1981: THE BOMB SHELTER

by Bob Rixon




I joined the staff of WFMU in September 1981 to produce a half-hour poetry program called The Refinery.

WFMU was located in the basement of  Froeberg Hall, an Upsala College dorm. The station was across from the bookstore in an area that had once been a cafeteria but had been subdivided. WFMU had a cold storage locker on the premises.

The studio was dank & smelly with an incredibly disgusting rug , a couch that made one want to bathe after one sat on it, &  evil-looking puddles of water in the hallway after heavy rains.  WFMU is traditionally dog-friendly, so we had worn chew toys & soggy tennis balls on the floors. Staffers freely smoked everywhere. Power failures occurred four or five times a year, throwing the studio into pitch blackness. A deafening fire alarm bell would occasionally go off, too. Our equipment was fragile, to say the least. We had a couple of funky turntables, usually one working cassette player & two four track reel-to-reels that could be set up for an awesome layered  echo if they worked at all. It was all held together with duck tape, byzantine wiring & Chief Engineer Chuck Russo's peculiar genius.  We frequently blew the primary FM tube at the tower, a beautiful, expensive  item that sometimes was given away as a marathon premium. We honestly believed we could survive a nuclear strike down there in that bomb shelter. We were supposed to sign off on that occasion. No one planned on signing off since the FCC would cease to exist anyway. I think we all had songs in mind for the big fireworks display.

One had to be a student or have some college association to get on the staff. However, the slowly-dying school provided few good radio staffers.  I was a temp worker in the bookstore so that was my way in. Others, like Ken Freedman, registered for night school courses which they promptly dropped after joining the staff.

There were many excellent staffers at the time I arrived. WFMU was firmly free form once again. Lou "The Duck" D'Antonio was the Godfather. I rarely saw him during my first few years. Irwin Chusid was the staff "bad boy," which never prevented me from enjoying his programs. Jim Price & Frank "The Bean" Balesteri were brilliant radio artists. R. Stevie Moore had a loose affiliation with the station & a few loose screws, too. Bill Kelly, Pat Duncan, Val Sebastiano, Bob Brainen & Frank O'Toole were already settled in. They all intimidated me, some more than others, a few did so deliberately.

But not  "Jah" Raymond Franks, the only DJ  I had listened to regularly before joining FMU, a seamless free form Setmeister, one of the best I'd ever heard. Along with Amiri Baraka's WBAI rap on the personal & political significance of the song, Five Guys Named Moe, & Jack Nicholson's fictional monologist in King of Marvin Gardens, Ray was a big influence on me, & a darned nice man, too. I was very sorry when  Ray & WFMU parted  paths.

Bruce Longstreet was station manager, a close friend, a fine writer & radio guy who carried an awesome hatred of Richard Nixon plus a deep affection for baseball, his dog, & Louis Armstrong.  Bruce made me feel it was OK to be an American.  Steve Krinsky worked mostly in leftist public affairs programming  but was building a rep for his exquisite taste in Tex-Mex-Loosiana music. & then there were two crazy legends. WFMU had a  bearded, cigar smokin' gravel-voice blues head  named John Narucki, who had a truly perverse sense of humor. I enjoyed hanging out with John. We also had Bud Styple, a screaming, drunken rock & roller, a bit like Glen Jones without the Grand Concept, but one of Glen's inspirations to be sure.

They were an odd bunch. R. Stevie was usually unfathomable. I didn't have a comprehensible conversation with Jim Price until 1998 in a bar near the new Jersey City studio. Frank O'Toole  always made me wait ten scary minutes at the station door at 11 pm before he'd  let me in. He & Brainen were then deeply into the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys art music thing, which was an arcane bootleg scene in those days before CDs, so I never knew what the hell they were talking about. I was content to play Don't Back Down or You're So Good To Me once in awhile. Their marathon shows together were telepathic. I got along very well with "The Bean," a young man on a Lenny Bruce kind of edge, always flirting with suspensions & sometimes getting them.  Val was a popster & the very soul of kindness. Pat Duncan was a friendly, soft spoken punk with a day job  for the guvment & a weekend gig at Shea Stadium,  an important lesson in appearances.  & I think Bill Kelly was a pothead, but don't hold me to that. Most of them were potheads.

I expected to be at WFMU for three, maybe four years, a troubador passing through.

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Bob Rixon
 
 
 
 
 
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