On Christmas Day 1979, I began what would be a nearly 40-year career as radio DJ. I passionately loved music and started out as a disc jockey at a roller rink in Northumberland County.
I was living in York County and working as a carpet installer. We were installing carpet on the walls of a brand new skating rink. I asked the manager/owner of the skating rink if he needed any DJs. He said, “Sure.” When I told him I had no experience. He said, “No problem. You’ll learn.” This eventually led to me buying my first sound system, and I started DJing at weddings and parties.
In my heart, my goal was to be on the radio, so I did some research and discovered that I needed a license from the Federal Communications Commission. I sent for the study guide and application, and shortly afterward I drove to Baltimore to take the written test.
I passed the test and received my golden ticket to broadcasting: a Third Class Radiotelephone license from the FCC! Now, all I had to do was get a job and play music for the world.
That wasn’t quite as easy as I thought. I applied to every radio station in the area for a part-time position. Although they all turned me down for lack of experience, I did meet some nice people along the way, like Jim Cooke. Jim was the morning DJ on Q106 (WQXA) in York. He didn’t offer me a job, but he did give me a pair of tickets to see Blood, Sweat & Tears at a club in Lancaster.
Another person I met, and remain friends with today, was Joyce McSherry. She was the program director at a little AM radio station in York. I discovered years later that she and her husband, Gordon, originally built and put Starview 92.7 on the air— a legendary rock station in central Pennsylvania.
My big break finally came when I interviewed with a guy at a station in Mechanicsburg who said, “Harrisburg is too big a market to hire you without experience,” but he did own part of a little AM radio station in Shamokin where I might be able to get my start.
The next thing I knew, I was headed up to coal country, to WISL-AM. The station was located on the second floor of an old building in downtown Shamokin. I met with the program director, who agreed to give me a shot. After all, I was an experienced roller rink DJ. He had me come up to the station a night or two and sit with the DJ on the air to learn how the control board worked and what I was supposed to do.
Then the big day finally arrived, Dec. 25, 1979 — Christmas Day. I arrived at an empty building, except for the guy on the air. He said, “Put on your headphones, turn on the mic, and read a page of script” (which was the sponsor for the next selection of music), “then drop the needle on the record” (any in a group of old, scratched-up, Christmas albums) “and play the entire album side. Then, repeat the process for the next six hours.”
This sounded easy enough, but Shamokin was a very ethnic area. Most of the businesses were owned by people whose last name was a random combination of consonants with “ski” at the end. I stumbled through names I couldn’t pronounce that Christmas day, but I had the time of my life.
From my home in York County to Shamokin, it was a two-hour drive, which I drove every Sunday night for a six-hour shift at minimum wage for the next several months, but it gave me the break I needed to eventually move on to bigger opportunities at 19 radio stations in central Pennsylvania over the next four decades.
I met celebrities including Eddie Money, Tony Orlando, Mary Wilson (Supremes), Otis Williams (Temptations), Davy Jones (Monkees), Paul Revere (The Raiders), and even Jerry Mathers (”Leave it to Beaver”).
My partner and I were on the air on Sept. 11, 2001, when the planes hit the World Trade Center. We continued “live” beyond the end of our shift for the next four-plus hours, not playing music, but relaying every bit of information we could find about that tragic day to our listening audience. People were scared. This was before social media; we were the primary source of information for people at work.
My radio career ended, ironically, just after Christmas with my last show on Dec. 30, 2017. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. A career in radio was the best Christmas present that anyone who loved music and making people happy could possibly ask for.
Cue: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by Bruce Springsteen.
The author, who lives in West Lampeter Township, has been a DJ on such area stations as WSOX and WYCR, York, and WIOV, Ephrata.