One of WRDO's Weekly Radio Reports. This is from June 10, 1973 (via the Airheads Radio Survey Archive).

One of WRDO’s Weekly Radio Reports. (via the Airheads Radio Survey Archive).

The other day, looking for good fall songs to listen to while I walked, I started with Donald Fagen’s “IGY.” Although the title refers to the International Geophysical Year, a one-world scientific endeavor from the late 1950s, it always reminds me of a brief infatuation I had with a radio station in Maine.

WIGY began broadcasting in 1977. I know that because one song it played incessantly was “Sound and Vision” from David Bowie’s Low album of that year. It also played Manfred Mann’s version of “Blinded by the Light.” The third song on the playlist was Glenn Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” From what I recall, those were the only three songs IGY ever played. It also had a mascot called Wiggy the Wonder Dog, so maybe you can understand why the relationship was doomed.

Let’s backtrack a bit. My first serious radio relationship was with WRDO, in Augusta, Maine. I must have been in 7th grade, so this would have been in 1971 or ’72. WRDO was an AM Top 40 station, but I was young and didn’t know better. WRDO played the hits and that was good enough for me. I had a small transistor radio I listened to at my desk in my bedroom while I did homework. Sometimes I strapped the radio to my bike’s handlebars so I could listen to things like Argent (“Hold Your Head Up”) or Gallery (“Nice to Be with You”) as I rode around the neighborhood.

Every week WRDO printed out a little weekly music report that included a picture of a DJ and a list of the week’ top songs. The kids in school always eagerly awaited the latest WRDO brochure so we could talk about the latest hits, whether it was “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” by Louden Wainwright III, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, or “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays. (The Internet is truly an amazing thing. You can find one of the weekly reports, from June 10, 1973, right here. I have to say, a lot of those songs still hold up.)

I was also really into WRDO’s contests. They had one where they played a sequence made up of short snippets from popular songs. Listeners had to identify all the songs. The kids in my neighborhood got together and worked on the list, with pretty dismal results. Every snippet tugged at our memories, but few tugged quite hard enough. The words in one sounded like “Olin Jim,” and a kid from down the street insisted that was the name of the song. We all looked at each other.

“I don’t think they would use the song title,” one of us said.

“No! It’s ‘Olin Jim’! I’m positive!”

We all looked at each other again, shrugged, and added “Olin Jim” to our list. The song turned out to be Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” and the words in question were “Holding Jim.”

I have a vague recollection of visiting WRDO’s studios once. They were on the second floor in a building on Water Street, Augusta’s downtown. I don’t remember who was with me, or why we made the trip. Maybe we wanted to get the latest music report before anyone else did. All I can remember is that the office seemed a little shabby. I think I got a glimpse of the studio through big glass windows—blinking lights, equipment consoles, microphones. It was kind of cool and at the same time a little disillusioning. It wasn’t the kind of disillusionment that shatters ideals and turns an innocent child into a cynic (that required years), but it did allow a little air to leak out of my imagination.

This was about the time I got a tape recorder for Christmas, a flat, blocky Panasonic with a little rectangular microphone with a cord you plugged into the side. When I really liked a song, I called WRDO and requested it, then I sat by the radio, microphone poised. I really wanted to tape Harry Nilsson’s “Spaceman,” and after wasting a Sunday waiting for hour after disappointing hour by the radio, I finally got it. Michael down the street, though, did even better. He called another station, WABK in Gardiner, and requested “Spaceman.” He told the DJ he wanted to tape it. When the DJ did play the song, he said, “This is for a kid who wants to tape the song off the radio. You know that’s illegal, don’t you, kid?” Michael captured it on tape and played it back to me with glee. I was jealous.

WRDO, of course, was a mere AM station. Amplitude modulation was fine for kids. As I grew older I discovered the more adult charms of frequency modulation—FM. My first FM station was WBLM—the Blimp—and I fell hard. BLM broadcast out of Lewiston and played the funky mix of stuff that you’d expect from an independent station in the later 1970s. WBLM introduced me to artists like David Bromberg, Joe Jackson, Frank Zappa, Nils Lofgren, the Pretenders, Flash and the Pan, Atlanta Rhythm Section, and others too numerous to list. I vividly remember one Halloween evening when BLM played Al Stewart’s “Nostradamus,” the first time I heard the song. To this day I play “Nostradamus” on Halloween.

The Blimp.

The Blimp.

Like all my radio relationships, it was a tribal thing. It was about belonging. BLM let you feel like you were part of a community of like-minded listeners. The DJs—Jose Diaz and Mark Persky are two I remember—came across as hip and with it. Daryl Martini—a.k.a. the Cosmic Muffin—provided astrology reports and Lou McNally—Altitude Lou—reported the weather. I announced my allegiance by wearing a BLM tee shirt. And after my brief infatuation with IGY, I proved my loyalty to BLM by defacing IGY billboards. A few of us went out under the cover of darkness, climbed up to the big billboards, and spray painted WBLM in big letters across them. I think I hit three—one in Augusta and two in Brunswick/Topsham after I went to college. The Brunswick job almost went south big time when police stopped and questioned the young woman who was serving as our driver while we still up on the billboard behind them, painting away. We jumped down and hit the dirt, waiting breathlessly until the cops drove away, apparently convinced by the driver’s story that she was waiting for her boyfriend.

Well, all good things come to an end, and so did my relationship with BLM. The station got new owners and slowly began to lose its personality. It became less bohemian and more buttoned down. The Blimp had sold out. Now that was truly disillusioning. It felt like a betrayal.

BLM and I drifted apart. The relationship pretty much ended when I went out to school in California. However, at a Frank Zappa concert in Santa Barbara I spotted a guy in the audience wearing a WBLM tee shirt. I ran over to say hello, a big grin on my face. It was like finding an old friend on the far side of the world.

KROQ. Rock of the Eighties.

ROQ of the Eighties.

By then I had started a relationship with KROQ, Los Angeles’ new-wave station. KROQ was pretty tightly play listed—I must have heard Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime” about a million times the one summer I lived in L.A.—but it was the coolest station around. Sometimes they would throw you a nice curve, too. I remember when KROQ played the theme from “The Jetsons” one afternoon when a bunch of us were sitting around the roof of our apartment building and drinking beer. KROQ also provided the nudge that turned me into a Sinatra fan, when it played “Come Fly with Me” when I was sitting on the same roof. In general, though, KROQ played a lot of the “new wave” stuff, like local favorites the Plimsouls, or Sparks, or Split Enz. They played too many synthesizer bands for my taste, but it was still better than KLOS, which claimed to be “too hip” but played the classic rock you could hear anywhere.

Things ended with KROQ when I moved back east after graduation. I tried to pick things up with BLM, but we had both changed too much. I started listening to a new station out of Skowhegan, WTOS. They had a hipper sensibility, kind of a cross between KROQ and the old BLM. They played bands like Squeeze, A Flock of Seagulls, and Haircut 100. I even drove up to the station one day and interviewed on-air personalities Annie Earhart and Kent Thurston for the Maine music paper, Sweet Potato, and my friend Tom later became a DJ there. But I moved down to Boston before my relationship with TOS could really go anywhere. It was probably just as well—TOS would have disappointed me at some point. After my experience with BLM I was still a little fragile.

wfnxWhen my brother had gone to school in Cambridge he returned to Maine with stories about a great station called WBCN. By the time I moved to Boston in 1983, WBCN was already in decline. I listened instead to WFNX, the brand-new radio arm of Boston’s alternative weekly, the Phoenix. It was a good station, more cutting edge than BCN (but not nearly as experimental as some of the college stations I sampled now and then). I was editing a little rock magazine at the time, so I received FNX’s  playlist in the mail every week. I’d go over the list, mark the artists I thought were worth writing about and start making calls to the publicists for the various labels.

Sometimes I’d get them, sometimes I didn’t. One of the top music writers in town wanted to interview Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. He had interviewed them several years earlier when they were still in an obscure band called the Tourists, and the three of them had apparently hit it off. The publicist at Capitol told me an interview would be no problem. Days passed, then weeks, and the duo got bigger and bigger until they were much too big for my little magazine. The promised interview descended from an in-person to a phoner and finally all we got was a promo copy of the new album.

Same thing with Missing Persons. KROQ had played their first singles, “Words” and “Destination Unknown,” when I was in Los Angeles working for the Hollywood Reporter. The music editor there had even given me her invitation to Missing Persons’ record release party at producer Ken Scott’s house. (Scott wrote about the party in some depth in his book Abbey Road NW8 to Ziggy Stardust WI, but I want to make it clear that I was not the guy who got his genitals stuck in the pool filter.) When the album Spring Session M came out, I called Capitol to request an interview. Singer Dale Bozzio, who hailed from nearby Medford (and had the accent to prove it), even called me at home one evening to promise she would talk to me once the band started doing publicity. This time I didn’t even get a promo copy of the album.

But that was the kind of stuff they played on FNX. From what I’ve heard the station remained consistent until they finally folded up the tents a few years ago. But I had to end things with FNX when I moved down to Washington, D.C., and fell for WHFS.

WHFSAh, HFS! It was love at first listen. HFS was one of the last great independent stations and it turned me on to a lot of music. Once again I felt like part of a big family, with Damien, Weasel, Bob Showacre, “Frank Benlin” and “Max Knobny” of “The Daily Feed,” and a lot of great music. It was the first place where I heard Kirsty MacColl (“He’s on the Beach,” “A New England”), Marti Jones (“The Rhythm of Shallow Breathing”), Zeitgeist (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), the Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls”), the Screaming Blue Messiahs (“Wild Blue Yonder”), and Sinead O’Connor (“Mandinka”). I bought a lot of vinyl at the Tower Records in D.C. because I heard something I liked on HFS. (Admittedly, I haven’t listened to a lot of those records in years. Anyone remember The New Marines? Red Guitars? The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy?)

Sure, enough, though, by the time I left the Washington area in 1996 HFS had broken my heart. Owner Jake Einstein sold the station, most of the DJs moved on, and the station’s personality changed. It became self-consciously hip as it chased after a younger demographic. It was like being thrown over for some jerk who wore his baseball cap backwards and had kind of crappy taste in music. Eventually HFS went away altogether.

XPNBy then I was gone, too. I moved to Central Pennsylvania, where I settled into another long-term relationship. This time it was with WXPN, the public radio station that broadcasts from Philadelphia but also has transmitters in Central PA. We’ve been together for 18 years now. We did hit a rough patch when the station changed transmitters and I could no longer get a strong signal at my house, but now I stream it on my computer and everything’s hunky dory. XPN plays stuff I like and introduces me to a lot of new music. Sure, I might stray occasionally and at work I might stream WNRN (similar, although just a tad edgier), but in general I remain committed to XPN. I think we might grow old together.