I'm always on the lookout for college radio references in pop culture and some of the most interesting happen to be real life tales recounted in books.
A new book, Kill the Music: The Chronicle of a College Radio Idealist's Rock and Roll Rebellion in an Era of Intrusive Morality and Censorship, by Michael Plumides includes college radio as a backdrop. This time the location is South Carolina, the era is the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the affiliated radio station is WUSC-FM. Plumides was a DJ at WUSC and also ran the 4808 club, the site of an infamous incident at a GWAR show involving accusations of obscenity on the one hand and censorship on the other.
I interviewed Michael to learn a bit more about his book and how college radio figured in to the whole Charlotte/Columbia, South Carolina scene back in the day. In our email discussion he talks about his introduction to college radio in the 1980s, his DJ gig at the now defunct WLOZ (University of North Carolina, Wilmington) when it was a cable FM station (and after the station's infamous drug scandals), DJing at WUSC, the current state of college radio, censorship and music, and his "indie" approach to his new book Kill the Music.
On to the interview:
Spinning Indie: What drew you to college radio?
Michael Plumides: College radio. You know, I was always a big alternative music fan: The B-52’s, REM, The Ramones, The Cars, Flying Lizards, Thompson Twins, English Beat, and Talking Heads. Problem was that my hometown of Charlotte, NC, did not and still doesn’t have a true college radio station.
In the early eighties, while in high school, I used to listen to a station at Davidson, the call letters were WDAV-FM; and they had a “college radio hour”, but aired only on Saturday around midnight. WFAE-FM was originally assigned, and licensed to UNC-Charlotte and played easy listening, classical, and big band. WFAE had shows like “Night Moods” playing cool jazz tunes by Earl Klugh, David Sanborn, and Sade, but it was never run by students, and was too adult for my sensibilities.
Anyway, I went down to Atlanta in June of 1983 to see a B-52’s show, but we stopped off in Athens to pick up a friend. That was the first time I heard college radio. WUOG-FM. I was hooked. It was new and it wasn’t Duran Duran. So, when I started college at University of South Carolina in the fall of that year, I tuned in daily to WUSC-FM, when they had just upped their range to 3000 kilowatts. Before then, I had to resort to the back pages of Rolling Stone Magazine to find my music; it seemed to be the tabloid of record for the period.
Eventually, WFAE was moved to Uptown Charlotte, and now is primarily an NPR station. Some students were up in arms. Their position was that WFAE had been high-jacked by the city, and believed that the station had actually belonged to UNCC, where I went to summer school one semester. In an effort to compromise with students interested in establishing a “student run” radio station in the early nineties, the SGA entertained the idea of starting a new station, but insisted on a student poll to determine the future radio station’s format. The verdict? Top 40. Students lost interest.
Spinning Indie: Tell me a bit about the first station where you DJ'd and when you were there?
Michael: The WLOZ-FM station, originally broadcast from UNCW on 91.3 (now public radio WHQR's frequency) before being shut down by administrators in 1983 because of a drug scandal. Supposedly, the student broadcasters called out to their dope smoking customers on-air, using code language to indicate that certain packages had arrived. The death knell came when a deejay took a bong hit while broadcasting.
In the mid-eighties, WLOZ returned as "cable radio station," requiring a special hookup to your cable TV. You had to go to Radio Shack and buy this coaxial antennae device to rig to your receiver. Needless to say, we had a deeply disturbed following. I was in on the “Cable FM” incarnation (90.9) in 1985 and 1986, where I acquired my first FCC license, and then I transferred back to USC. For a time in the late '90s, WLOZ broadcast an extremely weak signal on 89.1 FM that could more or less only be heard on campus. That station ceased functioning in 2001. I understand they’re now a net broadcast.
Spinning Indie: When did you join WUSC and what years were you there?
Michael: I joined WUSC in September of 1986, and I was there through May of 1988, and was Promotions Director for my last year there. They paid me $18 every two weeks. That’s an extra few beer cases every month. Bonus.
Spinning Indie: How did WUSC compare with WLOZ?
Michael: WUSC-FM was very organized, and had recently been celebrated as one of the “Tastemakers” in Rolling Stone Magazine circa October 1986 in the “College Issue.” WLOZ was a good springboard experience for me and taught me my way around a control room. Speaking of which, the one advantage of WLOZ’s control room was it was brand spanking new, and WUSC’s control room was a little more “lived in.” It’s still the same, with some minor changes.
But WUSC was established and very connected. We had deejays moonlighting for Capitol Records, and some got tons of payola, which later became a no-no in college radio. I was fortunate in that when I transferred back to USC, I had radio experience and I was personable. That worked for and against me. But I bypassed all the bull shit that a lot of other trainees had to go through. I guess it was easy for me, and it wasn’t supposed to be.
Spinning Indie: What role did WUSC play in the music community of Charlotte when you were there as both a DJ and a club owner?
Michael: As I mention in the book, “Columbia and Charlotte were only 90 miles apart but they might as well have been a million miles away from each other.” But I would occasionally drive to Charlotte to interview bands at the old Coliseum. Some of the bands performing there, usually the opening acts, were getting airplay in Columbia that no one would touch in “The Queen City” on our station.
WUSC was a fixture in Columbia, SC, by the time I started working there. The station had “partnerships” with certain clubs and bars in town, albeit unofficially. Saved the venues a lot of add dollars. But I think that WUSC was an intricate part of the University. I think it’s a necessary function at any major learning institution to have a college radio station. I think a college radio station adds legitimacy, just as much as a good football or basketball team. Well, at least as much legitimacy as a decent soccer team.
Spinning Indie: In your book you write a bit about conflicts and politics at WUSC and how you were accused of breaking FCC rules even though you had an aircheck that proved otherwise. What did most DJs think of station rules/enforcement at the time?
Michael: Interestingly, my own college radio station, WUSC, has not embraced my book, refusing to interview me on two separate occasions. I guess they’ve taken offense to some of my insights. What I don’t understand is, I was very kind to WUSC-FM in KILL THE MUSIC, and the only scathing commentary in the book refers to the “Fat chicks in black” who abused their positions of authority twenty years ago. There again, Bruce Dickenson of Iron Maiden, took offense personally to the film “Spinal Tap.” Go figger.
The way I see it, some rules are meant to be bent, and others broken. And I was always a “push the envelope” kind of guy. I think I provoked some of the more timid guys to grow some balls and stand up for themselves, because everyone was sick of the Gestapo tactics. In that sense, I may have represented a threat to their system. Maybe I still do. I don’t know. I’m a little far removed from their Cheney-esque, behind-closed-doors decisions. I refer to their politics in the book, where the conniving reminded me of “witches peering over a cauldron of defiance and absurdity” and their plotting and plundering was reminiscent of “Macbeth.”
Spinning Indie: Do you think the 1980s were the heyday of college radio?
Michael: Some refer to that period as the “heyday” of college radio. I think that it may have been, because of college radio’s diversity. College radio created nineties commercial radio. Had it not been for the advances in programming established by college radio, and documented by CMJ, and other media, the Nirvana-era induced alt. rock explosion would have never happened.
At the time, we were playing Bad Brains, Black Flag, and The Replacements, “Left of the Dial” along with Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy, and Jane’s Addiction; all landmark bands. I remember us playing Guns-N-Roses way before anyone. The same with Metallica, Motorhead, and Megadeth. That whole metal era was first embraced by college radio. Now college radio has metamorphed into something else. I can’t put my finger on it, or pigeon-hole it, but definitely more “Americana” than before.
Spinning Indie: Do you still listen to college radio? What stations do you admire?
Michael: College radio was more versatile then, than it is today. A lot less eclectic. I think the trend for college radio now is to focus more on the rootsy sound, similar to WNCW-FM, which services Asheville, NC, and surrounding regions, now even Charlotte. They’ve been big supporters of my book. I recently did an interview there, and they have the podcast up on their website.
WNCW isn’t a true college radio station either, but they’ve managed to balance NPR news broadcasts with Wilco, Zappa, and the Avett Brothers. They even simulcasted from Bonnaroo this year, and are funded primarily by private donations. Due to budget cuts, WNCW is struggling a little. I’ve offered to do anything I can to help.
Spinning Indie: Do you think that the incident that you experienced at your club with the GWAR show could happen today? Why or why not?
Michael: Censorship has a way of popping up in the oddest places. There’s legislation introduced before the City Council of Chicago right now to require all hard rock promoters to purchase an expensive license, in order to promote even the smallest shows. Green Day’s new album 21st Century Breakdown was banned from Walmart.
I read recently in The Charlotte Observer that parents were in an uproar in North Carolina about a semi-nude rendering in a recent issue of the DC comic, Batman, a mother purchased at the public library. NC’s film industry was recently scuttled after clamor from the right to review all scripts before films can receive subsidies from the state. The Fed blamed Marilyn Manson for the Columbine Massacre. There are forces at work trying to censor porn on the internet.
Yes, I believe what happened with GWAR could happen again. Americans need villains, to call attention away from their own inequities. And as long as there is sensationalized ‘yellow’ journalism out there to “exploit so you will consume,” there will always be people up in arms about something or another. It gives them purpose. Rock and Roll has always been an easy target, and they come at you when you least expect it.
Spinning Indie: Anything else?
Michael: KILL THE MUSIC will be available in Kindle format August 10, 2009, and right now Anne Saunders, my editor and partner and I are working on our marketing strategies for the upcoming second edition. The book will have an excerpt featured in the fall issue of BLURT Magazine, and soon thereafter we hope to have KILL THE MUSIC in major bookstores such as Barnes and Noble, and Borders nationwide. It's presently being sold in various stores throughout the southeast: Charlotte, Columbia, and Atlanta, as well as on-line at Amazon.com, Target.com, and Alibris.com.
We've done the whole thing "indie" in every sense of the word; very grass roots, and so far, the reception has been great. Even some talks about a film based on the book. So, something that caused me disgrace and misery many years ago, as illustrated in the book, is now getting me noticed as a writer. Probably the most ironic thing I can think of in all this is, I failed typing.
Thanks so much to Michael Plumides for sharing his tales about college radio. My favorite quote from the interview is something that I'll have to dig up the next time I'm asked why college radio is so important:
"I think it’s a necessary function at any major learning institution to have a college radio station. I think a college radio station adds legitimacy, just as much as a good football or basketball team. Well, at least as much legitimacy as a decent soccer team."
I wish Michael luck on his book tour!