When you commute from Bedford to Lynchburg and Amherst on a daily basis, the radio is more than a friend. It’s a lifeline.
Live programming helps keep me on top of current events and the music gives me good vibrations — literally — as I pile on the mileage. I have a sincere appreciation for radio DJs and the occasional laughs, entertainment and sense of connection they bring during my long drives, even when I don’t agree with the political tone of a program or the jokes are corny.
Stepping into those shoes for a brief while as a guest DJ on a local radio station showed me firsthand it’s harder than it looks.
Friday, when I walked into WAMV 1420, a brick radio station on School Road in Amherst barely less than a mile from the Amherst County courthouse, I had a slight nervousness and a sense of excitement much like you get just before boarding a roller coaster.
On this morning, Bob Langstaff, the station’s owner with 52 years of live radio experience, has agreed to let me briefly act as a DJ. It’s not my first time on the air and I’m no stranger to this station, as I come by weekly to give a brief rundown of stories in the Amherst New Era-Progress.
I enjoy the regular greetings from Deacon, Langstaff’s mixed Beagle who is a mascot of sorts for the station. Langstaff, in my opinion, is Amherst’s version of Casey Kasem, the legendary radio personality. He has an inviting voice made for radio and when you speak with him, you always feel like you’re on the air long after the microphone is off.
After highlighting the latest handful of Amherst-related stories for the week, I ease into Langstaff’s chair shortly before noon and put on headphones. When it’s time for me to go live in five seconds, a few thoughts come into my head, brushed aside by what I plan to say.
“What if I mess up?”
“What does that button do?”
Thankfully, Langstaff lets me play several of my favorite country and gospel songs, which I feel comfortable introducing. When I go on the air, under Langstaff’s guidance, I introduce a tune I constantly listen to: “Orange Blossom Special,” performed by the legendary Johnny Cash on the “At Folsom Prison” album.
As the song plays, I use extreme caution in what I’m touching on the soundboard.
“It doesn’t bite,” Langstaff said with a smile, referring to a button I nervously push to control the flow of the next song.
I next introduce and play “Greystone Chapel,” a gospel tune written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, while Langstaff tells me how he grew up in a California community not far from the well-known prison.
After a few more songs, I use a computer screen to line up a national news spot and while it plays get another song ready.
While I’m in near panic attack mode performing these tasks, Langstaff makes it look easy whenever I observe him in the studio. On a typical day, he gets up at 6 a.m. and puts together a morning show that runs through about 10 a.m. and consists of him lining up news spots, weather announcements and other programming.
He also interviews people from the area and across the country and world by phone and in person. Along with local artists, business and community leaders, pastors and musicians, he has interviewed celebrities such as Dick Clark, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne and legendary bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley.
“That’s why we have a round table here,” Langstaff said of welcoming a wide range of guests into the studio.
A California native who grew up in Los Angeles County, Langstaff first became interested in radio around age 7 and did his first live on-air reading for a spot commercial when he was 15. He has been in the radio business since age 19 and once told me going on the air as a DJ is akin to skydiving.
“The only way to get over that is to do it,” he said of overcoming the fear of the live microphone.
He came to Amherst just more than three decades ago after a colleague during a convention in Anaheim tipped him off on a station just outside Lynchburg for sale.
While a computer runs much of the station’s daily programming after 10 a.m., Langstaff is often on the air at various times throughout the day.
“It’s kind of harder than it looks. ... You’re thinking on two levels at the same time. It involves so much, including marketing and publicity and getting the music right,” Langstaff said. “As far as being on the air, the secret to it is trying to sound relatable to the audience, always keeping in mind that you’re talking not to a collective audience but individual people who are more than likely listening by themselves.”
Langstaff has seen the changing landscape of the radio industry over the past half-century from the days of using two turntables and records to the rise of the internet and running a program by computer. As a radio personality, the 71-year-old has adapted to those changes and keeps perfecting his craft.
“It’s kind of like learning to play a piano because you have to know what button to hit and how to come out of it and go on to the next thing,” he said of mastering the art of live radio. “It just takes a certain amount of practice to get to the point that is subliminal and what you’re saying is the thing you’re really thinking about.”
In a few minutes, my short-term DJ gig will be up. Langstaff graciously allows me to play one last song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. Though not gospel, it’s one to surely take many of his baby boomer generation listeners back to the days they were young.
And now I can retire happy.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.