Radio Days

Posted by Robert on December 15th, 2021


My neighbors a few doors down started decorating their yard for Christmas a couple of decades ago. At first it just started with a small display in front of the house. Over the years they added new pieces, several new characters, scenes, settings, and festive holiday elements. This isn’t some cheap Clark Griswold-type Christmas yard display. It takes an entire crew a few days to set it up. Ultimately, I am grateful to know— and live near— people who put so much effort and so many resources into tastefully dressing up the neighborhood during the holidays. They have created an entire Christmas village on the street. It is very complex, intricate, and festive and attracts many passersby on a busy road. People even park their car, get out, and walk around posing for photos.

This year in addition to adding several new scenes in the Christmas village they have launched a radio station. The signal only covers a few blocks but if you tune in to the frequency 107.1, a small transmitter will pipe Christmas music into your car as you drive by their Christmas display. I love that. It’s wonderful. I’m a huge fan. It’s a good thing for the community.

I love my neighborhood. It’s the neighborhood I grew up in. Though when we moved into our house in 1968 the area in which I currently live, and the land in which my neighbors live and have constructed their Christmas village was all piney woods and jeep trails. I spent my youth riding a bike all through those woods that probably covered close to 800 acres.

Just on the edge of those woods lived a guy who was my brother’s age, who— at 13-years old— had a home radio station that he broadcast out of his bedroom. The signal, like the current Christmas neighbors down the block, only covered a small area. I could barely pick up the station on the clock radio that sat on my bedside table, but I listened often. It was the early 1970s and there weren’t many options for good radio in Hattiesburg Mississippi.

I don’t know if that had anything to do with my getting into radio, or if it was just that I loved music and started announcing events at my school, which made my mom think I might make a good radio announcer. It’s likely that she thought someone with interests like me, and no apparent talent, no money, and no source of income, might need to start thinking about a career. So, at 15 years old she pushed me into applying for a job at a radio station.

I fell in love with radio work immediately. In the beginning, the program director would only give me the New Orleans Saints radio broadcast, which involved sitting in a chair for three hours listening to Archie Manning run for his life because we didn’t have much of an offensive line, and when the radio broadcaster calling the game threw it to a local station for the top-of-the-hour legal ID, I was able to flip the mic switch and say, “You are listening to the New Orleans Saints on WHSY AM, Hattiesburg.” Those 12 words were huge for me. Seriously, huge.

Eventually, I was able to start spinning records for a full shift on weekends, and before long was given the seven to midnight shift six days a week. I loved it. At $2.30 an hour, I didn’t make much money. But the crazy secret is that had I had any cash reserves, I would’ve paid them to let me be on the air and play music. It seemed like a career that may be tailor-made for me.

I worked whenever they asked. The typical radio shift is four hours long. Two years in a row I worked Christmas Eve from 6 PM until Christmas morning at 6 AM, and New Year’s Eve from 6 PM until New Year’s Day at 6 AM. I am sure all the other disc jockeys at the station— most of whom were in their mid to late 20s— looked at it as, “Let’s make that St. John kid work all of the holiday hours.” I looked at it as they’re giving me a 12-hour shift! This is awesome!

In those days we had to sign off over the air at midnight. The closing duties for DJs were to play the national anthem, sign out on the logs for the Federal Communications Commission, and then shut the transmitter off. Though on many Saturday nights I would tell my friends to leave their radio on after the midnight sign off. I would typically wait three or four minutes after shutting the transmitter down, turn it back on, go back into the DJ booth, and track Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stone, and Beatles albums till three or four in the morning. All for my high school classmates who were riding around in cars and mostly up to no good. It was my version of a personal radio station like my brother’s friend (though likely illegal).

At the time the greatest station in the South was WZZQ in Jackson. They were a true album-oriented rock radio station where the disc jockeys programmed their own music. FM frequencies weren’t in mass use back then. The FM frequency at our radio station was programming a format they call “beautiful music.” No one was listening. We begged, and eventually talked the station owner into letting us turn it into an album rock station like WZZQ. The following 18 months was one of the most exciting periods of my life. I was a part of a small group of three or four people who brought true rock and roll radio to Hattiesburg, MS for the first time. It was hugely popular.

After I graduated high school and went to college, I had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life, so I majored in communications. Unfortunately, I mostly majored in partying. After a couple of years I flunked out. Though it ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me because I ended up working in restaurants and fell in love with the restaurant business. As much as I love music— and I really love music, all music, always have, and always will— the restaurant bug bit me harder and I have never looked back since.

My son wants to go into the restaurant business. Lately, he’s started DJing. Neither are careers I pushed on him. Maybe it’s in the blood.

Every time I pass my neighbors’ Christmas village, I turn it to the small radio frequency playing Christmas music which reaches all the way to my house. Maybe it’s the Christmas spirit, or maybe it’s sentimentality, but lately I’ve been thinking about starting a local radio station. One like my brother’s friend did, out of a bedroom. It would only cover a couple of blocks, but it would also take me back to one of the greatest times of my life.

Onward.

This week’s recipe: Sugar Cookies


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