It is the lifestyle of kings.
Maybe not literal kings. Nobody’s wearing a crown, there’s not a swell chair. But how else do you describe getting paid to do the thing you love?
“It’s still fun,” said Eric Harlan, faculty member at Mississippi University for Women and manager, engineer and faculty overseer of WMUW, the campus’ 1,000-watt station. “To me, this is one of those jobs where you constantly think, ‘They pay me to do this! This is the greatest job in the world!’”
Harlan has been with WMUW for 31 of the station’s now 41-ish years. Over that time he’s gone from the faculty advisor to also taking on the duties of station engineer and general manager, and has helped nurse its elderly transmitter through some bad patches. He’s seen the tide of DJs shift from music-crazed kids to aspiring podcasters.
But first there was a kid in Kentucky who was made an offer.
Harlan, a Boy Scout, spoke to his father’s Rotary club in the late 70s. The general manager of the town’s 1,000-watt AM radio station, WIEL — and just try saying that fast, I dare you — happened to be in the audience.
“He told me I had a nice voice, and asked me if I had ever thought about being in radio,” Harlan said. “I said, ‘Well, no,’ but I thought it was a great idea. I was 15. The week I got my driver’s license I started training there.”
Harlan went on the air for the first time in October 1979. His first gig was the “God Squad,” signing on at 6 a.m. to play back-to-back religious shows until after lunch. That led to an eventual air slot on weekends, and work as a substitute if one of the other DJs was out for some reason.
“I did a disco show called 14 Fever,” he said. “Which is kind of cool when you’re in high school. I was sitting in a nice, air-conditioned room in a nice chair while all my friends were doing landscaping and roofing and flipping burgers. It sure beat working for a living.”
Harlan moved around, going from disco to country to hair metal for a variety of FM and AM stations around Kentucky.
At the country station “we were told we not only have to play the part, we have to look the part,” he said. “Our studio had a big plate glass window, so it was cowboy hats with feathers and bolo ties. Urban Cowboy was big, we all sounded like Charlie Chase (of Crook and Chase.)”
At the same time, Harlan was going to school, eventually attaining a master’s degree. He ended up working at University of Tennessee at Martin, teaching radio and TV classes and helping stand up the college radio station, WUTM. When his position was eliminated during a “bloody” series of layoffs, he came to MUW as a teacher and the faculty advisor for the radio station.
Interest in the station comes in waves, Harlan said, with the peak in the mid 1990s.
“Sometimes kids come in and fulfill their requirement by doing one semester and then they’re done,” he said. “Others like it and stay on. Back in the mid-90s we were live the whole time. It’s slowly dropped off since then.”
Currently the station has about eight DJs, and the rest of the schedule is programming generated by “Daddy Mac,” a Macintosh G4 computer that sits in the air booth. The format has slowly shifted over time away from music and towards talk.
“It was a subtle change,” Harlan said. “First it was all music, then it was 15 minutes of music and five of talk, then slowly it went almost all talk and there are one or two songs to get a break. Sometimes they talk about heavy things, sometimes it’s pop culture and no-so-heavy things.”
The students who come into the program are mostly interested in podcasting, not traditional radio, he said.
“You ask them what a podcast is, and they say it’s a program you listen to where people talk,” he said. “You know what we used to call that? Radio. It’s the same thing.”
Change is coming to the longest-serving member of the WMUW team, as well. The transmitter, which is the original piece of equipment from the station’s birth four decades ago, is about to be replaced with a digital transmitter.
“The parts aren’t out there anymore, and it’s hard to find anyone who knows anything about tube transmitters,” Harlan said. “We have to get the chiller in the transmitter room fixed, and, as soon as we do, we’ll swap it out.”
WMUW is on the FM dial at 88.5, and streams online as well. View the schedule at www.muw.edu/wmuw.
“We make mistakes, we say stupid stuff, it’s not smooth or polished,” Harlan said. “It’s human. That’s what you get with us that you don’t get with anyone else in the market.”