Radio Saved This DJ’s Life: #25on802withllu
That isn’t one of those dramatic, clickbait headlines. It is true.
This month of May, in the year 2019 of our Queen Bey, marks the 25th year of my on-air career in radio here in Vermont. Wow. It got me reflecting on why I started, digging up old recordings of shows (on actual cassette tapes), and flipping through limited, printed photos (smartphones and the internet didn’t exist, it was that far back). It is a bit of a longer read, but if you are curious, here is here is my #Radiospective.
CANCELED DUE TO DOUBLE BOOKED VENUE! BUMMER! LIVE BROADCAST + DJ SET ALERT! Catch DJ Llu in person or on your radio at Waking Windows 2019 on Friday, May 3 from 6-8pm. This FREE event is at 45 Main Street with Llu DJing live on-air (of course) on 99.3 FM, WBTV-LP or at 993WBTV.org as part of a live-from-the-festival broadcast.
Who puts a 13 year-old on the radio?
Stu Batz does! Working out the math, I was just 13 years old in 1994, when Batz, the General Manager of WGDR, gave me a two-hour, weekly radio show on WGDR, Plainfield (Goddard’s storied community radio station).
That show, that station, gave me the grounding I needed during my very angsty high school years. For a time, it was the one for sure thing I had week-to-week, while my world felt like it was falling apart due to crippling anxiety and vicious homophobic bullying (I didn’t even think I was gay…at the time). On the radio, I got to be my true self, get lost in the music, and share songs I was discovering in real time in the “stacks” of thousands of CDs and vinyl.
I was playing ska music back to back with Lauryn Hill and Gloria Gaynor. It was NOT good radio, but it was great to me. It was a time before the internet and smartphones, so all I have is one old recording on cassette tape of my very last show in the summer of 1998.
(Eeep) here is that show…
That photo is me at the original WGDR studio board (the one they had used since they began broadcasting in 1973). It was that very same board that my mom, 12 years earlier, had had her own radio show with my aunt in 1980. They would bring my twin sister and I (as tiny babies in a basket) and stash us under the broadcast board while they did a show. I guess one could say that radio was instilled in me from the start.
“WGDR Community Radio in Plainfield, Vermont was my first home as a radio voice. My sister, Lisa, a Goddard student in 1979, and I were co-programmers on a Sunday morning show with an eclectic array of sounds….from Senegal to Cuba, Tuva throat singers to Tibetan monks’ chanting. Music is spirit. We both had extensive collections of vinyl, mine curated over the years by New York City musicians and ethnomusicologists. WKCR Columbia University introduced me to Community Radio, a wide array of genres and free concert performances funded by the well-endowed student activities budget. Not so at Goddard College.
Behind the scenes a scurry of local activism, raising funds, struggling with the college for power and literally, struggling for power in the air waves sense, the station was a hodge-podge of equipment and the radio transmitter and tower lacking in distance. Our stalwart engineer, Tom, was a magician and programmers’ efforts are still keeping WGDR alive and kicking. We did manage to present live music both in the studio and community concerts.
After our twins were born, I would often bring them to the show, sleeping under the console and to meetings, being passed around the room during the endless list of agenda items. But it was much later that my experience came into sharp focus. One of my children, Llu, was home schooled for a time at about 14 years old. As the teacher, I sought ways to engage my student in the broader community and thought because of Llu’s interest in music, perhaps a radio show would be of interest. I set up a training and helped with the first few shows, but soon enough Llu and co-programmer Forrest, were turning the dials like pros.” – Joelen Mulvaney, DJ Llu’s Mom
I will forever be in debt to my mom (thanks Jo!). I was by FAR the youngest DJ on the air. It was a time you had to actually pass a test and get an official (hardcopy) actual radio license to “operate” a station. I remember they had a wall filled with hundreds’ of broadcasters yellow licenses stapled to the wall. I proudly walked past my spot on that wall for four years, until I went off to Castleton State College to pursue a Communications degree–inspired nearly completely by being on community radio. My entire college plan centered around how soon I could get on the air at WIUV, Castleton.
Long-Live College Radio
And get on the air, I did, and then some. College radio, this time as an actual college student, was where I learned everything about running a radio station. I held every position (General Manager, Program Director, Music Director–sometimes more than one position at a time). I honed my career as a future DJ, broadened my understanding of the power of radio on the listening audience, and sparked my dream to one day have a career as a General Manager at a radio station. Listening back to some of my shows (yes, still on cassette), are equal parts cringey (it was only the late 90s and most radio personalities were shock jocks as my examples) and, well an amazing time capsule (I talked about Vermont’s Civil Unions debates in music breaks seamlessly, alongside the weather and random campus happenings).
“I’ve always had this sense that when WIUV was going well there was a balance of crazy music people and some very good people that I still thought of as the radio Nazis—they wanted to become radio pros and wanted the station to operate professionally. Like, y’know, obey FCC regs. As you can guess, contrary to the appropriate role of an advisor, I kinda favored the music crazies in my mind. You were an extremely rare combination who pushed the envelope musically without tearing up and shredding the envelope relative to FCC and FA. In the same vein, I think there were fewer disputes among students at WIUV during your time than any other I can think of. You were station manager but more an administrator in the root meaning of the word: minister to. I think I did less advising during your time than any before and most times after, probably because you already did a lot of the advising.” – Bob Gershon, Retired Castleton University Professor of Communications and long-time WIUV Advisor
To do college radio in rural VT, you have to be dedicated or a deep radio nerd. Your broadcast range is a few miles– in a place like Castleton, that means a handful of listeners, tops. What kept bringing me back was my love of music, which only deepened when I discovered the magic of getting on a live show guest list. Back then, record labels still valued the college radio market as a true testing ground for new acts and even big names. Thanks to them, a broke college kid from Vermont got to see Green Day, the Cure, Counting Crows, U2, Prince, Ani Difranco (more times than I can count), Mighty Bosstones, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and so many more. I danced on stage with C&C Music Factory (true story, there is a photo of that somewhere out there). Me and my 1982 volvo clocked hundreds of miles criss-crossing to these shows across the Northeast. My college radio work also landed me part-time, graveyard and weekend shifts on country radio (Cat Country), classic rock (the Fox), and WEQX while in school. Those were the years I dabbled with a on-air fake name, “Nikki Smith.” (Yes, really. I used that name for three years!).
The Big Bucks of Commercial Radio
After graduating in 2002, I really thought I was destined to work in radio. I had done a summer internship at 99.9 the Buzz in Burlington. I was totally ready to be the next Steph Hindley (known on-air as “the Monkey”– Program Director and founder of the Buzz). Steph was the one who helped coin my DJ name. When I told her my previous on-air handle, she scoffed and said, you are no Nikki, just be yourself. I had just started going by “Llu” as a shorter, version of my full name, “Lluvia.” So, my first day as an intern, she walked me into the studio, turned on the mics and made me introduce myself. The Buzz was the first station that referred to (some) of their DJs as “DJs” on the air, so when Steph said, “hey intern, introduce yourself to the Buzznuts!,” I said, “Hi, this is DJ Llu.” It was as simple as that.
The next summer, I nearly did have that dreamy career in radio–well, a full-time one. I landed the midday shift on-air on 104.7, the Point straight out of college. It paid crap, had no insurance, and as a result forced me to live back in my hometown of Barre City, with my parents. At just 21, it was a humbling experience to say the least.
But, the universe had other plans for me. After less than a month at the Point, I got offered my “long-shot” job to work at Outright Vermont as a Program Coordinator. It meant moving to Burlington, getting paid MORE than radio to work at a non-profit, and doing truly meaningful, life-changing work for the LGBTQ community (and, I would discover, myself). Moving to the Queen City also meant I could get a part-time gig back the Buzz and keep my radio dream/passion alive. There was no question. I ditched the Point and moved to the big city.
This is when I feel like my life became this parallel career universe. By day, I was a fierce social justice activist for queer youth in Vermont. By night, I was DJ Llu, holding down weekend shifts on the Buzz and subbing on-air whenever I could. While my day jobs would change over the next nearly 20 years, my side hustle in radio stayed pretty consistent.
I spent 12 awesome years on the Buzz, hosting the local show, “Homebrew” for a year before inheriting “Early Warning,” their new music show. I was part of a national panel of about 75 alt rock specialty shows. We were tastemakers for the rock radio industry, testing out crossover artists like Gnarls Barkley and pregaming all the new singles before they hit stores (this was pre-Spotify and digital release/scoops). It was an amazing run at the Buzz that introduced me to bands like the Killers and Coldplay in tiny Montreal venues, got me into Joan Jett’s trailer backstage and introducing her to 10,000 fans at the Champlain Valley Fair, and so much more. Alt rock radio was a dying format before I even broke into it and while the Buzz still is kicking, they canned all their specialty shows in 2014. It was an end of an era for truly original commercial radio shows in Vermont. In 2009 and 2014 I was humbled to be voted as a runner-up in the Seven Daysies as “Best Radio DJ in Vermont.” That recognition, by listeners, made all the side gigging hustle worth it.
For The Love of Community Radio
Soon after my move to Burlington, I realized that commercial radio wasn’t giving me enough freeform on-air time. So, I went after a show on WRUV, Burlington (UVM’s student/community station) doing the radio rookie ritual that WRUV does to EVERY new DJ, a demo tape and graveyard shift. At the
time, I was like, what?! But, over the years, I have grown to appreciate that level of commitment WRUV’s founders/leaders over the years required to get on their air. A show on WRUV really meant something and they wanted you to earn it. 15 years later, I am still holding down my WRUV show (Sundays, 6-8pm). It has morphed into a freeform rift on my old Buzz “Early Warning” show and I have continued to serve (as the only volunteer/community radio rep) on the national alt rock panel with other radio tastemakers for new music.
“DJ Llu’s been on the air for 25 years. I’ve managed the kitchen at Penny Cluse Cafe for 15 years. My week starts on Sundays: early! 6:30 a.m. and it’s a super busy day. We serve over 400-600 people and you really like pancakes. After that, I place a ton of orders for the week. Right around 6 p.m., I start to wrap up and who takes the mic at WRUV to give me the juice to finish? DJ Llu. Fresh new tracks and what I really love: covers, ALL the covers! Thank you, Llu for playing me out of my Sunday for so many years. Keep on spinning.” – Maura Sullivan, Kitchen Manager/Chef at Pennycluse Cafe
I’m forever grateful to the listeners who have tuned in each week of these years (thanks Maura!), and, at WRUV especially, the many community DJs who have kept the station’s storied history and standards up to snuff—Melo Grant, and L.J. Palardy especially.
Podcasting + Clubbing
There’s a few side, side hustles that have been spin offs of my radio career over the years too. In 2004, DJ cRAIG mITCHELL, then a co-owner of 135 Pearls, the long-time gay bar of Burlington, gave me my first club DJ gig one hot July 4th night. The energy of playing a set for people IRL was electric, and I would add weekly/monthly club gigs to my DJ Llu world for most of the rest of my 20s, through Pearls closing, First Fridays selling out Higher Ground for years, and into my seven years of producing the Pop-Up! Queer Dance Parties. I was again humbled in 2014, to be a runner up for best club DJ in the Seven Daysies.
Once I hit my 30s, I wanted to try getting back into media career-wise. Ahead of the podcast trend by just a couple of years, I produced “Tour Date with DJ Llu” – a bi-weekly music and interview podcast done in partnership with Seven Days in Burlington, VT. These short, 7-15 minute podcasts interviewed a wide range of musicians including Grace Potter, the Indigo Girls, Cake, and many more.
“Collaborating on a music podcast with DJ Llu was like having my own personal trainer who made me listen to new music and like it — or else. Kidding! They were great tunes, and great interviews. I always liked both. RIP, Tour Date: You were ahead of your time.”– Cathy Resmer, Deputy Publisher at Seven Days
Here is my favorite episode:
Ah, just a year or two later and we would have rivaled “Serial,” Cathy! 🙂 Find all the back episodes at the Seven Days website,they hold up! After about 30 episodes, it ran its course with Seven Days, but I’ve kept up with tracking down artists coming through Vermont on my own occasional podcast “Mic Drop with DJ Llu.”
Here is my favorite episode (to date), where I fan-kidded out talking/bumbling to Ani Difranco.
Build it and They Do Come (and Listen)
In 2011, I also began work on what would become the cumulation of all my years on Vermont radio–building a community radio station from scratch. Together with a few other wildly dedicated community members and the community media centers of RETN, VCAM, and Channel 17/Town Meeting, I would help lead the effort to build 99.3FM, WBTV-LP, Burlington. A low-power, community radio station, focused on truly local content (talk, music, live-events, and more). After 8 years in the planning and building, WBTV-LP went live during the 2017 South End Art Hop and now boasts a full schedule that rivals all other Burlington area college and community stations in diversity and the number of live programmers.
Shoutouts to Audrey aka DJ Sacramento (my co-station builder for a lot of it and one of the FEW co-hosts I have ever had for a radio show. Also, props to Kate, Andy, Bill, and Scott for being some of the dreamteam of radio nerds who got the station on-air. WBTV-LP was truly a labor of love. I am so proud of being part of the team that got it on the air. I hope one day it provides crucial meaning-making for a 13 year old, like WGDR did for me.
The #25on802withllu Project.
And so here I am, after all that, 25 years in, and my week to week radio world hasn’t changed all that much. I prep my show pretty much the same way I did in the 90s: listening to hours and hours of music, crafting a unique playlist for each show, going live for 2 hours each and every week. After 25 years, with a show every week (sometimes more than one), that puts me at over 1,300 shows, for 2,600+ hours broadcast, and likely 40,000+ individual songs played.
I’m going to spend this 25th year archiving, and celebrating the power of radio has had on me and others in a live brodcast event real soon–stay tuned!
Here’s to another 25!
Where and when to hear DJ Llu on Vermont radio.
90.1 FM, WRUV, Burlington, Sundays, 6-8pm, “Get Fresh with DJ Llu”
99.3 FM, WBTV-LP, Burlington, Friday nights, 10pm-midnight and again on Wednesdays, 4-6pm, a weekly re-airing of “Get Fresh with DJ Llu.”
DJ Llu aka Llu Mulvaney-Stanak, is a life-long Vermonter living in Burlington with their partner, 1 year old, and cranky cat. By day Llu is the Officer of Community Engagement at Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, by night, they remain forever DJ Llu, coming to you live from radio studios across Burlington. Llu’s pronouns are they/them and they can be reached via social platforms at @djllu.