gloria Jones, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brentston, and “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison. The show was starting to sound as if I was sitting at home with my record collection out. As I was sitting at home listening, it felt appropriate. The Sinatra record I added that hour was “Cycles.” It’s a great song that doesn’t get enough airplay, and it was the sort of thing that WGVU-AM was known for featuring.
-The final hour started with stuff I always fought to play elsewhere: “You Can’t Do That” by the Beatles, “Galveston” by Glen Campbell, and “Take Me Back” by the Flock, a band out of Chicago who did a great song that “wouldn’t test.” Now, I started making the show a personal playlist. I admit that it wasn’t terribly professional of me to do, but I also felt that after 25 years I was entitled to have a little fun.
Other songs that ran that hour:
“Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan, a song whose lyrics I hung in my locker in high school
“Peace Frog” by the Doors, a song I thought we should play at 97X/Quad Cities and famously argued about over beers one evening.
“Dialogue” by Chicago, the song that comes right out and asks “will your bachelor of arts help you get by?”
“Peaceful” by Helen Reddy, a song I remembered hearing as a kid on WLS, and that I added in the final days of WFGR as I sought a happy place amongst the destruction of the format.
Then, it was time for the last three:
“Beyond the Blue Horizon” by Lou Christie. If you remember its usage in Rain Man, you’d see that this was my nod to uncertain change. It’s one of the best songs about leaving anything that I can think of to this day.
“My Way” by Frank Sinatra. It was after this song that I did my address to the audience, thanking them for allowing me to be in their homes for so many years. I explained what I was doing (and why, taking a few shots at some of the other stations in town), and that the station would be in the very capable hands of Bill Bailey, who would be taking over as program director.
After that speech, I said goodbye, and played the final song: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2. It was the first song I ever played in college, and it was the last song I’d play as a full-time disc jockey. It couldn’t have been anything else.
It was at that moment, listening at home, when the song started, that I began to cry. (Good thing I taped the show, I guess.) I immediately thought “Oh, no. What have I done?” My wife Mary hugged me. I said “I’m doing the right thing, right? Right?” Radio had become such a huge part of my identity, and now it was gone, by my own hand. She assured me that yes, this was a good thing to try, and that I had made a solid, well-thought-out decision, and that I had her support no matter how it went. I remembered advice I had gotten from those in my past: my stepfather, who often said “It will all become clear” as a mantra. Advice I got from a friend when I wasn’t sure about whether to move to New Zealand: “Do it, and be a complete failure. You’ll only have a few decades to sort things out afterwards. Just don’t be sitting around saying ‘You know what I could have done.'” They were all right. This was my calling, and I needed to answer the call.
Fast-forward five years: this fall’s Introduction to Radio course has 22 out of 18 seats filled. It’s the eighth time I’ve taught the class now, working with more than a hundred and twenty talented students over the years, many of whom have gone on to make their own contributions to broadcasting in meaningful ways. I’ll be serving as the coordinator for the program at Grand Valley this fall, and with that duty working with about seventy students as their academic advisor, helping them to plan their careers. Both student radio and television continue to hum along nicely. And yet, I never completely left:Radio is still very much a part of my life as I continue to freelance, not worrying about station sales or format changes or looming bankruptcies.
I’ve never been happier nor more satisfied with my work. It turns out that I did, after all, find what I was looking for.