Saturday, June 25, 2022

Navigating the Underground: Randall Pinkston Recalls his FM Days

By Chloe Baker

IMC Graduate

cbbaker@go.olemiss.edu

Courtesy of Youtube.com

Randall Pinkston has made his name as a network television journalist, but his road to prominence took him through the underground — of music.

Pinkston, who now teaches at the University of Mississippi, took a turn as an FM disc jockey in the late 1960s, which itself was something of an education for the soul music fan.

“I had never heard of some of these hard rock musicians, so I had to acclimate,” Pinkston said. 

After receiving 11 college acceptance letters, the Jackson native made the move to Wesleyan University in Connecticut after a close friend’s mother urged the pair to attend college together. 

Pinkston was studying to become a lawyer while he worked at the student-run campus radio station with friends. After his father’s death, he returned to Jackson and decided to take those skills to WJDX-FM.

Pinkston secured the job working under the name Willie, which was his legal first name before he later changed it to simply W. On air, he went by “Pinkston on the Rock,” an idea that sprang from a hard rock station in New York City where a DJ went by only his last name. 

The station was considered “underground radio,” playing deep album cuts and many lesser known artists. Pinkston had to adapt his personal tastes by listening to the station on his own time. 

“I could only listen to the station at home because I didn’t have a portable radio or FM radio in my car,” he said.

In addition to the more obscure underground musicians, the station played popular artists such as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. 

Pat Cashman of Vicksburg was 17 years old in 1968 listening to Willie Pinkston play these deep cuts. As it did with Pinkston, the station changed his music tastes. 

“It took me away from Motown,” Cashman said, now retired and living in Vicksburg. “I still listen to many things from it today, like Moby Grape, Vanilla Fudge and Rotary Connection.”

That same year, Mel McFatter was a 19-year-old in Oxford, listening to the station on any holiday break or weekend at home in Port Gibson. Like Cashman, McFatter feels his music taste was broadened by the underground songs played at the station. He also remembers it being the first radio station in the area that wasn’t a classical format.

“In the early days WJDX-FM was unique. It was more experimental than what later became known as FM rock,” said McFatter, also retired and living in Orange Beach, Alabama. “Two songs I remember Willie playing were Exuma doing ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ and Lee Marvin doing ‘Wandrin’ Star’ from the movie ‘Paint Your Wagon’.”

Pinkston remembers having the discretion to play almost anything, as long as the bosses hadn’t ruled something out. For instance, DJs could not play the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” on Sundays or before 10 p.m. during the week.

“There was a lot of freedom, so I liked that,” Pinkston said. 

One of Pinkston’s most striking works, however, was at Wesleyan in 1970, where he paid tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the second anniversary of his death. Pinkston’s segment was full of “movement music” with excerpts from speeches by King or Malcolm X between songs, all of which were borrowed or personally owned by Pinkston.

“At the end of the hour someone called asking for a recording,” Pinkston said. “I hadn’t even recorded the show. I didn’t really know what I was doing.” 

Following his time at the radio station, Pinkston went on to have a career in journalism spanning over four decades. Notably, he was the first Black anchor of a major newscast at WLBT-TV, which was the #1 station in Mississippi. 

He was also a White House correspondent for CBS as well as a reporter for national and international stories. This semester, he is an Overby Fellow at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media and an adviser for NewsWatch Ole Miss.

Looking back on an eventful career, Pinkston remembers his DJ days fondly, recalling them as “the most fun jobs I ever had.” 

Though times are changing, Pinkston has advice for the next generation of journalists, something that he learned even as a DJ.

“Ask for help,” he said. “There is always something else to learn.”


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