Local radio was the soundtrack to youngsters' lives

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I enjoy listening to the radio. Even though the ads annoy me, the station will eventually fade out on long trips and I have no control of the music, I still like the variety and surprise of the radio. My daughter also loves the radio, especially the Top-40 stations, 99.1 and 101.9 FM. It doesn’t really matter what the song is — if it’s on one of these two stations she will listen and sing along. My son likes show tunes and Christmas music. I’ll write about this some other day.

Listening to the radio is not really the same type of experience today as it was in the past. Radio stations seem to be run by strangers who are living in faraway cities. The only local information is the occasional ad or sporting event. KWCW, from Whitman College, has local DJs and relevant local announcements. KTEL plays local sporting events and stories about local events, but KTEL is nothing like it was in the past.

At a recent family dinner my parents and godparents were reminiscing about the days when hearing rock ’n’ roll on the radio was really special. My dad told me real rock ‘n’ roll music was so hard to seek out when he was in high school that the only time he could even hear it was late at night when the local station would play 15 minutes of rock music. My Godmother Connie was quick to add that this music was usually not really very good, just some overplayed bubble-gum music — not the real rock music they wanted to hear. Not, that is, until “Rockin’ Cochran” came along.

Dave Cochran was a Wa-Hi student in the late ’60s who played really good music, not just Top 40: Cream, Hendrix, The Doors. He was also a supporter of local musicians and would promote local concerts. Plus, he took requests. Connie told us how she and her friends would at times send subversive messages this way, requesting the Buckinghams’ “Kind of a Drag” for someone they didn’t really like, or “Monday, Monday” to bemoan the upcoming school week. Of course there were also the legitimate requests like “Good Day Sunshine” when all was well with the world.

Since this was a local station, people could stop in to visit. Dave Cochran or Burl Barer — another DJ, who incidentally is now a best-selling author — would invite them in. Connie acknowledges that being a cute 16-year-old in a miniskirt might have made the dropping in easier to do. At this time there were also many radio-sponsored contests, made more interesting than the contests of today because everyone had to use rotary-dial phones.

When I was in elementary school we still had a popular local station, KISS 101 FM, located at the top of the Marcus Whitman Hotel. My cousin Chad Van Donge was a DJ in the evenings and I enjoyed not only listening to his show, but also the residual popularity that came from being related to a real, live DJ. Like KTEL in the 1960s, KISS FM took requests and dedications, held contests and hosted visitors. The dedications, which you could phone in every evening from 9-10, were called “Blowing a Kiss.” It was always exciting for my friends and myself to listen and hope that maybe someone would blow a kiss to us.

I remember the day in the late 1980s when KISS FM was suddenly “Kiiiiiisss Country.” Without warning they had changed their format. At first we thought this was a joke, but it later proved to be sadly true. This was the end of my radio-listening days. I switched my little clock radio over to OK 95 and tried to enjoy listening to Top 40 from the Tri-Cities, but I missed the camaraderie of having real people here in my own community playing music over the radio.

It was about this time that grunge music started to become popular. My older brother bought a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD (the first CD I had ever seen). Then my cousin Karie gave me a Nirvana CD and my music listening changed. I began enjoying the control I had over music and the lack of ads. I received a ghetto blaster as a Christmas gift, and along with it, the ability to make mixed tapes from the CDs. Radio became a thing of the past.

Today there are so many ways to hear music: CDs, records, on the Internet, iPods — and yes, we still have the good old radio.

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native, middle school dual language teacher and mom to two children. She can be reached at saravandonge@gmail.com.

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