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What It Was Like Working the ’80s Graveyard Shift at Duluth’s 95 KQDS

Drunk song requests. Strategic bathroom spins. Absolute freaking power.

The List of Things That Aren’t the Same as They Were in the ’80s is longer than ZZ Top’s beards, but one of the biggest changes has been the out-of-market corporate takeover of local radio.

Nowadays, if you dial up your favorite station when you’re driving to and from work, you’ll undoubtedly hear live voices, though there’s no guarantee the butts attached to those voices are sitting in Duluth or Minneapolis. Rocking Johnny Rocker can spit out the forecast for this weekend’s Twins game, but as far as you know, he’s pulling that info off Google while wacky-bantering from Albuquerque.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the corporate consolidation that began in the ’90s, radio stations used to broadcast live, 24-7. Stations were staffed by real human beings spinning real vinyl records in a studio, not a robo-DJ in a closet, digitally tapping a touchscreen. 

I should know. From 1985 to 1987, I kept the insomniacs of Duluth rocking while never once talking over their favorite songs from Led Zeppelin, the Scorpions, or Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was Mr. Late Night Rock ‘n’ Roll, working the overnight shift on 95 KQDS. What was it like cueing up some Hooters while sliding Bob Dylan out of his protective sleeve during an ’80s graveyard shift on Duluth’s oldest classic rock station?

Listen up…

Power

It’s difficult to describe that feeling of omnipotence after assuming my position behind the microphone. When I hit that ON THE AIR button, I was the only voice on KQDS. I held the powerful Spirit of Radio in my smooth labor-free hands. If I didn’t have Van Halen cued up, you heard nothing! If I decided to swap out the latest syrupy White Lion dreck with a banger like “I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes, that’s what you heard! If I wanted to spend several hours holding up Lita Ford’s self-titled album cover with one hand, I did it! There was no one to tell me no, absolute curatorial freedom. 

Speaking of…

Solitude

I was alone. No uptight managers or annoying co-workers crowding my workspace. When the evening guy sauntered out that studio door, I flew solo until the morning guy showed up eight hours later. KQ was buried deep in the bowels of a Duluth office building, full of dentists, financial advisors, and assorted muckety-mucks who got things done from 9 to 5. Once the sun went down, that place was a morgue. The studio was bathed in the amber glow of a solitary lamp hanging low over the control board like a vulture. 

And when you grew up on Stephen King books and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, well, it was easy to get spooked. Shadows flickered nightly across the giant studio window facing out into the lobby. Of course, I knew Leatherface wasn’t going to slowly rise up in that window, holding a bloody bag full of severed heads, b-b-b-b-b-ut: I popped up for a quick check, just to be sure. And those rumors of Paul McCartney being dead were ridiculous… until 2:34 a.m., when you were positive if you glanced to the left, you’d see his bloated ghost face staring at you, a long bit of drool hanging out of the side of his Macca zombie mouth.

Of course he’s not over there. I’m not even going to look… but… what if he is?

Wow. The adrenaline rush off those self-induced creep sessions was amazing! Of course, I still welcomed the sight of a blinking studio line, indicating yet another drunk UMD frat party needing a jolt of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train.” 

Speaking of…

Presence

Try calling your favorite radio station tonight at 4 a.m. You’ll have better odds of reaching Paul McCartney’s ghost. But back then, I answered every call: rowdy drunks, lonely recluses, the labor crew at the Duluth Arena-Auditorium, all of them requesting songs that were probably coming up in the rotation anyway, but at least I acknowledged the existence of my midnight comrades.

The truth is, we didn’t do requests. During the day, KQ was tightly programmed with 54 minutes of music and six minutes of ads every hour. But here’s the thing: They never changed that format for my shift, despite the fact only a couple ads would run during this stretch; that overnight oversight gave me a musical hole to fill every hour. I could play whatever the Hells Bells I wanted! Melancholy? Sprinkle in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Amped up on No-Doz and coffee? Crank out both Guns AND Roses. So, if you happened to request something I felt like playing, and you hadn’t passed out, we had yet another human connection.

Expertise

Today, there’s often less skill involved in playing music on the radio. You push a button. Even Pete Stauber could do it. (Maybe.) Back then, you had to track down the album, carefully place it on the turntable, count the tracks, lightly drop the needle, listen for the first burst of sound, wheel it back half a turn, and only then was the next song cued up and ready. Your work wasn’t done. Next, you had to stay alert and listen for the last note of the song currently playing, which some musicians purposely made difficult. I mean, you try to figure out when Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks are finished getting it on at the end of “Big Love.”

Also: That spinning turntable was live. And if one were to, say, accidentally knock over a liter of Jolt Cola, careful listeners might notice the gentle piano of “Faithfully” abruptly replaced by a SHRIEKING NEEDLE SCRATCH JOURNEYING ACROSS THE WHOLE ALBUM!!! If one were to do that…

Nearly 40 years later, working overnights at 95 KQDS remains the best job I ever had. Matter of fact, I’d go back to it in a Heartbeat City, if all the personality, humanity, and fun hadn’t been sucked out by big-biz weaseldom.

Also? I’d have to return that Lita Ford album cover. And it’s a little bent.

Extra KQ tidbits: The Two Most Popular Requests

  • “Can you play ‘Comfortably Numb’? ‘Cuz I am-m-m-m-m!”
  • “My cousin/sibling/best friend died tonight. You gotta play ‘Riders on the Storm.’ It was my cousin/sibling/best friend’s favorite song.”

Extra KQ tidbits: Best Bathroom Break Songs

  • “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin (8:36). Plenty of time for Takin’ Care of Business, then a leisurely stroll to find one’s second, third, or fourth wind.
  • “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” by Traffic (11:40). For those Taco John’s two-for-one Super Burritos shifts.

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