Russell Perry remembers WTJU’s first rock marathon. “We were raising money to change the signal from mono to stereo,” the former DJ told us. “After raising the money and making the improvements, we switched over to stereo with great fanfare and inaugurated our new status by playing ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ It didn’t seem like such a hackneyed choice in the mid-’70s.” As Jimmy Page’s guitar solo soared into the stratosphere, a great tradition was born. Quoth Robert Plant: “When all are one and one is all, to be a rock and not to roll.”
WTJU General Manager Nathan Moore has a good grip on the rock marathon and, he says, big plans for the station’s future, like a greater Web presence. “That is, hundreds of volunteers creating content, curating music and sharing stories in an online and digital environment,” he said.
Point your radio to 91.1 FM or your computer to wtju.net (do it, right now!) and you’ll hear the latest WTJU Rock Marathon, which kicked off Monday and will broadcast nonstop all week. In addition to programs delving into everything from Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” to West African guitar music, the marathon will also feature live in-studio performances and a weeklong countdown of WTJU’s top 50 songs since the station took to the airwaves in 1957. “It’s not just about the new rock and the contemporary rock and the deep cuts that we often play,” General Manager Nathan Moore told us. “It’s also about looking at the history of rock and roll.”
As Moore nears his one-year anniversary at WTJU, he’s got a good grip on the essence of the rock marathon, even though this one is his first. That’s a big relief following the brief and stormy reign of Burr Beard, whose proposed changes in 2010 fired up DJs and listeners alike, but not in the way that he intended. “One function of that is it got people at the station to realize that, hey, maybe the status quo isn’t all there is,” Moore said of his predecessor’s inadvertent impact. “There was an energy in the air already when I got here, and so I was able to slip in and say, here are some of the things that we can do.”
From the start, Moore set about making WTJU more versatile and tech-savvy. Within a few days of his arrival last April, he had worked out a new live remote broadcasting system. In June, after a storm knocked out the connection between WTJU’s studio and its Carter Mountain tower, he drove out and connected his iPhone directly to the transmitter, broadcasting the online stream over the airwaves until things could be fixed. He also plans to further improve and expand WTJU’s web presence. “We need to re-envision our website and digital platform as almost another radio station in some way, using the same community-driven and volunteer-driven models,” he said.
A 21st century revamp won’t come free, though. So, like the station’s effort to go stereo four decades ago, this year’s rock marathon will raise funds to help WTJU get with the times and stay afloat in the rising digital waters. With a $30,000 goal, rock DJs are enticing listeners with the usual station swag—hats, tote bags and umbrellas—as well as the latest in a long line of storied rock marathon t-shirts. “In the ’80s there was an extraordinary run of hip musicians making t-shirts as premiums, including Jad Fair, Robert Loveless from Savage Republic, and maybe even Daniel Johnston,” said Chris Funkhouser, a DJ from ’83 to ’87.
Friday at noon listeners can hear a soundtrack to Michael Azerrad’s chronicle of ’80s underground rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and snag their own copy of the book with a $60 pledge. Other premiums include a vinyl reissue of Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted, an album heavily influenced by Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich’s time as WTJU DJs. “Everybody puts down what they’re doing and gets cool for a week… or nerdy depending on one’s perspective on underground music culture,” Nastanovich told us when we asked about his memories of marathons in the ’80s.
“My favorite memories are the way the marathon seems to bring out this crazy kind of passion,” said author and Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield, who DJed in the ’90s. “Charlottesville is a real hotbed of music fans, and something about the rock marathon seems to unleash the beast, so to speak. Like Don Harrison’s Dylan extravaganza—every year, that show would fire up all the hardcore Dylan freaks of central Virginia and they’d start calling in to pledge and request crazy songs like ‘If Dogs Run Free.’ The last hour of the show would always be these Dylan songs you never knew anybody liked. And even if you can’t stand ‘If Dogs Run Free,’ you have to admire that kind of passion.”
While Harrison isn’t doing a Dylan show this year, he will be spinning everything from ’70s disco singles and classic rock deep cuts to Brian Wilson’s Smile Sessions and Virginia funk and soul. The beast, we’re pretty certain, has been unleashed.