No automation here: DJs crank the tunes on holiday

Posted Sept. 01, 2008, at 7:35 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:20 a.m.

CALAIS, Maine — They were mirror images of each other Monday — two DJs laboring on Labor Day, reading the news and playing music just a few feet from each other in the same building on Main Street.

On Monday, while other people were rowing boats or barbecuing chicken, Bill Conley, 44, was handling the board at WCRQ-102.9, while DJ Tom McLaughlin, 56, was playing the tunes for WQDY-WALZ 92.7-95.3.

When the station started nearly 50 years ago, it was WQDY AM-FM, also known as Hometown Radio. WALZ and WCRQ were added later.

WCRQ has a far reach at 100,000 watts, while WQDY-WALZ is a 3,000-watt station. The two studios are housed in a converted family home on Main Street.

For the two DJs, Labor Day was just another day at the office.

“Sand, snow, sleet, other ‘s’ words, I am here,” Conley said.

So was McLaughlin.

While some radio stations across Maine were letting a computer do the work Monday, the two DJs were chattering on the radio, reading news — Conley the world and national, McLaughlin, national and local.

While Conley’s studio computer cranked out Top 40 music, McLaughlin was picking tunes to celebrate the end of summer. Ordinarily, the music at WQDY is also on the station’s computer, but not on Labor Day.

Early that morning, McLaughlin dragged in two totes filled with CDs from his personal collection, all having something to do with summer, and he also used music with a summer theme from the station’s play list. “Summertime, Summertime” and “Surfer Girl” were among his picks.

Conley has been with the station on and off since 1988, McLaughlin since 1989. They both have been in broadcasting for years. Conley came from Bangor, McLaughlin from Massachusetts.

Station owner Billy McVicar gives McLaughlin wide latitude. McLaughlin, whose radio handle is “The Firedog,” has a local following. He picked up the nickname from firefighters in Dorchester, Mass., who used to work with his father and where he used to hang out.

McLaughlin always wanted to be a DJ. When it was pointed out that he was living his dream Monday, McLaughlin said with a laugh, “I am living my rock ’n’ roll fantasy.”

When the two started at the station they worked with two turntables and reel-to-reel tape decks. The studio had book-cases full of 33-and-1/2-rpm records. There also was music on the tape decks.

“We were pretty much limited to what was on the reels,” McLaughlin said. “As the 1990s progressed, Bill Conley was the music director and we started to add to our Top 40 offerings.”

WQDY later switched to a classic hits format. Today, both stations’ music is on computer hard drives.

Conley lives in Canada, McLaughlin in Eastport. They arrive at the station early for the 5 a.m. sign-on.

Between the two they’ve worked most of this year’s holidays that fell on weekdays, including Memorial Day and Fourth of July. A part-timer handles the weekend schedule.

Because the stations sit on the international border, the DJs play to American and Canadian markets. When they announce the time, they do so for both Eastern and Atlantic time zones. McLaughlin also reads Canadian news for half of his news broadcast.

By the way, Monday also was Labor Day in Canada.

When it was suggested that the two are mirror images, Conley said with a grin, “I think I look better than Tom McLaughlin.”

When the two aren’t pushing the buttons, they have other jobs. Conley is a part-time police officer in Calais and Pleasant Point and operates his own karate school.

McLaughlin is the station’s news director and an artist.

Both stay on the air until around noon. After that the stations are switched over to automation that station personnel have affectionately dubbed “Silicone Sally.”

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