Jim Bishop: Radio-Active … Staying in Tune With Frequency

Column by Jim Bishop

Surely there are days when you don’t feel like it. So, why do you do it, week after week?

A reasonable query, but it caught me up short, perhaps in part because I had to answer on the spot, in front of a room of people who already were wondering about this weird guy.

I was speaking to a “Pop Culture and Mass Communication” class of college students, reflecting on what commercial radio was like in my growing up days on the outskirts of Philadelphia in the late 1950s, my involvement in radio programming and announcing and changes I’ve seen in the medium over the years.

I was supposed to talk about 15 minutes, but some 20 minutes later was still expounding on my passion for Guglielmo Marconi’s invention – although some would credit Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla as the father of wireless communication.

I told students how I carried my Silvertone 6-transistor radio with me everywhere I went, the plastic dial stuck at radio 99, WIBG, Philadelphia. The radio came on the moment I awakened; I listened in my dark bedroom when I should have been asleep. I played an actual program segment from the late Joe (“The Rockin’ Bird”) Niagara, legendary deejay at “Wibbage” radio from 1957, noting that back then, we listened as much to hear the mesmerizing chatter of the air personalities as much as for the music being played.

But the unexpected query from the professor was apparently triggered by my description of the “homemade,” make-believe radio station that my neighbor, Jim Helmbold, and I set up in his basement that same year and operated continuously for nearly three years – WJIM, 540 AM, the “1,000-watt powerhouse” in suburban Doylestown, Pa.

We spent countless hours behind the mike and turntables, spinning 45 rpm discs, giving the weather, time and temperature as part of our patter. One of us would sign off, and the other would take over with much more music (and, no commercials!).

Every Saturday, we put together and counted down the top 20 hits, which wasn’t a problem, since buddy Jim went out and bought whatever was popular on any given week. I contributed a few discs from my meager allowance. The best thing was: these compilations were our own favorite tunes, i.e., “Velvet Waters,” a 1959 instrumental that barely charted, was our No. 1 song for weeks.

At one point, we announced a major power increase for the station, set a date and hyped it for all its worth. Just before that magical day arrived, my parents decided to go out of town as a family. I stayed behind, because I didn’t want to miss the magical hour of much more music power.

“Do you think that almost became an addiction, an obsession, somewhat like playing video games non-stop or being glued to the Internet today?” Dr. Stutzman asked. As a kid, I never thought of it that way, but perhaps it was.

I prefer to think of my rendezvous with radio as a fulfillment of a childhood dream. I received little encouragement to pursue a broadcasting career; in fact, my school didn’t even have a guidance counselor those days (who, if we did, probably would have tried to convince me to grow up and make something of myself).

To be immersed in radio – contending with the unforeseen, pressure deadlines and need for preciseness and staying cool, come what may, while observing that most of it is being done today by persons much younger than me – is both unnerving and challenging. But, that’s as it should be.

I keep producing and hosting my weekly “Friday Night Jukebox” ’50s music show (8 p.m., WEMC, 91.7 FM; www.wemcradio.org) and regular programs on WSVA and WBTX because I thoroughly enjoy doing so. I also feel like I’m on a mission to keep alive a musical era that has all but disappeared on the air. In turn, this helps energize and complement other ongoing journalistic endeavors. The moment it becomes a burden, I should hit the “off” switch.

What motivates us to do what we do, to make certain activities a priority and strive to give them our best effort? Is it primarily for our own sake, to boost our own self-esteem, or is it because we feel called to certain activities and believe we have something worthwhile and helpful to offer in service to others?

I hope we tilt toward the latter, pursuing labors of love that contribute to making this a better world – and we become better people ourselves in the process.

Now, that sounds like a program I don’t want to miss.

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