Girls Can Do That: Becoming a DJ at Northeastern Changed My Life

Girls Can Do That: Becoming a DJ at Northeastern Changed My Life

When I say that Northeastern University changed my life, I’m not exaggerating. And when I say that, in some ways, I changed Northeastern University, that’s not an exaggeration either. It all started the day I went to the campus radio station, then known as WNEU, and asked whether I could be a disc jockey

It was 1964, still a conservative time, when gender roles were very much a part of society. I knew from the time I was a kid that I wanted to go into media, but I was told repeatedly that “girls can’t do that.” 

Even my own parents (of blessed memory) told me I should become something “normal” — a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. But I never wanted to be any of those things. They were fine occupations for someone else, but I wanted to either be a DJ or a sportswriter. And I was told neither was suitable for a girl. 

In 2021, young girls take for granted that they can be almost anything they set their mind to. The idea that girls can’t be journalists or radio announcers or TV news anchors has long since been consigned to the dustbin of history. 

But in 1964, I was alone — or at least I felt like I was alone. I was different from the norm, and my dreams did not involve marrying young and raising a family. My dreams involved reporting on the Red Sox or playing the hits on my favorite radio station (or both). Being different meant I was mocked by my peers, and it meant I found little encouragement from guidance counselors or teachers. I don’t recall anyone telling me to go for it or saying they knew I’d succeed. 

I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, because I believed that somehow, I’d get there and show them they were wrong. So, when I first came to Northeastern, I went to WNEU and applied. But the program director told me I couldn’t be a DJ. I asked him why and he said it was because I was a girl and they didn’t have girls on the air. 

I asked him why. He said, “Because they don’t sound good.” I thought I had a pleasant voice, so I asked him what he based his views on; like, how many female DJs had been on the air at WNEU. 

“None,” he said. “They don’t sound good.” 

He said I could play records and play the jingles, but I couldn’t speak on the radio. Eager to show him what I could do, I agreed to play the songs and jingles. As I recall, the first song I played was “Tired of Waiting for You” by the Kinks. 

But it was frustrating to be relegated to a behind-the-scenes role, unable to befriend the audience the way my favorite DJs had befriended me.  

In 1964-65, Top-40 radio was in the midst of the “British invasion,” and I could do a pretty good fake British accent. So the production team used my voice on a couple of comedy bits, but my dream of being a DJ still seemed very far away. 

And the idea that I could be a sports reporter didn’t get much encouragement, either. Eventually, I got frustrated (and depressed). I guess I temporarily gave up. I left WNEU and joined some other campus clubs. 

But I was also busy with a number of part-time jobs, trying to help pay my way through school. I was your basic working-class kid, born in Dorchester, raised in Roslindale, first in my family to go to college.  

One of my jobs was at a warehouse, where I shelved books. One day, I came to class still dressed in jeans. Back then, for girls to come to class in jeans was a no-no. As I said, it was still a conservative time. There was actually a dress code on campus, although it seemed to be applied more strictly to girls. But even many guys, when I got there in 1964, were still coming to class in jackets and ties. Anyway, I remember getting chastised for being dressed inappropriately. I also remember standing up for myself, explaining that I worked in a warehouse and I needed the job and I had little time to change into a dress or a skirt, etc. For whatever reason, the dress code soon got changed. I’d like to believe I had something to do with that.

In 1968, encouraged by a professor who was one of the first to believe in me, I returned to WNEU to try again. And this time, in my senior year, I was given the chance, becoming the first female DJ in Northeastern University’s history. The program director (his name was Jim Gordon, and I’m glad that years later, I was able to see him at a WNEU reunion and thank him) said yes, I could have a show, and in mid-October 1968, I was on the air. 

My show was called “Full Circle,” and I played mainly folk music. I recall some of the guys at the station being skeptical about having me on the air, but somehow the republic didn’t fall, and I actually got a very positive reception, so much so that I was soon on the air five nights a week. (I still have some of the fan mail I got.) 

And best of all, I became the station’s music director, a job I truly came to love. And when the station moved toward playing album rock (it was called progressive rock back then), I was there to help with the transition. Being music director was a wonderful job, because I heard the new music first. I got a reputation for identifying hit songs, and I was even written up in Billboard magazine a couple of times. 

I’d like to tell you I was immediately hired upon graduation, or that the radio industry began welcoming more female DJs. But neither thing was true. So, I ended up going for a master’s degree. Being in grad school let me remain at the station for another semester, and I continued to be the station music director until December 1970, at which point the station staff held elections and an undergrad got the job. I remember being really upset about it. The most enjoyable part of my life had been working at the radio station, and now that part of my college experience was over.   

After that, I worked a number of part-time freelance writing jobs. The best one was a very enjoyable gig for the ABC Contemporary Radio Network, writing a history of rock ’n’ roll. 

I also took a teaching job in the Boston Public School, not what I wanted to do but it helped to pay the bills as I continued the fight to persuade some radio station to give me the kind of chance that I had finally gotten at WNEU (by now it was called WRBB, and I was there when the move from AM to FM and the call letter change occurred). 

But the chance I was so eager to find would not come along till three years later, when I was hired by a small suburban radio station in Cambridge, WCAS.  And that led to my getting hired at WMMS in Cleveland, where, as music director at the station, I discovered and helped launch the career of a Canadian rock band named Rush.  

My radio career then took me to New York and Washington, D.C., before I was able to return to Boston. I became a radio consultant for nearly three decades, and I worked with radio stations all over North America. Eventually, because of media consolidation, the industry downsized and lots of us lost our jobs. 

I reinvented myself, going back to school at age 55. I tried to take my Ph.D. at Northeastern but, much to my disappointment, the History Department would only accept me provisionally; and after a year, they decided not to admit me into the program full-time. Fortunately, I got accepted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I got my doctorate in communication in 2011 at the age of 64.  

These days, I’m a professor of media studies at Lesley University, where I’ve worked since 2008. I taught part-time at Emerson College for 19 years before that. It’s gratifying to see some of the students I taught there have gone on to careers in broadcasting. 

I continue to write books and articles about the history of broadcasting, as well as writing about the history of baseball and other topics.  Now and then, you can hear me as a guest on someone’s radio show, and I’m even on a few webcasts. If you’re a Rush fan, perhaps you saw me in a documentary about the band or saw me introduce them at the Hollywood Walk of Fame when they received their star. 

I guess you could say that I’ve had an interesting life.  

Periodically, I look at a photo from the Northeastern News. It was taken by then-photo editor Marc Stern, and it showed me in the WNEU studio, doing what I loved, playing music and entertaining the audience. I doubt that the folks who saw it realized how much I had to fight to get into that studio, and how many people along the way had doubted I would ever get there or told me that I shouldn’t be there at all. 

I was able to see things change on campus, and to be part of the change that occurred. I’m not going to lie to you: I had my ups and downs at Northeastern and, at times, I didn’t think I belonged there. But going to NU was probably the most consequential thing I ever did, because it put me on the path to the media career I had wanted since I was a kid. And for that, I will always be profoundly grateful.