American Top 40 PastBlast, 4/5/80: Charlie Dore, “Pilot of the Airwaves”

The first two things I can remember possibly wanting to do with my life were being a writer and a disk jockey.

In elementary school, I mostly imagined myself penning mystery stories (perhaps influenced by reading The Three Investigators at age 9). I was good at starting them—what I could remember of dreams after I awoke was often an impetus—but much less good at finishing them. On at least one occasion, I went so far as to draft tables of contents for a whole series of short stories, featuring Kent Holder, Boy Detective (yes, I was to be the model for Kent—I guess I also aspired to be a skinny Jupiter Jones; two of my female classmates would have been the inspiration for Kent’s partners in sleuthing). My friend Terak loved to draw and had real talent—in those early years, he was to be my illustrator.  I kept at the short story form in fits and starts up through college. I still have pretty much everything I wrote, but very little of it, if any, is the least bit good, even allowing for age and experience—among other things, I don’t have an ear for dialogue. This blogging project seems to suit me better so far, at least in terms of writing style and being able to stick with it. My life has hardly been exciting, but it’s been immense fun to scratch an itch I’d forgotten I had.

I was already becoming pretty fascinated by the radio a little before I turned 12, but it was discovering AT40 shortly thereafter that really put the charge in things. Right after sixth grade ended, I started keeping my charts, and I also started buying 45s (the first purchases, from Sears, were “Love Is Alive,” “More, More, More,” and “Rock and Roll Music”). I’m plenty tended toward obsession; pop music and listening to Casey held sway through high school. As my 45 collection grew, I took to playing them on my dad’s hi-fi, and it wasn’t long before I began play-acting a countdown show—you-know-who, obviously, was the exemplar. I kept records of my own imaginary charts, the contents of which came from the A- and B-sides my sister and I owned.

For Christmas 76, when I was in seventh grade, my parents bought me my own portable turntable, one that was absolutely perfect for me (I think it also came from Sears). It was a faux radio station set-up, complete with headphones, mic, and a board for making notes to DJs (the board is the only thing that remains of it—note that I never erased it after a neighborhood friends wrote his name in the jock slot one time). There was a sticker on the front of the turntable with call letters: WQSR. Over the next couple of years, I did a lot of pretend DJ-ing in my room. The needle wasn’t all that good, and several of my 45s would skip (“Lonely Boy”) or jump back (“New Kid in Town”). But I had a blast.

In eighth grade, band kids didn’t have Health & PE; instead we had four enrichment classes, one each nine-week period. I can’t remember all of what I had—one was industrial arts, and I think I had some sort of business-oriented thing, “taught” by the head basketball coach. There was also a communications unit—I think that was during the third nine weeks, so we’re talking January to March of 78—led by Mr. May, the art teacher. I was pleased that it focused on radio communications and included a project where groups would do a short “radio show.” The folks I was with decided we would be WILL—I did not suggest it! (I discovered eight years later there really is a WILL, after I moved to Champaign-Urbana—it’s the public radio station at the University of Illinois.)

We wrote a script and before long it was our turn to present in front of the class. I believe there was no turntable, no music to play—I guess it was supposed to be more of a talk/news gig? The members of my group followed our notes, and then, when my turn came up, it happened. As part of my patter, I was to give our call letters, and the habit formed in the months spent spinning disks at home kicked in: “This is Will Harris, here at WQSR…” I turned red. One of my group-mates burst out laughing. I sorta tried to explain, though talking about one’s fantasy life at age 14 might not be the smartest move. In the end it wasn’t a scarring experience and I imagine everyone (except me) forgot about it pretty quickly, but I was already not particularly socially adept; I didn’t need to do anything else that served to confirm my awkwardness.

As I went through high school, my dreams of becoming a radio jock subsided, though being involved with WTLX was certainly my favorite out-of-class pursuit at Transy. I’m still known among plenty of the folks I grew up with as the guy who listened slavishly to AT40 and could spout all sorts of useless music trivia.

There are at least three bloggers I follow, though, who pursued that dream much farther than I did. I greatly enjoy reading about their experiences in radio, even if they weren’t always glamorous. The role of on-air personality has changed so much (and is much less common) since my youth. Come to think of it, the same seems to be coming true of jobs in higher education, as well.

I’ve tried in vain to find an image of that turntable on the internet (or even better, one for sale on eBay). I upgraded to a larger stereo, complete with cassette, 8-track player, and speakers, when I was a HS senior; WQSR had likely been out of operation for a couple of years by then.

I learned recently that those call letters popped up in Baltimore in the early 80s and are still in use today.

The spring I was 16, Charlie Dore, a drama student from the UK who also dabbled as a singer-songwriter, had “Pilot of the Airwaves,” her charming ode to a late-night DJ, reach #13 on the charts (it’s #26 here). It’s told from the perspective of a young female listener, not the guy behind the microphone, but it speaks truth to me about the relationship that exists (existed is likely more accurate) between sender and receiver. It was a favorite then, and still is now. The version played in the clip below is from the LP, not the (US) single. The difference is the ending: the single closed with a reprise of the a capella chorus from the beginning; I think I prefer the energetic, buoyant fade-out we see here, with that one final plea from Charlie for her request to be played.

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