Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Comin’ to ya live from the studio manned by deejay Dave Arlington (not his real name) high up a tower overlooking scenic Rockville Pike.

I’m watching Dave anchor WASH-FM’s Saturday “Best of the 80s Weekend” show in the near- deserted studios that also house Clear Channel stations WMZQ, WBIG, WWDC and Hot 99.5.

I’m here to grasp how 21st-century pop radio works as well as surface some mutual radio memories from growing up in Arlington.

Dave’s microphone hangs over four computer screens facing the 97.1 wall sign, the main monitor scrolling a color-coded list of pre-programmed songs, ads and station promos. The others allow him to edit audio transitions, rehearse his own spiels and monitor breaking news and real-time weather online and from a TV.

“We improve the segues,” he says. “I can move things around to make the timing work,” but the music selections and order were prepared earlier in the week by a staff programmer – which is how rock stations have always operated, he assures me.

The difference back in the early 1970s, when Dave was a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate getting his start at Arlington-based WEAM, was that the jock checked off songs on a mimeographed sheet. The challenge was the stations’ policies against repeating songs within a week, which required Saturday dudes to get creative.

Those were the days when deejays actually spun platters, mostly 45’s, before those teen tokens gave way to cartridges, compact discs, and now digital files. Back then, a trained ear could make out the on-air “splifft” sound at the start of a song, Dave says, the result of “cue burn” wear-and-tear on a record caused by years of previewing the song’s opening.

Today’s hosts can electronically pre-test any track, announcement or ad. Dave does it as an impressive one-man band. “There’s no technical training,” he scoffs. “You learn from other jocks.”

As a student at Yorktown High School (class of ’67), Dave got the radio bug helping with interviews broadcast by WAVA in Rosslyn and by winning a contest to become “Rogue of the Week,” a secret student promoter of WEAM personality Johnny Rogue. “I was a nerdy kid in high school,” he says, but he made a career of “talking like one of the popular kids. When I started, I was as younger than the demographic. Now I’m older,” he says, adding that the average age of a WASH listener is 40.

The Arlington charm goes out on the airwaves as Dave takes calls for a Jiffy Lube oil-change giveaway, politely informing the first nine callers he’s waiting for “caller 10.” To the strains of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” he sings along and strums air guitar.

During breaks in the programming that are his to fill, “it’s important to show you’re live,” Dave says. That’s why he arrives for his five-hour shift with a typed compilation of current movies, county fairs, news events and school starts he can rattle off as needed.

He handwrites his spoken interludes on paper and rehearses them before executing his completely natural delivery. Coolness.

I asked Dave if he’s ever recognized on the street. “Happily, no. One of great things about radio is you can be in people’s bedrooms and cars talking to them and the next day pass them on the street and, nothing.”

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My pick for the most amazing sight in Arlington last week: Naturalist Leslie Sturges, at Gulf Branch Nature Center, before Saturday’s standing-room crowd attending the ”Bat Fest” children’s party and appeal for species conservation, holding a live bat in her gloved hand and feeding it on camera with an eye dropper.