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WMBR DJ’s 8-hour Radio Marathon during Boston Lockdown

WMBR logoI hadn’t really given much thought to how DJs in Boston coped with the the lockdown during the search for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect until I read a fascinating story about a college radio DJ at M.I.T. radio station WMBR in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jon Bernhardt, the long-time host of the Friday morning edition of “Breakfast of Champions,” ended up pulling an 8-hour shift at the station on April 19 after the DJs following him called in to say that they couldn’t make it to the station due to the lockdown in Boston.

Bernhardt was originally scheduled to do his regular 2-hour show from 8 to 10am and had planned to do a tribute to the recently deceased musician Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family). As the lockdown dragged on, he decided to stay at the station as both a safety measure and as a way to provide music to WMBR listeners who might want an escape from the scary news outside their doors. Not only did he fill in for programs similar to his, but he also had to quickly select music for shows (including a jazz program) that were outside of his area of expertise. I interviewed him over email in order to get more insight into how he handled his unplanned 8-hour shift.

Jennifer Waits: How long have you been a DJ at WMBR?

Jon Bernhardt: I joined WMBR at the start of my sophomore year at M.I.T., in September 1983, hosting a call-in show called “Flame Session” as well as a late-night freeform experimental music program cleverly titled “Late Night.” I settled into my current morning rock show, “Breakfast of Champions” [BoC], in June of 1984. It airs weekdays from 8 to 10 am, with a different DJ each day. I host the Friday edition.

Waits: Tell me about the Scott Miller special. Did that go as planned?

Bernhardt: Scott Miller passed away on April 15. As my show on the 19th approached, I noticed that no one on WMBR had acknowledged it and thought it would be a good idea to rectify that situation. I selected about 35 minutes worth of his music — some “hits,” some rarities — that I intended to play during the last 40 minutes of my 2 hour program. I almost postponed the tribute, although not for the reason you might think. Each week, a different BoC DJ picks a “Band of the Week” that all the other DJs have to play at 8:30am (typically 1 to 3 songs with no repeats during the week). Late Thursday, the DJ whose turn it was, announced that his pick for the next week would be Scott Miller! I didn’t want the other DJs to think I was bogarting all the good songs a few days early, but none of them cared so I went ahead with it.

As Friday morning’s events unfolded, I *was* briefly concerned that honoring a dead California musician might be awkward given the larger local tragedy. But, in the end, I decided to just acknowledge the thorniness on the air and go forward. Postscript: by the following Friday, there were still plenty of rarities that hadn’t been played during the week, so I programmed another half hour of Miller’s music from 8:30 to 9am!

Waits: What normally happens when DJs can’t make their shifts?

Bernhardt: Typically DJs have some advance notice that they can’t make their show. In those situations, we have a listserv where substitute station members can be solicited. On the day in question, I sent an email to the list, but no one (probably wisely) wanted to leave their homes. The station’s General Manager, Elliot, who was staying at the dorm next door to the radio station and who is also another BoC host, stopped by before 8am to check in, but he told me he’d been up all night and needed to get some sleep. My choices were to continue on or turn off the transmitter.

Waits: What prompted you to stay and how long would you have stayed?

Bernhardt: I chose to stay because it seemed like the safest thing to do! Plus, my wife was insistent that I not leave the building. There’s a show change every 2 hours. I never knew for certain that the DJ for the next show wasn’t going to show up until maybe an hour before its start, but I had a strong suspicion that I’d be there for a long time. I stayed as long as I was physically able — until 4pm. At around 2:30, I gave Elliot a call and he promised to show up for the 4pm program. By then, the authorities were saying that, if you were at work, it was OK to leave and go home. So I did, although I biked home using a circuitous route. My normal path would have taken me right past the bombers’ Cambridge apartment where there was talk of “controlled detonations!”

Waits: I’m trying to remember how the lockdown worked. Could the DJs not come because of the lockdown? Were people being ordered to stay indoors?

Bernhardt: The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency was strongly recommending that people in Watertown and all its adjacent cities and towns (which includes Cambridge) “shelter in place.” You could go out — no one would stop you — but it was strongly discouraged. In fact, around lunch time, a friend who lives nearby (Mark Robinson of famed indie band Unrest, and founder of Teen Beat Records) did venture over to bring me some much needed snacks.

Waits: Is this the longest shift you’ve ever done?

Bernhardt: Back when I was an undergrad (over 27 years ago!) I remember doing a lot of air over the Christmas break, but it wasn’t consecutive — more like a few hours every day for four or five days. Since then I’ve done the occasional four hour shift, but even then, I had some warning. I’d never had to do anything close to six extra hours on the fly.

Waits: How much information did you provide over the air?

Bernhardt: From the beginning, I made a judgement call. I figured that if people wanted non-stop news, or updates every time a dog barked, they wouldn’t be listening to WMBR. If they were listening to me, it was because they wanted an escape from the 24 hour news cycle and wanted to be entertained. So I did my normal show but gave people the essential information (“Stay indoors!”) and promised to update them if there were any critical developments (there never were).

The responses I received, via phone calls, tweets, emails, IMs, etc., indicate that my instincts were correct. Not one listener response was a complaint. Instead, people cheered me on, thanked me, and called me a legend or a hero. Those last two are just a tad hyperbolic (and insulting to the real heroes!), but the support immeasurably helped me get through the day. Funnily enough, the only criticism came early on from a couple of fellow WMBR DJs who thought we should either sign off or preempt our regular programming for more news. But even they came around to my way of thinking later in the day and admitted I’d done a good thing.

Thanks to Jon Bernhardt for sharing with me all of the details of his 8-hour shift. If you want to see his playlists or listen to the show, you can do so from the WMBR website.

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5 Responses to WMBR DJ’s 8-hour Radio Marathon during Boston Lockdown

  1. Bill Lundun May 16, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    First, I want to give credit to WMBR’s Jon Bernhardt for staying on the air 8 hours during Boston’s lockdown. This is what radio is supposed to do. It is what it used to do. Kudos Jon.

    That brings me to my second comment, which is how far radio has descended as a medium that we would even note an 8 hour airshift. During emergencies, at least twice in my career, my co-workers and I were on-air well in excess of 14 hours. You couldn’t have kicked us out of the studio, or off the street in those circumstances, because our community was depending on us.

    Radio is in a very unique position to respond when local emergencies occur. We are first responders as much as fire, or police when our communities need information affecting citizen’s health and safety. Don’t forget our license requires us to act in the public interest, but beyond that, we in radio should be helping our neighbors and community when it counts the most because we CAN.

    Admittedly, I’m old school, but stories like this irk me because Jon’s broadcasting ethic seems to be a rare standard today, when it should be an expectation. It’s a sad statement on the industry.


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