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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011 02:11 pm

Free to play at WQNA

Tune to 88.3 FM, where colorful characters present original music

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“Metal” Chris Hupp and Tim “Dr. Metal” simmons of WQNA’s Monday Night Metal program.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

The phone chirps incessantly. Loud and fast heavy metal music blares from the speakers. Amid the cacophony a red light flashes on, and up to the DJ microphone steps Chris Hupp, transforming into Metal Chris as he takes a slug of Mountain Dew.

 “Good evening and welcome to another edition of Monday Night Metal on WQNA with two hours of blasphemous metal coming your way. Call in your request or hit us on the old Facebook.”

Co-host Dr. Metal, aka Tim Simmons, answers the phone, takes a request, then searches for the asked-for song on the Internet. As Chris and Tim scurry around the compact DJ booth, Mike Goza, the knowledgeable and affable radio host of Blues Power, who just moments before started a death metal song after his last BB King selection to insure a smooth transition between shows, gathers his stacks of CDs and heads out the door.

Within minutes, into the studio comes Lana Wildman of the Fly-Over Zone, WQNA’s Saturday morning variety talk show featuring hosts Lana, Hugh Moore and Sam B. Davis. “We’re entering an interview we had with Dawn Wells, the Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, in a radio program contest,” she says. “I have to edit the hour-long talk down to about five minutes.”

And so goes another evening on WQNA 88.3 FM, the Edge, Springfield’s combination student and community radio station.


Community radio explained

Involved volunteers like Chris, Tim, Mike and Lana are only a few of the many, many community members who produce, promote, arrange, announce and do whatever else needs to be done for WQNA to air about 50 different weekly shows, along with student creations from the station’s host school.

WQNA station manager Deb Antoine.
PHOTO BY DAVE HINE
The programming schedule contains a vast assortment of music genres, some popular and others obscure, each with the personal touch of the host or hosts defining the music choice to give the listeners a distinct and diverse view of individual options affecting the masses (or at least the ones tuned in). Compared to local commercial stations, where the idea of a DJ having a personal say in the music aired appears abhorrent and absolutely against all rules available, this seems an unusual and refreshing way to run a radio station.

Once a common, accepted and initially necessary part of radio, the idea of the DJ as music giver-discoverer-presenter is nonexistent on most major commercial radio stations. The music is piped in from other places and the song list is chosen far away from the DJ booth, usually to the benefit of publishing companies and recording conglomerates, resulting in the same songs played over and over. (Metal Chris jokingly extends congratulations to a local classic rock station for playing “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner once a day for 24 years.)

Most commercial stations use between 400 and 600 songs, depending on the music genre they represent, as parent companies send the tested and proven cuts to the proper stations supporting classic rock or oldies or easy listening or contemporary sounds or Top 40 or classic country or whatever moniker classifies and categorizes the music. That’s why you can drive across the country and hear the same formats in different cities using identical song lists over and over again.

Generally the opportunity we receive to hear music on the radio comes from this system. Combating this artistically limited but profitable style of presenting music to the public via the airwaves are community radio stations and, to a lesser degree, public radio stations. As far as true grassroots, community-involved, not-for-profit radio, designed to inform and invigorate, not to make a buck at the cost of artistic integrity, small but mighty stations like WQNA run mostly by volunteers on tight budgets, are our salvation. In our listening area, 88.3 FM is the only place to hear dub reggae, diverse blues, swing, jazz, punk, pop, classic country, alt-country, techno, metal, indie-rock, umpteen varieties of folk and bluegrass, funk and other types of music rarely heard on common broadcasts all on the same station, with sensible commentary by knowledgeable presenters included in the mix.

In the St. Louis area, KDHX plays the part; WEFT does the same in Champaign-Urbana. Both are not-for-profit, independently owned stations established for decades. WESN, operated by Illinois Wesleyan University for 37 years, does the trick in Bloomington-Normal. Springfield came a little late to the game with WQNA using volunteers to man the microphones in the evening hours only by the late ’90s.

Harold “Masterjam” Hughes-Osby of the Back to Work Groove program.
PHOTO BY DAVE HINE



Creative beginnings

The station began as an offshoot of the Capital Area Vocational Center, a public school offering area high school students an opportunity to attend half-day classes oriented toward vocations or, as they are more commonly known, jobs. The Capital Area Career Center (CACC) as it’s now titled, is alive and well, located near Lincoln Land Community College on Toronto Road, focusing on various alternatives for students interested in pursuing other careers than those offered in a regular high school curriculum. The center offers courses in photography, auto mechanics, computer graphics, human services, business technology and, of course, radio.

“In 1977 I was working at then WSSR at Sangamon State when they called me about starting this program at the CAVC,” says Jim Grimes, founding WQNA station manager and retired CACC communications instructor. “We had a tremendous amount of help from local people, including technical advice and used gear from other stations. We built it from scratch and went on air in August of ’79.”

In the late ’90s, after some FCC rule changes, the advent of computers and the arrival of automation, Grimes was ready to expand the station from daytime student programs to evening and weekend shows hosted by volunteer DJs.

“In ’98 we were able to go on air 24 hours a day using recorded student programs and automation, but it became real obvious, as our goal was to be live as much as possible, that we should reach out to community members,” says Grimes. “Our first contacts were Dennis Clark, Jim Dunn, Jim Pemberton and Kerri Donovan, and it quickly grew to about 50 volunteers. The goal was to do stuff the commercial stations can’t afford to do and give an alternative to the community. Students also got the chance to record programs during the day and listen to themselves on air at night.”

The original WQNA purpose of training high school students attending the CACC is still the primary use of the station, and its main source of funding is the public school system. Students learn how to create a radio program by having one. First-year students use pre-recorded methods and the second year ones go live on the air.

Mike Ware, a senior at Springfield Southeast High School who hosts a show on Thursday morning, came to the CACC for the television classes and stayed for the music.

“It’s a great experience having a radio show in high school, playing songs I like for other people,” he says. “My favorite part is actually getting requests, knowing that someone is out there listening. Sometimes I get a call from family in California and once someone working at the state fairgrounds called to request a song and thank me for doing a good job.”

Current CACC instructor and WQNA director Deb Antoine works with the students, using an easygoing style that fits into the laid back atmosphere of the media classroom and the individual freedom offered to students working fairly independently. As the overall person behind both areas of WQNA, she guides the student DJs in classroom work and helps the volunteer DJs. She takes care of budget issues and oversees program scheduling while admiring and appreciating the amount of effort delivered by all involved in keeping the station on the air.

Student DJ Mike Ware.
PHOTO BY DAVE HINE
“The community volunteers are so committed, with more than 7,000 hours a year donated to just being on the air, not counting time invested in preparing and promoting and getting here,” she says. “There’s Kerri Donovan, our engineer, who donates so much time — from webmaster work to climbing the antenna towers if needed. And Jim Pemberton gives all his time as DJ and community program director. Bill Hickerson always seems to have a check from someone underwriting a program when he shows up. Now I feel like I am at the Oscars running out of time and trying to thank of all the people that need to be thanked. There are so many when it comes to WQNA.”


Beyond the radio signal

If one thing seems as special as the devotion of the volunteers, it would be WQNA’s commitment to giving back to the community. Every year they sponsor a day’s worth of airtime to Homeless Marathon, a national broadcast asking for homeless or nearly homeless callers to relate their plights on air (coming up on Feb. 23 and 24). In conjunction with the downtown family-owned store, Recycled Records, WQNA participates in National Record Store Day, showing support for independent record stores by broadcasting live and drawing attention to these important sources of retail music with a remote broadcast, scheduled for April 16. For a special Valentine’s Day celebration and fundraiser, the station will do a Request-a-Thon remote broadcast from Recycled Records on Feb. 12, asking for $1 donation per song in exchange for Valentine requests on the radio. An annual trivia night (not yet scheduled for 2011) is a major benefit function for WQNA.

Several years ago, in an effort to promote local music and create a fun fundraiser, the station sponsored a concert and produced a full-length CD of songs featuring area bands and musicians. On any given program, DJs often air music by local bands and musicians and/or feature live in-the-studio performances by area performance artists. Larry Corley, WQNA DJ of “Jazz Now and Then,” received the 2010 Silver Dome award for first place from the Illinois Broadcasters Association for Best Local Show. Along with these efforts, the continuing commitment of the DJs drives the spirit of the little station that could. The result is a striking alternative to the pre-programmed commercial stations.

Metal Chris talks to death metal fans.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE



Free to play

Jim Pemberton, community program director of WQNA, admits to having the broadcasting “bug” since being three years old. He attended the CAVC as a student in the mid-80s, learning the ropes of radio from instructor Jim Grimes. After spending time working for radio stations in various capacities after graduation, Pemberton became the first volunteer WQNA DJ in May of 1999.

“I’d stayed in touch with Grimes over the years and one day he called and told me they were ready to be on the air 24 hours a day with automation but wanted some live DJ time too,” recalls Pemberton. “I asked him what he wanted me to do and he said just do anything I want. I couldn’t believe it. That’s all it took for me.”

Pemberton contacted his friend Dennis Clark, collected recordings for the show, then proceeded to play whatever music he cared to on the radio all night long.

“That first night we played the Bonzo Dog Band and Janet Jackson, just whatever came to mind. Then we got to brainstorming about the station and thinking how to start this new thing,” he says. “Dennis called Bill Hickerson, who called back about six months later wanting to know when he could start. From there people just gradually started calling asking if they could do shows until now we have more than we can air. It’d take two stations to get them all in.”

The remaining DJ from the early days besides Pemberton is Mike Goza, a state employee by day and the on-air voice of “Blues Power” every Monday night from 4 to 7 p.m. The former commercial radio broadcaster had two shows for awhile but it got to be too much to do and he’s happy and settled with his three hours a week on the air and a few more hours preparing his show.

Mike Goza of Blues Power.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
“I knew some music but I had to learn about the blues when they offered me the show. I went to the library, read books and magazines. I emceed some of Mike Townsend’s Blacks, Whites, and Blues festivals in the ’80s and met real blues players and heard great music,” he says. “I try to incorporate as many different kinds of blues into the show as I can get. My show is three hours of love and I get to do what I thought would be my career. I’ll spend more time out here when I retire.”

Goza’s dedication and enthusiasm seemed to run through everyone at the station, from students simply keen for talking on air to community volunteers who devote hours of personal time designing programs, choosing music and promoting shows.

“Probably 80 percent of our community DJs have no previous radio experience and learn through doing,” says Pemberton. “The desire for exposing music not represented out there drives them. Their passion pulls them through.”

Late last year WQNA lost a treasured voice and special on-air personality with the passing of Edward Ruebling [see a tribute by David Antoine in “Remembering the lives they lived,” Dec. 30, at illinoistimes.com]. Known as Fast Eddie to his radio program listeners, his story epitomizes the volunteer DJ experience.

“Bill Hickerson brought him in to meet me one day after they were finished bowling and told me he was my country classics guy,” explained Pemberton. “Truth be told, I wasn’t going to use him. I didn’t think he could do it on air. Good thing he got started because he became one of our most popular DJs and just got better as he went along. He was warm and real and played what he knew and liked. Listeners who didn’t even like country music would tune in just to hear what Eddie was going to say. He was the embodiment of what WQNA stands for and we all looked up to him.”

The importance of having an interesting alternative to commercial radio and data-based programming in Springfield is immeasurable, as is the station’s contribution to our arts culture. Or, as Metal Chris puts it, “I think, more than ever before, a station needs to be good and give the people what they want. I think WQNA stands out because our shows are done by music lovers for music lovers, and listeners appreciate that.”


More to come

As for the future of WQNA, both Jim Pemberton and Jim Grimes talked about the precarious position public education funding puts the CACC and the station in, and they trust school systems will continue supporting the valuable career center. Pemberton encourages anyone interested in helping out, especially off air with engineering or underwriting, to contact him at the station. Grimes, retired from the station but pleased and happy about its legacy, asserts that radio is fun and, “helps keep people busy and out of trouble.”

As the one currently ultimately responsible for maintaining the station for all concerned, Deb Antoine sees it as an opportunity to offer real experience to students and give the community a radio alternative.

“There’s something quaint and special about keeping it going. Certainly it will always be diverse as long as the community members continue giving and I think they will,” she says. “The commitment and devotion by those involved is just tremendous.”

Perhaps “Blues Power” DJ Mike Goza aptly and succinctly puts it best, “WQNA is a labor of love.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.


WQNA 88.3 FM Program Schedule

Sunday
12am    Eclectic Session with Jim Pemberton
6am        Swing That Music with Bill Hickerson
12pm    The Real Deal HIFi Blues Show
2pm     Jim Jam with Jimmy Pearl
4pm     Smooth Edge w Cherri Coffman
6pm     Fear and Loathing in Springfield with Dave Hustava
9pm     80’s Insurrection with Keith Reichert and Bob Lee

Monday
12am     Paton Place, with Joe and Linda Paton
3am     WQNA Programming Music
6am     Monday Morning Groan with Cindy Cantwell
9am     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
11am     Back to Work Groove with Masterjam
1pm     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
3pm     WQNA Programming
4pm     Blues Power with Mike Goza
7pm     Monday Night Metal with Metal Chris and Dr. Metal
9pm     Basement Tapes with Geoff Ryan and Jim Holler

Tuesday
12am     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
3am     A New Song, Contemporary Christian with Deb Lewis
6am     Soft Sounds with Lady Rachel
9am     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
11am     Ben’s Wacky Radio
1pm     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
3pm     Rock n Roll Armageddon with Steak and Eggs
6pm     Fast Eddie’s Country Classics with Bruce Morrison
10pm     Esoterica with eTed Keylon

Wednesday
12am     It’s Country with Deb Lewis
3am     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
6am     Air Raid with Chris
9am     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
11am     Aging Adult Rocker with Dave Antoine
1pm     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
2pm     The Alleged Show with Tim and Aaron
4pm     World of Rock with Mark Thompson
7pm     The Eastern Hemisphere with Sofya
9pm     Earth Tones with Lisa Hensley

Thursday
12am     Northern Lights, New Age Music with Kelly Sapergia
2am     Oldies and More with Rich Lewis
6am     Pemby’s Basement with Jim Pemberton
9am     Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
11am     Still @ Work Groove with Masterjam
1pm     CACC Student DJ Kali Birk-Student Radio with CACC Radio-TV Classes
3pm     Jazz Now and Then with Larry Corley
7pm     RadioActive with Jam Man Jeff Meier
9pm     The Eck Brothers

Friday
12am     Reg’s Good Stuff with Reg Webb
2am     Joe’s Joint, Traditional Jazz with Joe Paton
4am     Joe’s Joint with Joe Paton
6am     Front Row Center with Jim Pemberton
10am     Big Music Show with Ray Von
2pm     Classics Show
3pm     Friday Metal with Chris Hupp and Wayne the Rocker
6pm     Boot Party
9pm     Dub System with Chris Dycus

Saturday
12am     Crossroads with Grant
7am     Sam n Danz
9am     Flyover Zone
12pm     Crop Circles
2pm     Shady Grove
4pm     Spider Soup
7pm     Dance Mix with C-Low
9pm     Smooth Jazz Takeout with Deb Kennedy

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