I didn’t sleep much during my elementary school years. I was a generally nervous kid: I took my lunches in the nurse’s office because the din of the cafeteria unnerved me. I was crushed by my art teacher’s refusal to let me into the art club because I was “not being good enough,” even though every other kid in my reading group got in. I got anxious when my test scores dropped below 95. Every night, I either took forever to fall asleep because I was so worried about the next day, or I’d wake with a start after having drifted off, overwhelmed by a looming anxiety that I had left something undone the day before.
Luckily, I wasn’t alone. My most trusted nighttime companion was a small Sony cube called the Dream Machine. The radio had blue glowing digits, a white, increasingly scuffed exterior, and tinny speakers. “Radio is a sound salvation,” sings Elvis Costello on his famous single about AM/FM love, and this couldn’t have been truer for me. Hearing pop songs alone in my room at night, when the world outside was still and dark, was my secret lifeline. I concentrated intently on the music, making note of the key change near the end of Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me,” delighting at the way the guitar intro snapped Bruce Springsteen’s “Cover Me” to life, and letting the plushness of Cherelle and Alexander O’Neale’s “Saturday Love” serve as extra stuffing for my pillow. I studied the cadences of the DJs, tried to replicate them while reciting skits into my own tape player, and wrote down track names so I could find the singles at Record World. With the help of the Dream Machine, I came to view songs not just as entertainment to enjoy and consume, but as companions—sometimes even support systems.
My anxiety-prone elementary school years dovetailed with the rise of Z100, the New York City Top 40 station that, after its 1983 launch, rode the incredible pop music being put out back then—Michael, Madonna, Cyndi, Bruce—to utter dominance. Everyone I knew listened to Z100—it was pretty much what you did as a kid in elementary school in order to keep up socially back then. (Until sixth grade, that is, when a few students switched alliances to the new radio station on the block, Hot 103, making their devotion known via rub-on letters applied to their desks. Despite their disloyalty, the Z still dominated.)
While my peers enjoyed tuning in from time to time, I felt like I actually had a relationship with the station, thanks to my solo listening sessions. I vividly remember the day when the Z Morning Zoo, which usually kicked off its mélange of gossip, novelty songs, and chatter at 6 AM, started extra-extra early, like pre-pre-crack of dawn, because Bruce Springsteen had reportedly gotten hitched in secret and there was no point in holding the inevitable wagging of tongues. This exciting anomaly gave me a charge that lasted weeks.
When my Dream Machine died, my parents gave me a big-girl stereo—a black Emerson with a dual cassette deck, a record player, and actual speakers. That was the year I entered middle school, a shift in locale that resulted in a shift in my tastes. The super-polished pop music defined by the likes of New Kids on the Block had fallen out of my favor, and I wanted to put my new speakers to harder work.
I was snobbishly defiant about the reasons for my departure from the realm of the boy bands: I was a nerd, but at least I wasn’t uncool, I decided, like I thought those well-manicured guys showing off synchronized dance moves were. I decided to look to the west, toward Los Angeles and the Sunset Strip machine that pumped out large-haired rocker boys faster than you could say “Home Sweet Home.” Leading the pack: the grimy, groany quintet Guns N’ Roses, who drew me in with their besotted smash “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” There was an air of unknowable danger in the tales of putting liquor on credit cards and dancing with “Mr. Brownstone” (this was a landlord, I figured at the time, blithely unaware that, no, it was actually about drugs.) I found them totally thrilling.
In hindsight, it’s hard not to see the NKOTB and GNR as analogs: Each comprised five good-looking men who fit easily into archetypes—the wide-eyed young thing, the bad boy, the cool guy, et cetera. The groups’ offerings were equally catchy; the “whoa, oh-oh-oh” of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and the “oh, oh, oh-oh-oh” of “You Got It” share at least some DNA. And their images were also built to appeal to young women—for every issue of Bop that my friends used to decorate their lockers, I had a Metal Edge pinup laying in wait. At the time, though, I considered their differences vast, and aligned myself firmly with GNR’s studiously edgy persona.
Every night at 9, Z100 counted down what it claimed were the day’s five most-requested songs, as announced by listeners. I would call in to try my luck often, and one night during the holiday season I wound up getting through to not just announce a song, but the song—number one, which just so happened to be “New Kids Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” a boy-band-backlash parody of the ode to grandma’s untimely demise.
And so, “Maura from Hicksville” got to hear herself broadcast live from the top of the Empire State Building over a crackling phone line. I was in awe of this opportunity to let the world (or at least my perception of the world at the time) know what the night’s biggest song was. I was 14, and those not-even-10 seconds were the hugest moment in my life, even if it ended in a flash and a lot of stammering. From then on, I wanted to exist on the radio.
Eventually, I found a few classmates with similar tastes. We had sleepovers where we watched Headbangers Ball, MTV’s midnight-on-Saturday outpost for what record companies decided fell under the hard-rock rubric, and we trawled the rock-memorabilia stand at the local flea market for T-shirts and bootleg recordings of concerts. But on the weekends, suburban afternoons stretched out endlessly, particularly on bad-weather days. The boredom afforded by TV-watching led us to discover the lower half of the FM spectrum, which was crowded with non-commercial stations full of DJs who weren’t much older than us.
The first one we discovered was all the way at the end of the dial, so far down that sometimes tuning it in involved strategic placement of not only the radio’s antenna, but sometimes the entire device. On the weekends, it went all-metal, all the time. We taped songs we liked, creating chaotic mixes where the opening seconds of each song—Megadeth’s “Liar,” Metallica’s “Last Caress”—were cut off.
Over time we collectively mustered up the courage to call the station and make requests. We’d chat with the DJs and their interns for chunks of their shifts, giggling at their jokes and waiting patiently for them to return while they had to speak on air. Our calls weren’t patched through, but being a sort of silent presence in the studio excited me; I twirled my phone’s cord between my fingers and wonder what exactly the room on the other end looked like. Was it low-lit, like so many radio stations that I saw on TV? Were the records kept in there, too? How many people could fit inside the booth?
On my own, I explored other stations and programs, too: the Thursday night alt-rock show where the DJ played the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Starla” at my request, the Sunday-night stretch hosted by a DJ who liked bowling. As I called in more regularly, I developed minor crushes on their hosts—how could I not? I was shy and awkward, and these guys, these older guys, were taking time out of their shows to talk to me, laughing at my jokes, finding me interesting, even though I existed as a disembodied voice who somehow knew the ins and outs of Pearl Jam’s taxonomy.
These crushes came as much from wanting these guys as it did wanting to be them—or, at least, to become a radio personality myself. They were also effectively showing me the DJ ropes via telephone when they explained to me why they needed to put down the phone for a second. I learned the rhythm and lingo, like “cart” was (a large cassette that contained public service announcements and other pre-recorded material), why four-song sets were preferred (to keep listeners’ interests during between-song rundowns), and why the word “piss” in Megadeth’s “Liar” had been artlessly cut out from the version on my friend’s cassette (it was one of the FCC‘s taboo words).
When I shipped off to college, these long phone calls proved useful. I found myself able to jump right into not one, but two radio stations of my own—one in my dorm, and one whose signal fanned out over half of Chicago. The first time I got behind the microphone at my college station, I was unspeakably nervous. I felt responsibility for people like the younger me who might have been listening, and I wanted to give them what my Dream Machine had given me. As the show started, I fell into a rhythm, thanks to a ton of practice, and everything went fine. But that feeling of wanting to connect over the FM waves has never gone away. Even now, when I’m on the air in Boston at my current DJ gig, I think about 15-year-olds who might be listening in, looking for something outside their immediate worlds and/or iTunes libraries—searching for sound salvation on the radio. ♦