‘The Golden Era of College Radio’: WDJM alumni share memories from the station
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
By Emily Rosenberg
There’s a beat-up door plastered with scratched-up, risqué bumper stickers that open into a darkened room.
The room is cluttered with a thousand records, a turntable, a punk rock band poster with a sweaty, mustached musician, a hanging pink flamingo with sunglasses and a mohawk, and a huge paint splatter logo in a slanted retro font that reads “WDJM 91.3 FM.”
It’s 1982, and Steve Peck is entering one of the first radio stations of his 20-year career as a DJ. The WDJM radio station on the 5th floor of the McCarthy Center, is where Lori DiMaiolo, Chris Pearson, Chris Petherick, and Beth Lennon shared their enduring passion for music, and made life-long friends.
As a child, Peck always knew he wanted to pursue radio because music was a huge part of his life. He woke up every morning and listened to the radio, and was even hired at a local station where he would record his own work off hours.
When touring Framingham State and visiting the WDJM station, Peck said although the station was not high end, he felt like he was “home.”
Peck said, “I was like ‘OK, search over.’ This is where we’re going.”
Peck was the program director at WDJM from 1982 to 1986, and his job was to organize shows such as MetroWest Alternative and Boston Rock. The station reported to College Media Journal, which monitored what they played and sent them records.
But their life at the station wasn’t always as simple as playing U2 or Depeche Mode.
“Mail Call” began as a little tradition called “smash and trash,” where he and General Manager Rob Timm opened a Jermaine Jackson record they’d received in the mail, and after listening to it and realizing it was terrible, destroyed it there on-air in the studio and threw the pieces in the garbage.
Suddenly, letters were trickling into the station from fans of the show. Listeners wrote weekly – they
created characters, asked for advice, and participated in contests sponsored by the WDJM crew.
Peck said one contest was a beauty pageant, “Miss WDJM,” which was won by a mannequin.
“The amount of mail that we got each week – it was just incredible to know the number of people who were listening,” Peck said.
Similarly, “Plagiarism Court” was a show in which Peck played a riff from a song and tried to guess another song it was stolen from.
Always wanting to be a DJ, but never having the time between being Arts Editor for The Gatepost and having a job, Chris Petherick joined the radio station her senior year in the late ’80s. She returned to the college to host programs with her final show in 1993.
One of her shows was called “Attitude Adjustment,” during which the DJs commented on celebrity and campus brawls.
Petherick also recalled twins who came from outside Framingham State College (as the University was known at the time) who performed a Polka show every Sunday and drew a large following.
She said there were DJs from Boston who guest starred on their shows, along with bands from surrounding cities who would come on to be interviewed.
“When musicians were walking up State Street, they drew a lot of attention because ... when I was there, Framingham State was really a jock [school] and the rest of the campus thought we were all freaks and weirdos, which was One with us. But when somebody came up from Boston with spiked-up hair and earrings dripping down his neck, he really stuck out on campus,” Petherick said.
However, the shows weren’t always jubilant. Lori DiMaiolo, a member of WDJM 1982-1986, was a DJ when The Challenger exploded and said she ran to her room, dumped her books, and fled to the station to be with her friends to report the news as it came in. She knew they would be hearing updates on the teletype machine which sent the station reports on weather and news.
“People were gathered around crying and basically in shock. As soon as we received news, we would broadcast it. Knowing that Christa McAuliffe was on board was especially difficult for us. This was my senior year and she was supposed to be our commencement speaker.”
They also faced backlash from other students.
Chris Pearson, who was a member of WDJM 1984-1989, said although he thought he left high school behind, he still remembered jocks calling the music they played “weird” and “freakish.”
Laughing, he said the staff at the McCarthy Center refused to play WDJM, even though they had a contract with the club to play it during the day.
In protest, Pearson pledged to strip down nude for his show if the staff at the student center did not play their station. He gathered support from other DJs, but the college center staff wouldn’t budge.
“I chickened out and only got down to my underwear,” he said.
But the DJs didn’t need support from the school when they had each other and, of course, Chuck the flamingo – the mascot they printed on all of their bumper stickers and T-shirts – some of which are still hanging in the back of alumni’s closets.
Peck said the flamingo was perfect because it expressed WDJM’s eccentricity. “We were the anti-Rams.”
Chuck was a neon pink flamingo with a flaming blue Mohawk, blue sunglasses, and a cigarette hanging from its mouth, which DJ Tim Heaney drew directly from the lawn flamingo that hung in their production studio.
“You know, the sense of camaraderie that we had was incredible. It was a place where a lot of people who didn’t necessarily fit in elsewhere felt like they belonged,” Peck said.
Although Beth Lennon, who attended FSC from 1984-1986, left Framingham State after two years and now lives in Pennsylvania, said all of her memories of the college are of WDJM and she still goes to concerts with her fellow alumni.
“I found my people. We can talk this language, this language of music, but it wasn’t just us in the station. It was also the listeners,” Lennon said. “And so ... when you meet the people who you share interests with who aren’t just, ‘Hey, we live on the same floor’ or ‘We’re in the same class.’ Those are the people you go through your life hoping to find ... I really feel like I know the people at ’DJM got me.”
She added, “I went from being a shy, behind-the-scenes [woman] to all of a sudden having a radio show. I literally and metaphorically found my voice.”
She had to communicate with people she didn’t know and get the word out about the music she was playing. She said she got feedback that music she played was “interesting,” and that “gave me courage to then become more of who I was and who I am.”
In 1984, WDJM purchased a new transmitter, which boosted its power from 10 to 100 watts. This allowed the station to be heard not only on the small college campus of Framingham State, but across the MetroWest region.
DiMaiolo said it was a new FCC requirement for all stations, and it took a lot of work to convince Student Government Association to provide the funds for the power boost.
“We did many hours of research. We had to present our studies and proposals to the College administration. I remember sitting at my typewriter – pre-computer – and typing out the proposal that we eventually presented. It was a nerve-wracking experience, to say the least,” DiMaiolo said.
She added, “When the day came to start at 100 watts, Rob Timm flipped the switch! The rest is history!”
Lennon and Pearson said switching from 10 to 100 watts made the difference in being able to reach the MetroWest community, which ultimately led to more people joining the club and their widespread success.
Lennon still has yellowed Gatepost newspapers reporting WDJM being named the #1 College Radio Station in New England by Boston’s Rock n Roll Magazine “The Beat” in an article “The Best of 1984.”
Pearson said his role as music director was to “shape” the kind of music DJs played during their shows.
He said college radio was an “important vehicle” for Alt-rock bands such as Tears for Fears and Nirvana to break into the mainstream. WDJM, as well as other college radios, wanted to be a place for people to hear music they couldn’t hear on stations such as Kiss 108.
Pearson remembers during one of his first WDJM meetings as music director, he defaced a Madonna record with glue and told the staff they could no longer play “Like a Virgin” because at that point, people were joining the organization to “put it on their résumé,” and were giving airtime to commercial music.
“To me, college radio was like a community and I don’t mean just WDJM, but college radio in general,” he said.
“It was a broadcast medium on the radio. It was a way for people to kind of unite around this common love of what you call quirky or underground music. And I think that’s why it had such momentum in the ’80s.”
The impact of college radio showed when Lennon was out at dinner recently. Someone who was in a band in the ’80s found it impressive that she was on college radio.
Similarly, Peck said one time he was out at a club listening to commercial radio when a Depeche Mode song started playing and he got into a “massive argument” with a friend.
“What are they doing playing that song? We made that song. We broke that record,” Peck said. “It really shows what we did.”
But for Pearson, his love for music went far beyond breaking records with WDJM. While working at one of the first Newbury Comics stores, he also went on tour around Massachusetts with his band, Green Magnet School.
Pearson said they signed a record deal with Genius Records – the same company that signed Nirvana – but after releasing a few records, they broke up.
Pearson said he gravitated toward WDJM because he was the “Weirdo punk rock kid” in his high school.
“I used to get beat up by jocks in my high school for having green hair,” he said. “Now, I see kids walking down the street with green or purple hair and think, man – this is the best.”
Turning his Zoom camera during an interview to show his record collection, which looked more like his own record store, Pearson said, “Music for me has always been a lifelong passion.”
He added, “I had a very dark period in my life in the ’90s and I will say that music saved me honestly – without hyperbole. Music saved my life. And that sounds like a really overblown heavy statement, but it’s 100% true.”
Pearson’s band was one of many that played at the Sandbox end-of-the-year celebration. WDJM and other student organizations invited local bands to perform and sponsored a weekend’s worth of activities.
DiMaiolo’s favorite memory of participating in Sandbox was when the WDJM “suburban puddle cats” beat sports teams and other clubs on campus and won $500 in the Ram Olympics, part of Sandbox weekend.
For the Olympics, organizations on campus put together teams to compete in physical activities. Events consisted of “silly things” such as shopping cart relays, filling up a cup with water using only a tablespoon, and scavenger hunts.
Peck has a different memorable moment from Sandbox. He still has a recording from a moment during Sandbox ’86 when a storm broke out while an administrator was being interviewed, leaving one of the DJs in the pouring rain. The DJ shouted over the air “What the f***” – the first time he could recall a DJ swearing over the air.
Peck said due to the professionalism of the station, the number of people who actually went on to have careers in the music or radio industry is “incredible.” For example, Rob Timm was a general manager of the station in the ’80s and is still a leading DJ at WRNR, a station in Maryland, and Pearson currently works as a producer at WGBH.
Peck himself worked in radio for 20 years for studios such as WXLO and WSRS in Worcester and in Providence for WSCE.
“Thinking of 50 years of WDJM, I truly believe that that radio station was so instrumental in not only my success, but the success of a whole group of people who would not have been where they are today, if not for it,” Peck said.
Lennon acknowledged that the instant gratification of technology allows people to get music anywhere, any time, whereas when she was an undergraduate, WDJM was a way to gain access to music without going down “narrow paths.
“I hope even with that, there’s still a place where a ragtag bunch of cool misfits can meet and still make friends for the rest of their lives because that’s what happened to me,” she said.
Pearson said, “The ’80s, pre-internet – that was really the golden era of college radio.”
[Editor’s Note: Emily Rosenberg’s father was in WDJM during the time the people in the article were members.]