Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


Mike Duncan: Twenty-five years of music and community radio in Eugene

By BOBBY SCHENK // Mike Duncan has been hosting The Lonely Guy Radio Program for 25 years. Each week, thousands of people tune in to hear new music. Duncan's knowledge and ability to play new music is what captures people. According to Duncan, “It's about loving music and wanting to share that with other people.”

A man sits in a studio behind a glass window. He's tall, with shockingly white hair and a broad build. Music jumps from speakers in and outside the studio, the sounds of rock mixed with hip-hop, jazz and soul. He might look like a normal dad but this DJ's music taste is anything but. Above the window, the 'On Air' light suddenly snaps on and a voice floats through the speakers:

“Brand new music from Mother Mother this morning, that's a tune that I discovered by accident. I thought I was downloading a different song, and then when I realized I clicked the wrong one, I thought well, I'll give this a listen and it turned out I really liked it! That's from a record called 'Dance and Cry', just recently released. Rufus Du Soul, before that, with 'Treat You Better', a very uplifting track.”

It's Saturday morning, 10 a.m, and people are just beginning to start their weekend. For some, this means sleep, a good breakfast and a cup of coffee. But for others, Saturday mornings mean tuning their radios to 88.1 FM, KWVA Eugene for their favorite radio program.

“I'm The Lonely Guy, this is The Lonely Guy Radio Program and I've got a bunch of  new music for you. I had a really difficult time getting a setlist down to two hours this week, in fact, a crazy difficult time. My original setlist is two hours and five minutes so I'm trying to overlap some tunes, but I'm burning up too much daylight chatting with you kids. If there's something you want to hear, you can always give me a call, 541-346-0645. This is campus radio, KWVA Eugene.”

Mike Duncan has been hosting The Lonely Guy Radio Program for 25 years. Each week, thousands of people tune in to hear new music, and some listeners have been fans for 10 years or more. Duncan's knowledge and ability to play new music is what captures people. According to Duncan, “It's about loving music and wanting to share that with other people.”

Born in 1969 and raised in Elkhart, Indiana, Mike Duncan was introduced to music through his father, a former air-force pilot. “While in service, he was in charge of decommissioning a base in Germany,“ Duncan said. He sits behind the radio board, controls at his fingers. The air is his to command. “They had these nice speakers, a giant tape machine and an enormous collection of records. My dad asked about the equipment, and his superior told him it was basically garbage. He said bullshit, loaded it up and had it sent back to the States with him.” Duncan and his dad were close, and he credits his music taste to his father's influence. Duncan's voice pitches lower when he talks about his father, and a small smile grows on his face. “He was one of those people who really loved music, who dug a little deeper. That tape machine was what got us through the winters, when we were frequently snowed in. It was all for us.”

Duncan's enthusiasm and love for radio began in a broadcasting class in high school, and he eventually worked at the closed circuit radio station that was a part of the school. “It was all student run,” he said. “We had a mic, two turntables and an 8-track player. We broadcasted out of the speech teacher's classroom, announcing the cafeteria menus and local sports scores.” Duncan stops as the song comes to an end and switches into on-air mode. His voice on-air is different than in any conversation. It's even and reassuring, with the familiarity of a next-store neighbor, polished by years of practice.

Radio became a major part of Duncan's life, and he continued DJing in college, hosting a show with a friend while attending Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Duncan soon realized that he was one of the only people at the school who knew the radio station even existed. “It was so fricking random,” he said. However, working for the station gave him an outlet to share the music he loved; Duncan was hooked. After getting an undergraduate degree in communications in 1991, Duncan moved to Eugene to pursue a career in marketing for a recreational vehicle company, Industrial Finishes and Systems. The move changed his life.

“When I got to Eugene in 1993, KWVA was just starting, and when I tuned in I thought holy crap, their whole entire broadcasting day is just like the one hour show I did back at Purdue!” Duncan roared. The radio station was in the process of switching their broadcasting model, from a 12 hour day to a 24 hour day, and needed more staff. The opportunity to continue sharing music electrified Duncan, and he immediately filled out an application, which led to a 4 a.m. DJ interview.  Although this time might sound shocking, the practice of training new DJs in the early morning is fairly common, according to Charlotte Nisser, the general manager of KWVA. “Many radio stations do this because new employees can learn the ropes without disturbing listeners,” Nisser explained. KWVA at that time was the first student radio station at U of O since the 1980s. Housed in a renovated women's bathroom with walls and doors covered in stickers and graffiti, it only had three air studios and wasn't big by any means. But by the end of the interview Duncan was on the air.

Working at KWVA has always been an adventure for Duncan. “I have to remind myself of some of these stories” he laughs. Take the time Duncan thought a DJ had committed suicide in the studio.

“I'm coming in at 5:30 in the morning, and I'm tuning in and I hear a Kurt Cobain song about suicide on a loop, and it's just playing over and over and over again, and you think, Gosh, what am I going to find when I get there?” he says, rubbing his trimmed white beard while a grim smile spreads across his face. “I press the button on the loading dock, and no one comes down. I call the station, and no one answers, and I can't get in the building cause it's 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday, and I just know there's somebody dead up there, so I call campus security  explain it to them and they say 'Yes it's very likely that somebody could be dead up there.' They let me in, I go up to the station and I'm sure there's a dead body in there.” Duncan pauses, clearly for dramatic effect. “ It turns out it's just a DJ who was so tired that he passed out on the floor, with the song on repeat, not hearing the phone ring or seeing obviously the blinking light. And even the campus security guard is convinced we're staring at a corpse, until I go up and nudge him with my foot and he goes 'OH! Ah shit hey man.'”

But why do it? What has gripped Duncan to give up every Saturday for the past 25 years to go down to a college campus and broadcast two hours of music each week? “This show drags me along sometimes,” Duncan admits. “It would be easy for me to stop looking for new music, but I can't. Its got me by the collar saying nope, grab your headphones, you've got work to do. It's both an honor and an obligation.” Beyond the show itself, Duncan believes strongly in the community that radio can create. “Nobody who leaves KWVA ever really changes,” he pointed out. “We're the same music nerds at 50 as we are at 22. KWVA is important because it gives students something to come back to.”

It's 12 p.m., which means it's time for Duncan to wrap up his show and head home to his wife and two children. While the next DJ sets up, Duncan jokes with him, asking about his week and what music he's planning to play for his show. Then Duncan signs off:

“This is campus radio KWVA Eugene 88.1 FM, all the way down on the lonely left end of your FM dial, your U of O campus radio and true Willamette Valley Alternative, and home of The Lonely Guy Radio Program. That's a mouthful! And that makes me The Lonely Guy. Thanks everybody for joining me, got just a couple songs left in this mornings edition of the program, as always keep it tuned to 88.1 FM, you might just want to turn your radio down there and break the knob off. “


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