Mike Goes Behind the Mic

In the bowels of a building on the UD campus, our writer gets schooled in DJing by WVUD veteran Bill Barnett

Disk Jockey!

I’ve wanted to be a fast-talking radio jock since I saw American Graffiti as a kid. Wolfman Jack was the epitome of cool, sitting behind the microphone in that L.A. radio station, eating popsicles, making all those hot-rodding teens happy by playing the songs they wanted to hear.

But I never thought I’d make my fantasy a reality until I met Bill Barnett, who hosts a Saturday afternoon show at University of Delaware radio station WVUD. Unlike me, Barnett—a contemporary of mine—is living the disk jockey dream. Granted, he doesn’t get paid, but he loves it just the same, and he’s an inspiration to would-be John DeBellas the world over.

Barnett kindly invited me to join him as a guest on his “Permutations” radio show, which you can hear from 2-4 p.m. on WVUD (which, incidentally, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year) at 91.3 FM.

WVUD’s 6,800 watts of transmitting power doesn’t quite give it the transcontinental reach of legendary (and long defunct) Mexican radio station XERF-AM. According to Wolfman Jack, who made his name there, XERF-AM’s 25,000-watt “border blaster” signal caused birds to “drop dead when they flew too near the tower.” I doubt WVUD’s signal could sprain a butterfly’s ankle.

The station’s format is as free-wheeling as radio gets. Tune in and you will hear classical, hillbilly, Eastern Bloc jazz-funk (Barnett dedicated an entire show to the stuff once), along with your usual news, UD sports, and community-oriented public affairs programming.

The all-volunteer DJs at WVUD are not beholden to the almighty playlist, and listening can be every bit as educational as sitting in on one of the university’s music courses—only more fun. And no one is going to give you an F.

A Natural

Barnett, a 52-year-old Newark resident who works at UD as a systems and data analyst in the Office of Graduate and Professional Education, got his official start as a radio jock when he was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s.

He had been nursing the itch since age 8, when he received both his first LP and a portable cassette recorder as Christmas presents. “The album was Mississippi Gambler by Herbie Mann,” Barnett recalls. “I recorded it on to the cassette recorder and between tracks I introduced the songs.” The kid was a natural.

He was soon spending all his money on albums. And he developed the fervor of a missionary, showing up at every party with an armful of vinyl, eager to convert everyone in attendance to the music he loved.

As a 17-year-old freshman at Hopkins, Barnett quickly found his way to the campus radio station, secreted in a dorm basement, where a friendly DJ invited him in to watch and learn. Shortly thereafter he had his own show, which he punningly called “Das Gift der Musik” (“Gift” is the German word for “poison”). 

But life—including a stint at the University of Maryland, where he received an MBA in marketing, and subsequent professional and familial responsibilities here in Delaware (he’s married and a father of four)—took him away from his first love.

During these “lost years” Barnett dedicated his time to keeping abreast of new music on the internet and to scratching that messianic itch by writing a musical blog. But listening to new music “was a solitary endeavor,” he says, and writing wasn’t really what he wanted to do. He wanted to create “musical collages” for others to hear, and it was his wife who finally asked, “Why don’t you get your own radio show?”

Esoteric Genre-Benders

Six years have passed since Barnett found his way to WVUD and he’s doing exactly what he wants to do—putting together eclectic radio shows. Asked if he has a mission statement, Barnett replies, “I want to introduce people to music they’ve never heard before—to music they don’t know but might like.”

And he means what he says. I write about music and pretend to know a thing or two about the subject, but most of the disks he spins are Greek (in some cases, literally) to me. Barnett’s tastes run toward esoteric genre-benders; he has put the spotlight on Afrojazz, space disco, and Gothic funk (his favorite sub-genre). Can German trucker anthems be far behind?

And talk about dedication: He spins more than a thousand records every year (I’m speaking metaphorically here; mostly he plays MP3 files, which he burns onto audio CDs and also copies to a USB drive in advance of the show) and never plays the same song twice. That requires both a lot of time and a serious commitment to seeking out new sounds. I wish I were as zealous, or as adventurous.

His mentor by his side, Mike prepares to utter profundities as he stares down the microphone. Photo by Anthony Santoro

As for me, I intended to take full advantage of my big radio debut by playing songs by my favorite “singers who don’t sing real good,” and punctuating them with the kind of witty radio patter that would have listeners calling in to tell me how how funny I was.

It didn’t exactly pan out that way. I certainly got the opportunity to play some great “unbearable vocalists,” including Biz Markie, Professor Longhair and Michael Gerald of Killdozer. Talking about them, on the other hand, was a thornier matter.

Staring down that very expensive-looking microphone in WVUD’s studio in the basement of the Perkins Student Center on UD’s campus was like staring down the barrel of a gun, and I found myself stage-struck on a nonexistent stage . . . and making such insightful comments as “uh . . . great record!”

But Barnett came to the rescue. The radio veteran proved adept at initiating conversations about the music we were playing, and with his gentle prodding I was soon regaling listeners with stories about my interviews with the likes of Ian Hunter and “Handsome Dick” Manitoba of the Dictators. And we both had a lot to say about Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” which we agreed was a hilarious (but still great) landmark in rock history.   

I also got the opportunity to vent my disgust with the band Chicago, only to turn around and concede that I love “Only the Beginning.” “But you’ll never hear me admit it on the radio,” I added. “Except I just did.” And to deliver a lengthy paean to the “shirtless” vocals of Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, who sings the way the legendary (and almost legally blind) Major League fast-baller Ryne Duren pitched—namely with no control whatsoever.

I had an ill-founded expectation of heavy caller response, but listener feedback consisted of two base-touchers from Barnett’s mom, who is an avid listener, and a call from a guy requesting Roxy Music. Things got so bad I resorted to blatant bribery, offering to pay five bucks to anybody who would call in. There were no takers. Perhaps listeners thought I was joking. I wasn’t.

Watching Barnett taught me that being a DJ isn’t all music and merrymaking. There are both FCC and station-mandated responsibilities to be met. The former include, among other things, playing the station’s ID, making transmittal power readings, and initiating tests of the Emergency Broadcasting System. The latter include both playing and reading public service announcements and logging every song played into Spinitron, which sounds like a futuristic form of time-space travel but is actually a subscription service that provides real-time playlisting.

To be honest, I found the detail stuff a bit intimidating, and fortunately I didn’t have to do any of it. But if you’re not a complete mechanical dunce and don’t have a proclivity for dropping f-bombs (WVUD requires that both DJs and songs be G-rated), you too can be a DJ at the station.

As for Barnett, he loves what he’s doing and intends to keep doing it. “I realize that I have exactly the hobby I want and I’m savoring it for as long as it lasts,” he says. Check out his radio show some Saturday, and give him a call. His mother could use some relief.

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