|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XXII NUMBER 1 Fall 2006|
I was born at WKNH . Literally. Well, sort of. Elliot Hall's second floor had been the Keene hospital's maternity ward before the College took ownership of the building. Sixteen years later, after the KSC radio station began broadcasting from the former baby wing, I returned to my origins. I found a microphone there – and some amazing music and friends.
WKNH, 91.3 FM, was and is nonprofit, run by Keene State students, and its DJs are students and other members of the Keene community. The station aired its first song in 1971 in the Student Union (now Rhodes Hall), then moved to the second floor of Elliot Hall in 1978. Seventeen years later, it crossed the campus and settled down in the Lloyd P. Young Student Center. During my time at the station, 1987 to 1993, its format was termed "noncommercial" and "educational" – basically anything not played on mainstream and classic rock radio.
In 1987, I was a sophomore in high school and a big fan of U2 and Oingo Boingo ("Dead Man's Party," anyone?). One night I was in my room at home, flipping to different radio stations trying to find something that wasn't too irritating. I stumbled onto WKNH and quickly became a huge fan of this little 100-watt station. I listened to it pretty much exclusively. They played music that I'd never heard before, including punk rock, experimental, and every other form of music that no one else played. It stirred and inspired a quiet 16-year-old like no other music had, and I felt like it was the best kept secret ever. And I was in on it!
I know now that this exciting, best-kept-music-secret feeling was not exclusive to me, or to anyone else in my circle of friends, or even my generation. I sometimes imagine a blooming flapper hearing jazz for the first time in the '20s or a future weekend swing dancer coming across that full Big Band sound in the '40s, or countless other people finding their definitive generational soundtracks at impressionable times in their lives. WKNH opened me up to my jazz, my Big Band, my Woodstock. It set the precedent for my music standards, which I hold to this day. If it makes me feel something that I don't feel on an average day, I like it. And if it makes me dance really funny without trying, I love it.
One night that fateful year, two WKNH cohosts offered a contest in which the prize was a bunch of empty record jackets and tattered posters that would be thrown away unless somebody won them. I was the lucky caller, and I had those jackets and posters of aloof one-hit wonders on my walls for a very long time. (Could you even call them hits? Has your local retro show ever, even once, played Haircut 100's "Love Plus One"? Well, I can describe the band members' haircuts.)
My windfall of wall candy also began a long friendship between me and these two student DJs, who helped me earn my own DJ license and a spot at the station. I was the only high school kid with a radio show at WKNH (though not the first, nor the last), and through the years I made many beloved friends. Years down the road, I also met my husband through WKNH. In between those times, WKNH was the absolute center of my social world.
Recently, a group of friends from those days e-mailed about the station, and they all had some pretty vivid memories of their time there, too.
Several conversations sprang up that revolved around the Associated Press (A.P.) wire, which was a loud, old-even-then contraption that printed out the A.P. news. This machine spurred a lot of interaction. WKNH DJs used it to read the news every hour over the air, and the printouts also found their way down the hall to the Equinox staff and Journalism department.
"There was a great kinship between WKNH and its neighbor, the Equinox," recalls Leonore Paquette Smith '91. "Those late-night Equinox deadlines were made a little more bearable by having good friends and good music just down the hall."
"There was something special about the A.P. machine," says David Perrin '96. "Special but not like reverence – a little more feared. It forced me to improve my pronunciation of Baltic nations, and it was freaky to read tragedies."
Longtime WKNH DJ Douglas Johnson '91 remembers a long-ago electronic era on campus: "TV was a rare commodity, and the Internet wasn't even that yet, so the A.P. was the best source for many of us to get up-to-date info on events."
One such event was the start of the Gulf War in 1991, which was pretty scary to a bunch of college kids. I was a sophomore at Keene State then, standing next to a friend and fellow DJ when he read the news of the start of the war off the A.P. printer. My knees got weak, and I thought about my brothers, hoping they were beyond draft age.
Mike Caulfield '93 also remembers the announcement vividly: "I remember when the Gulf War broke, the first part, when we started bombing. Our evening class, Experimental Fiction, was let out early after Doreski got a call in the class conference room that informed us the bombing had started. We were really somber about the whole thing and didn't want to go home, so a few of us went up to the WKNH lounge where the old A.P. dot matrix wire was and read updates and talked. What a weird night; there was an eve-of-destruction quality to the whole thing."
The WKNH lounge was a spare room where people could study, commiserate, or just kill time. It was a big, boxy space with a harsh overhead light, often littered with empty coffee cups and textbooks. It always smelled of smoke and stale cigarettes (it was a much different time). One spring break, a couple of us decided to spruce it up. For paint we settled on a cobalt-blue base, with multicolored splatters, our rookie homage to Jackson Pollock.
In 1994, I graduated from Keene State, and that was my last season as a DJ, the year before WKNH's move to the new Student Center. During the three previous years, many college radio darlings such as Nirvana and Soundgarden had risen to staggering mainstream fame, much to, well, everyone's surprise. In April of that year, I was doing some sort of work at the station when a friend came into the room with a piece of gray paper ripped off of that infamous A.P. machine. He looked confused and a little stunned. "Kurt Cobain committed suicide," he told us. The mood around the station that day was different and quiet. The closest thing to a college radio poster child had risen to widespread success and then killed himself. Though I wasn't too personally invested in Nirvana, it was undoubtedly the end of an era, and all of us felt that.
I still sometimes find myself thinking about the well-worn radio station dwellings, the bathroom walls covered with years of free promotional stickers, the bulletin boards decorated with information on bands who have likely long since broken up, and the puffy, soundproofed walls of the DJ booth. I vividly remember the record library: a teeny room overstuffed with shelves and shelves of vinyl records packed next to each other, with almost every song I could have wanted to hear.
It was an exciting period for me, made even more so by a creative, raw, energetic, extremely eclectic period for music itself. On my most nostalgic of days, I like to think that I was a local part of a global scene, a scene that was artistically uncompromising and expansive and often infinitely danceable. And that, in some tiny way, maybe I helped keep that scene growing by introducing listeners to a few things they had never heard before.
Shawna-Lee I. Perrin is a marketing assistant at the Redfern Arts Center on Brickyard Pond. She and WKNH both turned 35 this year.