Majoring in WRMC: An Interview with Jiffy Johnson ’65

by on May 29, 2016

Posted in: History, Music

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In honor of senior week and upcoming reunion festivities, here’s an interview with WRMC alumna Jiffy Johnson ’65. Jiffy was not only WRMC’s first woman General Manager, but also led the transition from carrier current to FM. Respect your WRMC elders and read up.

WRMC: What was WRMC like when you got to Middlebury? Like what are your earliest memories?

Jiffy Johnson ‘65: When I first arrived at Middlebury College, I had no radio experience at all, but someone said there’s this place underneath the terrace at Proctor. It’s a radio station. They asked me to be Traffic Director and, knowing nothing about radio at all, I thought they meant I had to direct traffic in the parking lot. But it turned out, of course, that traffic means scheduling things on a log so that people make the right announcements at the right time, including possibly advertisements or stations identifications or whatever.

The station was not the most popular activity on campus. First of all, it was in this sort of dungeon under the terrace and second of all, anybody who was anybody worked for The Campus newspaper or the yearbook. It did not have a high pecking order on the college campus back in 1961 when I first came to campus, but I decided it was the greatest place ever, so I was very happy to work there. It was, I think, 99% guys.

WRMC: So were you the first woman to be president of WRMC?

JJ: As far as anybody can tell, yes. There were very few females there to begin with. Everyone said I was the first female DJ at the station, I had a rock and roll, popular songs shift that I ran my freshman year. I had to pass some preliminary instructions and tests, there was some  standard. They said “this is the first time we’ve ever had a gal on the air” and when I became president everybody said “Well I don’t remember any female being in charge of anything”. I was in some position of management basically all the way through. And I enjoyed that in addition to the magic of broadcasting, I just thought it was a nifty process. That you could turn on that microphone and share ideas and information and communicate. I thought it was just great.

You mentioned that you did a popular songs show— was that what most of our programming was like or was it more talk or classical-oriented? What were we playing at the time?

There seemed to be a real need to diversify. Of course being a carrier current station, not on the open airwaves, we were only appealing to a college audience. But even given that, there was a strong need, I think from a management standpoint. We had news and sports and lectures. Popular music, folk music, classical music, we pretty much ran the gamut.

When I came back, after the station had gone FM, partly through my efforts, and found out how many people were involved and saw the new studio up on the second floor of Proctor instead of in the basement, I felt that a miracle had occurred because it was obvious that it was a very popular student activity. It was obvious that it was well-respected, it was obvious that it was well-funded. Clearly, there’d been a U-Turn. [Before me], no one had even proposed the idea of going open-air and I knew that it was absolutely essential because the station was just going downhill.

At the time that it was a carrier current station it was pretty much a joke. First of all, the reception was a challenge because each dorm had it’s own little transmitter hooked into the wiring system and this transmitter had to be on a frequency which was not exactly the same as the one in the next building, because the buildings were fairly close together, because then you would get a beating sound and you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the station at all. It sounded horrible. So the students listened, but it was an uphill battle for them to hear the station. Sort of like having a newspaper printed out of focus or something.

WRMC: Was WRMC involved in campus social life at all, in terms of concerts and events, or was programming the sole focus?

JJ: I don’t remember [concerts and WRMC parties] being common. If you talk with someone else from my era, they might have a different perception because I didn’t go on a lot of dates. And I was awfully busy at the station. I used to tell people that I may have majored in classics, you know Latin and Greek, but I really majored in WRMC. My father despaired of me. He began to wonder what I was doing. I was getting good grades! I wasn’t neglecting my studies but it was obvious where my heart was, what I cared about the most.

WRMC: How do you view WRMC and its relationship with the wider community?

JJ: I think WRMC can be a bridge between what students care about and what students are doing. As well as faculty, there is some of that and it reflects through the students. And a big piece of Middlebury, Vermont is the college. You don’t have any major manufacturers, you don’t have any large utilities that would offset the influence of Middlebury College. For the community to be aware of what’s cooking at Middlebury might be useful, whether or not the tastes of a person who is, say 50 or 60 years old might match what’s being broadcast on WRMC is up for grabs.

You know, [staying involved after graduation] is kind of like keeping track of a child after they’re grown, so Dave Elliot became WRMC president right after me, so I’m writing Dave every few months to see how it’s going. I kept in touch, pretty regularly with Management for, I would say, six or seven years, but I was working full time and had children, so that sort of distracted me.

WRMC: Do you remember anything strange happening in the station when you were a DJ?

JJ: We had a sofa in the meeting room [in the station], it as a place where we had group presentations that we could mic in if we wanted to. The sofa was there and there was a very strict environment for women and men at the time. Women were not allowed to be out of the dorm, I think after midnight on weekends and 11PM on weekdays. Every once in a while the fellas would find an opportunity to get a gal to come to WRMC, sort of like the old line of “would you like to come see my etchings?” and the sofa would turn out to be very useful. One day, I walked in and somebody was on the sofa and sat up quite suddenly and his girlfriend sort of went “uh-oh”. That was a moment of revelation.