This article was published in the July 1993 issue of The Ryder magazine.Duck Soup By Anne Zender
Most of these articles were written under the assumption that cable radio station WQAX no longer exists. In fact, that is not the case. Co-founder and current general manager Jim Berkey is at this moment trying to find a new home/incarnation for WQAX, and the IUSBC (WQAX's governing body) still holds weekly meetings.
With the closure of radio station WQAX at the end of March, it's conceivable that a number of people in this town will think back on The Duck and feel, if only momentarily, its absence. I don't claim to speak for all of these people. As a former volunteer who put in five years at the station, I only want to put into words what was-in my view-so cool about WQAX.
Known as QAX (pronounced 'quacks'), WQAX was a volunteer-run cable FM station in Bloomington for 19 years. Lack of money and leadership forced that station to shut down. Some of the sounds of the station can be heard on WFHB, Bloomington's new community station, which inherited QAX's 13,000-album record library. But in all other respects, WQAX is gone. And Bloomington is slightly, if almost imperceptibly, diminished.
It's not that this town is any less of a great place to live without it-WQAX's demise won't cause a mass exodus. In fact, the local media have barely batted an eyelash. But it always seemed to me that in my time-1987 to 1992-the station belonged to Bloomington.
It occupied its own little space, scruffy but feisty, hopeless yet hopeful. It had nutty weekend-long marathons; silly duck mascots; inevitable summer street dances at which the Walking Ruins, the Virginia Scrapings, or Frankie Camaro would appear like clockwork; and idiosyncratic locations above a garage on South Grant and in Kirkwood Avenue's last tenement, the Allen Building. The membership was just as idiosyncratic, boasting at various times clean-cut rappers who claimed to be friends with Chuck D and KRS-1; assorted Spaceport urchins who liked to climb out the second-floor Allen building studio window; a lapsed Mormon with a suitcase full of death-metal tapes; punk rock girls and hippie chicks; grad school refugees and future law students.
The station also had more records than most of the members had ever seen in one place. These were stacked in any number of makeshift bookcases, sometimes held together with boards and cement blocks. During my years at QAX I was within arm's reach of music by Richard Hell, Etta James, Public Enemy, and a head-spinning number of others. With all of these things to be discovered, doing radio shows at QAX became a business of cryptic juxtaposition-or it could be as straightforward as an hour of train songs, or an evening of songs two minutes or shorter in length.
Most magically, anyone could do it. Radio was set free at WQAX. Show up at the Wednesday night meeting and you were in-no questions asked. It was 10 times more difficult to listen to the station than it was to do a show (somehow, few people out there in Radioland had grasped the concept of hooking the cable into the stereo as well as the television). But the small listenership, the phone that rarely rang, the puzzled looks from the uninitiated, rarely deterred QAX members. Instead, these obstacles often bred a stubborn pride in all but the most ambitious DJs, who would sometimes leave for greener pastures. Those who remained were united in the freedom to experiment, to make mistakes, and to laugh at themselves.
Eventually, the things that made WQAX so cool also did it in. Letting anyone join meant the membership endured its share of deadbeats and loose screws. Having a massive record library required a place to keep them and thus rent that came due with an unnerving regularity. Frequently, there was barely enough to pay the rent, light, and phone bills, since the station had very few steady sources of income. Occasionally the members passed the hat to make up the deficit.
The volunteer DJs came and went as if through a revolving door, and those who stayed often ended up assuming more responsibility than they could handle. More than one general manager resigned in frustration, despair, or exhaustion. Periodically someone would come up with a new plan to save WQAX-curb its burdensome money problems, fix its ramshackle equipment, and set up an administrative structure that would allow responsibility to be more evenly distributed. But these plans never worked, and it began to seem that the station couldn't be saved-just prolonged indefinitely. Its problems became part of the landscape, and then they could be ignored. This happened so insidiously that no one noticed, and after that, there was no good way back.
By 1991, the weekly meetings had become litanies of bad luck and trouble. We're running out of money, what shall we do? Another GM has resigned, who will take over? If we print promotional flyers, we will spend X amount of money, so can we hold off paying the telephone bill this month? I stopped attending the meetings.
During my last year at WQAX, my radio partner and I holed up in a late-night time slot and played records and CDs, cursed the creaky turntables and broken headphones, invited our friends along, and laughed at our inside jokes. It was classic QAX.
But the spirit of the machine that I remembered was gone. When I wasn't doing those last radio shows, I can remember sensing that the station's end was upon us. All but a handful of reliable station members were jumping ship. The red ink was rising. All else was disintegrating in power struggles, personality clashes, and general dismay. I quit while I could still see a bright afterimage, like the tail of a comet going across the sky, brilliant but directionless.
For a while, I had been part of that ball of light. I helped it go. And then I stepped aside.
Former WQAX DJ Anne Zender hosted "I&E" from 1987 to 1991, was music director from 1988 to 1990, and co-hosted "Don't Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk" in 1992.
Copyright © 1993 The Ryder magazine. Used by permission.