In my third year at Swarthmore, I got my first professional radio job. Part time. One day a week for four hours. I learned that pop music station WNAR, Norristown, PA, had been looking for a Sunday disc jockey to cover a weekend slot while the regular guy was away.
Not owning a car, I had to take a local bus from Swarthmore to get there. Arriving at the vast, modern-looking 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby, a place smelling of fresh coffee and warm cinnamon donuts, a tiled walk-through corridor led to the gleaming electric Norristown High Speed Line.
Was I nervous? Probably not. After a simple audition, I was told that I had the slot, 2 p.m. Sundays, following Cousin Larry’s Polka Party, a big hit in Norristown, hosted by an older guy named Larry Mullenaro. But then, who wasn’t older?
The following week, whizzing along the track, I couldn’t help wondering if anyone sitting near me would later listen to my debut and think, considering my mature-sounding voice, that I was somebody older and more experienced.
I had been told I could play anything in the record library. Shelves and shelves of 78s and LPs. A candy store.
I quickly gravitated to the pulsing percussion of Les Baxter’s ventures into exoticism, the haunting melancholy of Jo Stafford (“See the jungle when it’s wet with rain, just remember till you’re home again, you belong to me”), the sparkle of Hugo Winterhalter’s “Vanessa,” Guy Mitchell bouncing along atop Mitch Miller French horn choirs, the wash and weave of the waves coloring Frank Chacksfield’s “Ebb Tide,” the way-out-front emotional wailing of Johnny Ray (“Please Mr. Sun…send her a rainbow”), and more and more.
I saw records by someone of whom I’d never heard and was fascinated by his ornate signature on the label, Liberace. I pronounced it “Lye–ber-EHZ.” I never asked Cousin Larry who that was and didn’t care, I had too many favorites already.
Every Sunday, after my show, I’d return to Swarthmore, proud of what I had done, knowing I was already a paid radio announcer, even though probably no one on campus had listened to me on WNAR. The absence of comment and praise from listeners to either station seemed unimportant. I imagined that, anyway, someone out there somewhere heard and liked what I did as much as I liked doing it.
Moreover, other WSRN people weren’t impressed. They were more wrapped up in their own programs, knowing that they were just on-campus hobbies, that getting degrees and being sturdy scholars was more important.