Don't think I've written about this yet. Way back in the mid-1980's, when I was assigned as a base newspaper reporter at Francis E. Warren AFB in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I got my only in-depth look behind the scenes at how a radio station works. Though it wasn't quite the romantic, idealized, high-tech vision I'd always had, it was still pretty cool.
This peek behind the veil was possible thanks to Keith Gardner, an Air Force broadcaster and moonlighting DJ who must have heard me vent about boring radio and wonder aloud if I'd chosen the wrong career path. Though Keith had the ego and self-centeredness to think his nighttime DJ job was pretty cool, he was also down-to-earth enough about it to see it as something of a joke.
At the time Keith and I worked in the FEW Public Affairs Office, he was also nighttime DJ at a local FM station -- not the leading album-oriented-rock station in town, but maybe the number two or three station down on the list. It was surprising enough to have more than one album-rock station in a town of 50,000 people where you'd think the only two types of music on the radio were Country and Western.
After hearing me rant and express my preference for "Strange Music," Keith invited me out to the station one night after work to watch him at his "other job" for a couple of hours. I thought the experience would be pretty cool. Keith urged me to not get my hopes up too high -- that to him it was really no big deal.
The station was located on Cheyenne's west side, set back off of one of Cheyenne's main drags, back in a field full of tall weeds. It was nearly dark when I pulled up to the place at the end of a long dirt-and-gravel driveway. I wasn't absolutely sure I had the right place, even with the tall transmitter tower directly out back. I was expecting something ... a little more impressive.
The building itself looked like three or four small tool sheds sort of smacked together. In no way was it marked as a radio station -- there were no glowing neon call-letters posted out front or anything like that. There were garbage cans around the only door and lots of trash seemingly everywhere. There was only one other car in the dirt "parking lot."
I slowly made my way inside, through a long poorly-lit hallway littered with shipping boxes, promotional albums and other music-industry paraphernalia I could barely see in the dark. I seem to remember lots of empty pizza boxes and other evidence of food being consumed sometime in the previous 20 years.
I turned around a corner to the right and faintly heard distant trebly sounds that could almost have been music. I called out Keith's name, and eventually his head popped out a door into the hall. "Hey," he said, "I'm down here."
The tiny booth he was in could have been a chicken coop. It was absolutely NOT plush. He had a desktop made out of unfinished plywood, with a couple turntables on it that I never saw him use. There were a couple of (eight-track???) players he popped "cartridges" into that had both the music he played and the commercials he had to run. He had a pair of headphones and a mike, and that was all the equipment. There wasn't even an engineer. I got the impression the place practically ran itself.
At the center of Keith's "desktop" was a diagram that was of central importance to his job. It showed how much music he was allowed to play each hour -- in 15-minute blocks -- and showed the places where he had to plug-in commercials. The stack of "carts" on his left were the commercials. The stack on his right were the songs he was "allowed" to play. As he went along, Keith logged on a notepad each song he played and each commercial he ran, and at what times.
After he explained the set-up, I was a bit disappointed. There wasn't much freedom here. It all seemed pretty regimented. Didn't Keith ever make his own musical choices?
"Sometimes," he said. "There's the music library down the hall that we can pull some tracks from."
Naturally, I had to see this music library. What I found was a room no bigger than most bathrooms, with a ton of vinyl albums filed on shelves from floor to ceiling. There were lots more albums piled and scattered on the floor, and down the hallway.... I was surprised there weren't more. It was a pretty small room.
Keith agreed there wasn't much room for free-form experimenting on the job, that it was basically the same 100 classic-rock songs over and over. But he said there were other bonuses about the job -- it was easy, not demanding, he could order a pizza and eat it at his leisure ... and he even had fans. A couple of them even called up while I was there, and gabbed with Keith in his on-air persona as "Steve Cheyenne" -- such an obvious fake-name that we both busted up laughing. Strangely, Keith didn't actually SAY much on the air.
There were some high points -- Keith played Blue Oyster Cult's "Astronomy" for me (off of IMAGINOS), the best thing I'd heard by BOC in years (didn't know then it was a remake of one of their old songs) ... and after awhile I liked the quiet, distant, separated-from-everything atmosphere that surrounded the place. Maybe during the day it was different, but at night it was quiet, no one else came in, no one bothered Keith while he was working.
After a couple of hours I got tired, thanked Keith for the tour, and went home. It had actually been pretty cool to be there, even if it hadn't been exactly what I'd expected. It also reinforced my theory that sometimes it doesn't take that many people to make what appears from the outside to be a big production -- like most of the newspapers I've worked for.
So now, whenever I hear radio, the first thing I think of is that tiny tool-shed/chicken-coop set-up on Cheyenne's western outskirts in the middle of a wheat field, blasting classic rock out into the Wyoming night, where maybe a dozen people were listening....