November 17, 2003
Not forgotten

Over the past week, various friends and others have been writing about the death of a mutual friend, Tom Donohue. I've been struggling with words and emotions myself, trying to find the perfect thing to say to others or to myself to provide comfort. But really, I should have remembered as I wandered through my recollections, that it isn't about the perfect thing. Its about the saying and the doing.

So... A first memory of Tom Donohue...

Tom was the man who really started me in radio. Back in the late '70s it must have been... I think it was my friend Charles Frommer who was somehow involved with WQAX, a campus/community radio station in Bloomington. Somehow I got interested in the idea, and went to a meeting, which at that time were these sometimes raucous affairs held near the Commons of the IMU - WQAX was, in a sense, in its heyday then, with fuller shifts than when I returned in the '80s. As a fledgling programmer, I had to be trained - Tom was volunteered to train me.

So the next Saturday morning I went up to the studio. I didn't know Tom yet, but when you worked at a station like WQAX, training the newcomers was part of the maintenance. If you could get them involved, if you could get them interested in the art of radio, you could really make a great station.

He let me watch him for a while as he worked the board. At that time WQAX had the turntables mounted in these heavy tree stumps, and Tom used these to teach me to cue records, to pre-spin them, to backspin to the start, to count into a track for airplay. He spent his time patiently teaching me these fundamentals and then providing instruction on the logbook, the PSA file, backannouncing appropriately, and how to find records in the even then sprawling WQAX library.

About 90 minutes into the show he turned to me and asked if I was ready to go -- that I should select two or three tracks to play. I did so, though I only remember a couple of them at this late date - contrastingly, Jackson Browne and Mikey Dread were in the set if I recall correctly.

This is how I remember it, with Tom remarking on my "catholic choices" as I pulled the records off the shelves. But he didn't question these faltering first steps, didn't override my stammering announcement into the microphone. He knew it was scary at first, but he knew that with the desire to make radio one could be more self-assured behind a microphone than they might ever be in a classroom or in person.

It wasn't just the technical instruction I received that morning that started me into radio. More than that, from watching I began to really understand what freeform radio programming could be like - moving swiftly between genres, tying together sets of music by elusive themes which the listener might question but never so jarringly a listener might tune away. Radio programmed this way - and sadly this way becomes yet more rare with each passing year - can be art and education, adventure and entertainment. When I listen to a good freeform broadcast, I find myself reaching for a pen, trying to catch the name of the artist, finding something new to experience.

Every encounter with him was like that, a grasping of the new. I treasure each recollection I can keep - seeing him at that first Sonic Youth/fIREhose show in Austin, hearing about his son while we stood in front of the Von Lee Theatre, talking over the past couple years about our shared experiences of eye problems...

Though AZ and I moved away from Bloomington eight years ago now, the times we could see Tom diminished only slightly - every trip back included a visit to see Tom, to find what he had discerned, sometimes inexplicably, what we would like from his store. The store, in its array of choices, most which seemed to have an invisible "recommended by Tom for (enter name here)" tag affixed to the front, ready for him to walk across to select the perfect missing piece of your collection. It was arguably a long playing radio show in itself, a ten year shift behind the board.

So this weekend I mourn losing the opportunity to have any new experiences with Tom, never again to hear his voice on the airwaves, or see him smiling as AZ and I enter his crowded store.

Posted by esinclai at November 17, 2003 09:02 PM |

no permalinks, though. Found via referrers to my site.

Posted by: mike whybark on November 17, 2003 10:28 PM

Thinking about it, I believe that one of the reasons we've seen such a stunning response in the community to Tom's death is that he really was extraordinarily good with young people. This story is just one example.

I'm not sure why, but that particular subculture is not really set up to nurture the young, maybe because the rock and roll lifestyle doesn't encourage people to admit they're getting old and *gasp* turning into authority figures.

Tom was an exception, and as this story shows, perhaps he was always destined to become the kindly music uncle to a generation of bands and music fans.

Posted by: Anne on November 18, 2003 09:08 AM

Another article along this line:

Posted by: Anne on November 18, 2003 11:54 AM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?