Remembering WDBS

The Campus Radio Station of Duke University (1950-1983)


Nick Walsh

I could write War-and-Peace volumes on WDBS, and I probably will someday. But if I start anywhere, it’s with my very first show. After a sterling (I guess) audition, I was given a Tuesday slot beginning at 1 o’clock in the afternoon when the station switched from tape to live for the rest of the day.

One little problem. That was also the day I had to take the “Physical Proficiency Inventory” in required Phys Ed class that morning. At the session, I did all the push-ups, sit-ups and chins-ups I could, while being fat-callipered, counted, checked and rechecked. Not wanting to be a complete wimp and subject my entire freshman career to ridicule, I tried as hard as I could.

I flunked anyway. I won’t even try to tax my memory banks thinking of how many calipers of fat the coach pinched on my stomach. And that was my first week at school – before I could add the “Freshman 15.” So, I didn’t do very well, but in giving it the old college try, I used up every ounce of strength I possessed.

The spirit was willing, and now I was pitifully weak.

The PPI session ended with not only physical exhaustion, but the realization that I was cutting it way too close to get over to East Campus for my very first college radio show. This was really important. Destiny was urging – no, flogging – me to get on with my dazzling career as a famous disk jockey.

I misted my body in the shower and ran sweating to the campus shuttle bus to get to the station. I had to go over to East Campus, about a 10-minute ride. During the trip, I leaned my head against the seat in front of me on the bus. I came close to losing it right there in row 7, window seat. I actually thought of vomiting out the window to save the bus driver the hassle of cleaning the floor. Imagine a college-puking episode on a weekday during daylight hours. No wild liquored-up tales to brag to my rowdy crowd – nor a decent lecture to my future daughter about personal responsibility and propriety.

Merely arriving at East was not the finish line. Our beloved radio station was as far away from the bus stop as a building could be while still on campus. I had to run at full throttle on wobbly legs over to Bivins, unlock the door with my pathetically weak hands and arms. I two-handed it. I was going to use my teeth as back up. I was late. The studio was on the second floor. Let me die right now.

The station ran on autopilot, or what we lovingly called “Otto,” from around midnight to one p.m. the next day. Anyone with the first time slot had to literally flip the switches that shut down Otto and started WDBS’s “broadcast day.” There was a recorded opening announcement, just like you hear when any station begins their broadcasts - except this wasn’t 5 o’clock in the morning, and we didn’t play the national anthem.

Our introduction was by Bob Conroy who, in essence, was WDBS. He worked hard on it, built it, and had a hand in its latter-year transition to an FM station. Bob had one of those classic-radio-deep-edge voices. He later supplied voice talent on student recruitment videos for various colleges. You could imagine him having that just-right, authoritative delivery that put some recruits over the top, choosing this or that college based on the “Voice of God.”

So I switched off Otto, ran a few records and then I tried to talk — when I barely had strength to breathe. Hell, it hurt to sit. It hurt to stand. And there I was playing Reach Out, I’ll be There by the Four Tops and using a little Deejay patter, extolling an imaginary love to “Com’on, girl, reach out!”

Back at the dorm, my friends said they liked my show, but I sounded tired. Why, yeah I sounded tired! Even if that girl had been Ursula Andress and she really did reach out to me, I would not have been able to return the favor. Sorry, girl, but I really got my sugar pie into one helluva honey bunch.

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