About Deaconlight

Deaconlight's Past

DD Thornton in the 1970s playing her red Fender MustangI listened to the Wake Forest University college radio show called Deaconlight on WFDD-FM when I was in high school. At the time I had no idea of the show's history - that it was started back in the 1940s by two Wake Forest College students who launched the radio station from their room in a boarding house. Every night at 11:00 I made sure to tune my FM dial to 88.5.

And it wasn't just me, either. Deaconlight, radiating at 36,000 watts, had a cult following all over the area.

Deaconlight was no ordinary college radio program. While many college radio stations let anyone go on the air and don't have any consistent standards, Deaconlight was different. Not just anyone was allowed to produce the show. There was an actual approval process required to become a Deaconlight DJ. Because of this "quality control" factor, the students who produced Deaconlight were there because they knew music and wanted to turn others on to great rock and roll and as well as to entertain. The 1970s crowd also produced countless comedy productions.

My favorite Deaconlight DJs were Brian Lewis, Steve Pendlebury, Paul Ingles, Steve Marlowe, Gardner Campbell, Dave Sizer, Wally Boyd, Drew Joyce, Lynn Baucom, Keith Young, Tom Cloud, Fred (now Rick) Hubbard, Bill Beery, Joel Rappaport (where is this guy now?), and Buddy Clark, among others. Brian used to let me hang out at the station, so I knew my way around before I even started attending Wake Forest.

When I went to Wake Forest, I started trying to get into the Radio Practicum program my sophomore year - with the goal of having my own Deaconlight show. To get there I would have to take Radio Practicum I and II, get approved as a classical announcer by the faculty advisor, then get approved as a Deaconlight announcer by the student station manager. Unlike a lot of college radio stations, there were certain musical standards we had to meet in order to host student programmed shows.

I was rejected by the faculty advisor, Dr. Julian Burroughs, when I auditioned the first semester. In retrospect, I understand why I didn't make the cut, considering how many people were trying to get into the class. I do not have a "radio voice" and acceptance into Radio Practicum I was not based on how much you knew about rock music.

I decided to go ahead and apply for my third class radio license anyway (back then you had to pass a written exam and get an FCC license in order to broadcast). I received my license in November 1977 and student announcer Tom Robinson was letting me sit in on his Tuesday night shows. On December 13, 1977, I began hosting my own Deaconlights under Tom's watch.

What's with my hair?I was finally accepted into Radio Practicum I in January 1978 after I was the only person that auditioned who could pronounce Saint-Saens. By March I was an "approved" Deaconlight host, even though I had already produced several shows on my own.

In August 1978 I was asked to temporarily run the board at the local "big" FM station WKZL FM-107 while the station looked to replace a DJ who just left. No talking. Just play music and commercials. The format was a mix of Top 40 and album tracks with no real identity. By Christmas I was a hosting (announcing) a couple of hours middays Monday through Friday and doing the Saturday evening show. WKZL was a heavily playlisted station but I always cheated on Saturday nights and took my own music in.

All the while I was still hosting Deaconlight at WFDD on the other end of the dial. The WKZL gig lasted about a year and I took a couple of other commercial radio jobs during my next year of college.

Although we are lucky to have some great college radio stations around, finding a good host can be spotty. Too often I hear long sets of music with no back-announcing, no one telling me anything about the music, maybe just a quick voice break with a PSA (public service announcement) then on to the next set. Deaconlight was not just about playing music; it was about sharing artist info, genres, and musical history.

I spent four years hosting this show, sometimes as many as four nights a week. During this time I got to know a lot of music fans who in turn turned me on to some great artists.

In the spring of 1981, Dr. Burroughs said he would be resigning from his position as faculty advisor. As WFDD continued to grow, it had become necessary for him to spend more time on fund-raising and less time teaching. His recommendation was that Wake Forest hire a full-time station manager for WFDD whose primary purpose was to acquire funding from outside of the university. Meawhile, Dr. Burroughs would be able to teach full-time and focus more on the Wake Forest Theatre department.

By summertime, Dr. Burroughs had cleared out his office and WFDD's first full-time station manager was at its helm. The new man in charge lost no time in announcing there would be changes in WFDD's format.

This period in WFDD's history marked a major shift in its relationship with Wake Forest students. With no faculty advisor, a position that had been a part of WFDD since its inception, there was no authority presence at the station to nurture Wake Forest students seeking experience in a professional radio environment.

The new station manager's mission was to develop WFDD solely as a public radio station in its own right. I never got the impression that educating Wake Forest students in the "broadcast arts" was anywhere in his agenda.

"There are only three types of art in music," he said. "Classical, folk, and jazz." This meant in his opinion there was no place for rock music at a public radio station. The late-night rock program - Deaconlight was going to come off the air at the end of 1981 and replaced with seven nights of jazz (Monday night had traditionally been a jazz show).

At first I was shocked and upset, but there were several factors at play here.

  1. I was set to finish my degree at Wake Forest that December.
  2. WKZL had recently been sold to a company that turned it into a more traditional classic rock station. It was being programmed by the Burkhart/Abrams consultancy.
  3. Despite the fact that new bands were exploding all over the place, WKZL was not playing any of these new bands.

So rather than fight to save Deaconlight, I went over to KZL ("North Carolina's Best Rock") - with a proposal to do a one-hour show on Sunday evenings where I would feature cutting edge bands. The proposed name was New Generation - a name inspired by Generation X and the Dead Boys' song "3rd Generation Nation."

I had a lot of supporting documentation including:

  1. The 10 Greatest Rock and Roll Records of All-Time - results from a survey I conducted with WFDD listeners in 1981.
  2. Petitions Deaconlight fans had presented me with to keep the show from going off the air.
  3. Deaconlight fan mail.

WKZL's program director, Tom Daniels said he would have to submit my proposal to Lee Abrams, who subsequently sent back a memo saying he would allow me to try it out.

The first New Generation show was in March 1982 and it became wildly popular. Within a few weeks the station manager said he wanted me to make it a two-hour show. Somewhere along the way it turned into a three-hour show Sunday evenings from 10:00 to 1:00.

Concurrently a local nightclub called Casablanca asked the station if they would let me do a live version of the New Generation show on Monday nights. The club was managed by Bobby Locke, who long ago played in a band called Rittenhouse Square, which at one time included Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey, and Peter Holsapple.

It was practically a no-risk thing for the club because the club had no traffic on Mondays and they only paid me $50 per event. All I did was play records - no talking - and people really dug it. At its peak, there would be as many as 500 people there. I did the same at other clubs in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. What killed it was that in 1983 or 1984, the state of North Carolina raised the drinking age from 18 to 21. So a lot of the core audience could no longer get in the clubs.

During a transitional period in 1983 or 1984, KZL's management was replaced, and the station became less AOR and more hits oriented. The good thing about this is many of the bands I had been featuring on the New Generation show were now becoming part of the regular playlist. The bad thing was not only that the hits were becoming more bland, the format execution was becoming completely computerized, ergo, there was not much wiggle-room to control the playlist

Finally, I decided to get out of radio so I could travel and work on the "great American novel." So I left KZL in the summer of 1985 and moved in with my dad. It wasn't long before I was being urged to join a new rock station coming into the market, taking over Z-93, which had been some sort of "hits" station.

I resisted strongly with Z-93's new programming team. Gray and Dave tried to convince me to come on board. Although I loved what they were doing and Z-93 was the best commercial station I had ever heard in the area, I couldn't go back. They pushed until I said I would only do a two-hour show on Sundays where I could play whatever I wanted. The ashes of Deaconlight returned as Try This in January 1986. Exactly what I wanted to do.

Although the new format at Z-93 was awesomely progressive at the time, its small budget couldn't compete with the new behemoth ROCK 92 that had just come into the market with its quarter of a million-dollar budget.

Z-93's 6-10pm guy left and I was asked to fill in for a couple of weeks. That went on for awhile and was a lot of fun because the format was so open. By around May, however, the usual commercial constrictions began to return and I knew it was time to retire from radio for good. So I did and got into the online business working for a company called Leisure LINC (which later became the USA TODAY Sports and Information Center.)

So What's the Deal with This Web Site?

I started Deaconlight.com in November 2002 with the primary purpose of bringing together the Wake Forest students who had created and maintained Deaconlight throughout its run. A bunch of us ended up getting together for a reunion in 2003.

Even though I knew most of the mid-to-late 1970s Deaconlighters, I knew practically nothing about our predecessors. It has been so great becoming friends with Ken Johnson from the 1960s and Jack Thomas from the 1950s, as well as many others I feel honored to now know. One of the highlights of this experience was when Steve Pendlebury, whom I idolized when I was in high school, told me in 2003: "You put the 'DD' in WFDD."

As I learned more about how much the students had contributed to the development of WFDD over the years, I discovered there was little written about its history. So I began collecting stories from those students to ensure we have that written history, or at least as much as I have been able to piece together with the help of all of those students, as well as staff and especially Dr. Burroughs. Deaconlight.com became the most comprehensive history of Wake Forest radio from its beginnings in the 1940s until 1981, when Deaconlight went off the air.

Then I found my playlists in the attic and decided to post those online just for the heck of it. This brought visitors from around the globe here much faster than I had anticipated. I still don't feel like I'm ready to "launch." That is why there are so many holes in the site - missing artists, records, playlists. I am working on these bit by bit and cleaning up as I go.

Deaconlight the radio show came back in January 2007 on ErrorFM.com. A year earlier DJ Jason Jeffries found Deaconlight.com while searching for info on The New Cars in Google. That began a great friendship and JJ convinced me to guest on his morning show at ErrorFM.com a few times. JJ was constantly urging me to do a show at ErrorFM.com, but I kept saying no. Yet as I continued to discover more fantastic new artists, such as Mohanski, and find records like Jeffrey Dean Foster's Million Star Hotel, I decided I would do this so I could have the opportunity to promote them.

The radio show started as a 2-hour live show Tuesday-Thursday at 3pm ET. Shortly after that ErrorFM.com's program director, Funk, asked if I would do Noon-3 ET Monday through Friday. By then, of course, I was hooked and couldn't help but say yes.

Deaconlight at ErrorFM.com continues to be live and worldwide (to borrow a phrase from JJ), Monday through Friday from Noon-2pm ET, 9am-11am PT, and 1700-1900 GMT.

In November 2007, I moved the Wake Forest radio history stuff to a new site called WakeForestRadio.com. I did this because the history was getting buried in the new material I keep adding and I didn't want the story to become lost and forgotten. I am continuing to develop WakeForestRadio.com and hope to add even more details, interviews, pictures, etc.

Meanwhile, Deaconlight.com continues to go wherever music takes it. I have lots of ideas to enhance the site. It's just a matter of taking those ideas and finding the time to implement them.

Thanks for stopping by and please come back!

DD Thornton - May 2, 2008