I didn't know that I would be the last DJ on WRVU as we knew it.
College Music Journal had reported Monday, June 6, that our call letters had mysteriously changed to WFCL. No one at Vanderbilt Student Communications had told the station staff or us DJs about it. We'd been innocently misidentifying the station in legal IDs for nearly a week. Speculation was proliferating about a sale, either a done deal or an imminent prospect, and VSC had done nothing to squelch it. Program director Scott Cardone had advised DJs to "run every show as if it were your last."
Our Tuesday schedule featured a block of automation from 1 to 4 p.m. (In 2009, the number of "community volunteers" — that is, DJs who were not students, faculty or staff members, or alumni of Vanderbilt — had been limited to 25 by VSC action, and the summer schedule was thus riddled with gaps.) I thought it would be a shame to have the robot DJ (nicknamed "HAL" by staffers) on the air at such a delicate time. I took a vacation day from work and packed up a bag of CDs — not the R&B, jump blues and jazz that I played on my regular show Nashville Jumps, but an assortment of aggressive rock and punk that I thought reflected the core of WRVU at its best. It appeared I'd only be able to work until 2:30, though — VSC's electronic media adviser Jim Hayes told me that station engineer Carl Pedersen was scheduled to take over the studio for some maintenance then.
I sat through much of Ashley Crownover's show Set Records to Stun but missed the visit of WSMV News to the control room. There is footage of Ashley as DJ on the WSMV website — she looks flattened and forlorn, mirroring The Jam song she played toward the end of her show, "The Bitterest Pill." She told me that there was talk of an announcement, a press release, a press conference —something — later that afternoon.
I took over at 1 and began a fill-in edition of Rock and Roll Rent Control, my off-and-on secondary program. Early on I mentioned the maintenance scheduled for 2:30, naively telling the audience, "If you hear me suddenly go away, it's not anything nefarious going on — I don't think." I played a set sprinkled with songs given special meaning by the situation, some only in my mind — "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio" by the Ramones, "Left of the Dial" by the Replacements, "No Fun" by the Stooges, "Mind Your Own Business" by Delta 5. I kept reciting both sets of call letters and promising an explanation of the switch before long.
Two-thirty came and went without Pedersen. Around 2:40 Jim Hayes entered and said that I'd need to finish up anyway. I asked why it was so important for Pedersen to do his maintenance at this particular time — I blush about this now! — and tried to get Hayes to tell me what was up, since the news would be out soon anyway. Visibly embarrassed — I don't think he is the villain in this story — he said he couldn't tell me anything, and that the order for maintenance had come from "on high." With a bit of grace sadly lacking in VSC personnel, he let me put on the Lambchop song — "I've Been Lonely for So Long" — that I'd cued up.
I then pleaded for one more song, something appropriate to the moment, though I hadn't yet realized how much of a moment it was. I promised Hayes it wouldn't be a "fuck-you" (thus eliminating Elvis Costello's "Radio Radio" from consideration, though I really didn't want to go that direction anyway). Thank goodness the Lambchop song isn't short, because I really had to hunt to find an appropriate signoff — I'd already used most of them. Frantically scanning the back of the No Thanks! punk rock box from Rhino, I came across "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" by Johnny Thunders. That would do, even though Thunders couldn't sing a lick and the lyrics are pretty clumsy. The chorus says plenty.
With Hayes standing by, I gathered my things and got out of the studio just as Pedersen arrived. I told Hayes that while I knew the news would be bad, I was curious about the details — for example, I assumed we wouldn't be turning over the station tomorrow. He responded with an embarrassed chuckle.
Within a half hour I had read VSC chairman Marc Wollaeger's email to WRVU staff and the press release from VSC and WPLN. We were done broadcasting for the day — no announcement would be made as I'd promised — and we were turning over the station tomorrow. I walked back to the studio and slid my ID card through the reader, fruitlessly. DJs, it appeared, had already been locked out.
Hayes responded to my knock. He was talking to general manager Robert Ackley, who looked like he'd been hit by a cannonball. I said a couple of dumb things meant to console him, and we all departed.
I enjoyed DJ-ing at WRVU about as much as I've enjoyed anything in my life. I told The Contributor that I hoped to be doing Nashville Jumps the Friday morning before I die. WRVU has been a big part of my social life — I'm pretty hermitlike otherwise. It's been a means of self-expression, if only through the choice and sequencing of songs. And hosting Nashville Jumps is something I am good at. It's a blessing to find a role in life for which your knowledge, abilities and proclivities prepare you — and you especially. Hundreds of Vanderbilt students have felt the same joy, I'm sure.
I suppose they may continue to find that joy on the online-and-HD-only version of WRVU that we are promised in the fall. But I think it will be diminished along with the audience. HD radio is a marginal medium — I have never heard anyone talk about it before this week. There are economic and technological limitations to the number of listeners who can be accommodated online, and, of course, those without computers or sufficient savvy are completely shut out. The serendipity of traditional broadcast radio is also missing. When Nashville Jumps floated on the airwaves, any Nashvillian whose finger slipped on the tuner dial while they drove to work could pull it in and keep listening if they liked it. Online, the station is just one audio stream among thousands and thousands, and chance encounters are unlikely.
VSC likes to focus the WRVU discussion on the station's benefit to students. They say that declining radio listenership among them makes the operation of a real station inessential. They say that an online/HD simulation will suffice as a learning experience for students interested in a broadcasting career. This narrow focus reflects, and is ostensibly justified by, what VSC is — an independent corporation with limited resources that is allowed to conceive for itself what student media are and what they should become. VSC student media advisor Chris Carroll's vision of student media has never included broadcast radio. He's excited by online "convergence" of the text-based VSC divisions, with lots of video added. More significantly, he appears to place no value on an activity which appeals, admittedly, more to the Nashville community than to Vanderbilt students.
Some might say that part of WRVU's value is connecting students with the Nashville community, allowing each group to learn from the other. Some might point out that WRVU is the only VSC division that pulls students outside the Vanderbilt bubble. That is irrelevant to student media as the current VSC understands it. VSC saw a $3.35 million asset that could be sold to buttress declining advertising revenues and ensure that seven full-time employees' salaries would continue to be paid.
What's lost? The real-world immediacy that made broadcast radio a better learning experience than online simulation. The respect of students, alumni and Nashvillians who were patronized, told half-truths and kept in the dark until June 7. And one of the best ways of sharing culture that Vanderbilt ever had.
That last one doesn't seem relevant to VSC, of course. But it's why the university administration should have taken action. WRVU gave people all over Middle Tennessee music of all kinds to enjoy for free. It was a site of cultural production at an exceedingly democratic level. Not only could it be received by anyone with a few dollars for a radio, but that same person could find him or herself on the transmitting end as well. In addition to dedicated students, WRVU drew smart, imaginative outsiders into its arms and gave them an opportunity to entertain, educate and inspire as part of a Vanderbilt enterprise. (Many of us conspiracy theorists see the 2009 crackdown on "community volunteers" as the beginning of the end — so much potential for great shows was lost.)
"A radio alternative is as important as an MFA program or an endowed chair, because it represents the university's continued commitment to independence and cultural diversity," said celebrated author and faculty member Peter Guralnick in a promotional clip made for WRVU. I think it was as important a part of Vanderbilt's cultural mission as the Great Performances series or Blair School concerts.
Sure, Nashville now has a shiny new all-classical station — that's great. But an NPR classical station rarely will open a listener's mind to a whole new sound or a provocative lyric. It's not likely to make him or feel part of a culture a-brewing. It's a museum, not a jam session. It's all successes, no failures. It's all uplift, no ass-kicking.
Listening to WRVU could be painful at times. Some DJs never seemed to master the simplest technical feats. Some fumbled through talk breaks that were too long anyway.
No one was going to like everything on the air — I have often wondered what a DJ could possibly hear in what he was playing, or how an incoherent lyric earnestly mumbled over acoustic guitar strumming had the bad taste even to exist. But the show changed every one or two hours, and among the more routine indie, hip-hop or dubstep fare you'd find wonderful genre programs like Hipbilly Jamboree (country, rockabilly, western swing), Sounds of the Bayou (Cajun, zydeco, New Orleans), Spoonful (blues), and Viva Vaia (adventurous Brazilian sounds). We had rock-ish shows made special by unmistakable individuality, like Karaoke Blackout, Needles + Pins, and Curse of the Drinking Class. We had shows that explored the musical avant-garde, like Theatre Intangible. We had the Persian Show! Modern dance music was provided by acknowledged master DJ Ron, who also hosted 91 Out of the Closet. We should have had more issue-oriented talk programs like that one — Liberadio! was another, in its time.
I hosted Nashville Jumps. When I started, it seemed to me that while many swing masters, Chicago-style bluesmen and soul singers were familiar to the public, there were hundreds of African-American musicians from the late ’30s through the early ’60s whose records were little-known today but should be heard. Many of them were obscure because they fell outside the myths that drive mass-media coverage of black music. They weren't rural shadows like Robert Johnson. They weren't Great Northern Migration narratives like Muddy Waters. They weren't Geniuses of Soul like Ray Charles. They didn't improvise enough to be heard as jazz, and they were often too pop for blues. They were more likely to record in New York or Los Angeles or Cincinnati — or even Nashville — than in mythic Memphis. Their music was labeled jive or hokum, then jump blues, then rhythm and blues, and then what I call "unbleached rock and roll." And they made some of the most exciting records the United States ever produced. This wasn't museum fare — this was unfamiliar to most listeners, and screamingly alive.
I wanted to introduce Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Big Maybelle, Jimmy Liggins and Bullmoose Jackson to any ears I could reach. I would also play more familiar performers like Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and Little Richard, and mix in instrumental jazz for variety and class. I wanted to set ghost after ghost free on Nashville's airwaves to find people to haunt. A few years ago, I started to play Cecil Gant's "Nashville Jumps" at the end of every show. I always imagine Cecil, dead 60 years this February, waiting for his cue to play us out.
WRVU let me do this. I shared some of the greatest popular music of the 20th century with thousands of people who had never heard it before, who had not sought it out, who did not have expensive equipment to help them find it, who might never have heard it otherwise. That's why WRVU was important. I hope to continue Nashville Jumps one way or another, but without WRVU it would never have begun.
I am signing off now. In the meantime: Silas, you joined Alberto and World Famous Wayne, my other two most frequent callers, in phoning me during that last show on June 7. You requested Little Richard. How long can you wait?
Email firstname.lastname@example.org.Vanderbilt's beloved 91 Rock is no longer on the air. Has Nashville lost an irreplaceable institution, or gained an opportunity?
I doubt she'd choke on yours.
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