NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
During the late ’80s and early ’90s I served as music director and station manager at WDCV. I enjoyed the radio station so much that I (perhaps foolishly) passed up the opportunity to study abroad during my junior year to continue running the station. Quite simply I was too in love with the mystery and romance of the medium, its simultaneously ephemeral and enduring nature, to tear myself away. Everything I broadcast was instantly lost in the ether, yet it might provide a memory that could last a listener’s lifetime. I loved knowing that I might brighten the evening of someone pulling the late-night shift at a gas station, connect with someone spending time in jail (I got a lot of collect calls from the prison) or provide the soundtrack to someone’s first adventures in the back seat of a car. Of course it was possible that no one at all was listening, but I took pleasure in imagining the possibilities.
During this time WDCV typically broadcast “alternative” rock on weekday mornings and evenings. If you tuned into 88.3 FM in Carlisle you might have heard the mopey splendor of The Smiths, the neurotic buzz of the Throwing Muses, the high-octane bubblegum punk of the Descendents or the soon-to-be-popular “grunge rock” of Nirvana. Afternoons were given over to the music of the ascendant hip-hop culture—the pioneering rap music of Public Enemy, Salt-n-Pepa, Ice-T, Boogie Down Productions and others. Weekends were reserved for the more eclectic jazz, blues, classical, Christian rock and gospel.
Early in the spring 1990 semester, a young woman (whose name I no longer recall) approached me about a Broadway show tunes program. I felt it would be a perfect match for our Sunday-evening programming and gave her a show immediately, bypassing the usual semesterlong apprenticeship. Though my own enthusiasm for show tunes would not blossom until later in life, I was very impressed by her large collection of original cast recordings, as well as her passion for the music. I didn’t know how someone in her late teens had acquired such an encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes, but I imagined that she came from an archetypical American family that retired to the parlor after dinner to sing show tunes around the family piano. I gave her a two-week crash course in radio programming, introduced her to the world of cueing and mixing and explained how to best project her voice over the air. She struck me as very shy and reserved, but by the end of the second week I felt she had gained enough confidence to handle the show on her own.
I checked in with her the fourth week of her program. She told me in a voice that betrayed her distress that things had not gone well. After she announced the station’s phone number for requests, she was instantly bombarded with hundreds of ranting, obscene phone calls demanding that she get off the air immediately. Apparently some wires had gotten crossed at the local cable TV company and, that particular Sunday, viewers who had tuned in to hear Pat Summerall and John Madden comment on Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers’ 55-10 dismantling of John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV were instead treated to show tunes direct from the basement of the HUB.
This must have been a frightening experience for this young woman, but I must confess to a certain perverse pleasure in knowing that the most macho of all-American holidays had been disrupted by show tunes. Imagine the most extreme contrapuntal juxtapositions of sound and image, say Carol Lawrence singing “I Feel Pretty” as Elway gets sacked for the fifth time or Barbara Streisand offering the musical opinion that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world” as Bobby Humphrey gets stuffed by Matt Millen for a three-yard loss.
Perhaps the incident was more prosaic than what I envisioned and viewers were treated to something more appropriate to the occasion such as the musical pugilism of Ethel Merman and Ray Middleton singing “Anything You Can Do.” No doubt the overwhelming majority of the audience would have preferred to hear from Summerall and Madden, and they weren’t shy about letting her know this. Despite the misery this young woman endured that day, I have to confess a small degree of jealousy, as she reached a larger audience that day than I ever did.
—Willis Peter Bilderback ’91