Nothing Spells Success Like Failure
If I hadn’t flunked out of college, I might not be here to write this article. It seems counterintuitive but it’s true.
After high school, I somehow managed to get into tony Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Lawrence calls itself “the Harvard of the Midwest,” because many of its presidents went on to become president of that Ivy League school.
My freshman class was made up of about 50% graduates of New England prep schools like Choate and Exeter, and 50% public school graduates, mostly from the Midwest, like me. Needless to say, I felt like a fish out of water from my first day at Lawrence. For instance, my freshman studies instructor, Elizabeth Koffka, was the widow of Kurt Koffka, a famous (although I’d never heard of him) 20th century Gestalt psychologist. I had no idea what Gestalt was, or what psychology was, for that matter. I was just a naÃ¯ve kid from suburban Chicago who was good with numbers but didn’t know how to read and retain anything. It was my advanced-level math SAT score that got me into college, not my 8th-grade level verbal SAT score.
My first report card was a mix of B’s and C’s — the best it would ever be.
The main attraction for me was the fact that Lawrence had an actual, functioning broadcast radio station right on campus! By college standards, WLFM was a big operation. The station pumped out 10,500 watts on 91.5 FM. It was heard as far away as Milwaukee!
As soon as I passed an audition and was accepted as a staff member of WLFM, I began spending more time hanging out there than I did going to class. And when I wasn’t at the station, I was at the Wurst House, a beer and bratwurst joint nearby. (The other attraction of going to college in Wisconsin was that the state’s beer drinking age was 18!)
It was too bad, though, that Lawrence offered no classes whatsoever that had anything to do with broadcasting! I couldn’t major in my favorite pastime!
I met a lot of cool people in the WLFM studios. My first wife, Linda, for example. Bruce Iglauer, future founder and CEO of Alligator Records, hung out there, too, as did two guys who would later change my life!
Herb Young and Jim Robinson were a couple of bookish fellows, not the kind of hard-partying guys I was hanging around with. Yet we eventually became good friends because of our love of radio broadcasting.
After three years I flunked out of Lawrence University with a GPA that was barely above D. But I knew what I wanted to major in!
Two years later, I graduated from Southern Illinois University with my B.S. in communications. I started cold-calling radio stations around the Chicago area, looking for a foot in the door, and getting nowhere.
I gave Robinson a call. I hadn’t spoken with him since I flunked out.
He said, “Wow, Jim, it’s funny you should call right now. I have just been hired as a salesman at a radio station in Madison that’s being programmed by Herb Young! Come on up and we’ll see if they’ll give you a job.”
I went and they did. They paid me $2.50 an hour to try to get advertisers and also do a radio show from 7pm until 3am every Friday and Saturday night. Killed my social life but I loved it!
That station, 101.5 WIBA-FM, is still playing classic rock…the stuff I played there when it was new.
It was while I was working at WIBA that I visited San Diego on vacation, fell in love with the place, and, in 1973, applied for and got a job at the old KPRI.
I’ve been here ever since. Thanks to my college pals Herb Young and Jim Robinson.
It’s true. It’s who you know that counts!