Sam McGuire was working for N.C. State's University Surplus Property program in the summer of 2002, driving around campus in the school's bright red pickup trucks, listening to the school's student-run radio station, WKNC 88.1 FM. McGuire, then 22, had moved south from Liverpool, N.Y, the previous fall, lured to Raleigh in part by a high school friend who needed a roommate and by the promise of warmer temperatures.
McGuire had been slow making new North Carolina friends, and this radio station seemed like a good place to start.
"I knew about WKNC right when I moved down," says McGuire, "because as a music fan and a broadcasting-of-music fan, the first place to check the culture of an area is to spin the dial."
He'd call in and request songs during his shift, and he started wondering how he—a full-time staff member taking one free class a semester—could get involved with the school's full-time student station. A year later, he approached the station's general manager, who was impressed by McGuire's interest in the cause and his résumé. McGuire had picked up volunteer shifts at Syracuse University's WJPZ 89.1 FM during holidays in high school. In September 2003, Wash Behind Your Ears—McGuire's weekly evening spot that moved from Fridays to Mondays in 2005—was born. He called himself Big Fat Sac, invited local bands into the studio and welcomed requests with a warm, after-work nonchalance.
In 2005, he picked up another responsibility at the station: continuing the station's popular Double Barrel Benefit. Its organizer graduated after directing it for two years, and McGuire felt like it may disappear. He took it over, and it's done nothing but grow. Last year's eight-band, two-night bill featured The Mountain Goats, Annuals, The Old Ceremony and Megafaun. This year's benefit headlines with Annuals and Sorry About Dresden and uses a fine class of younger bands as a "crash course in local music." The Double Barrel has helped McGuire shape his contribution—and the station's growing physical presence—in local music.
But McGuire almost lost that chance in the winter of 2006. The university had tightened its policy concerning participation in student media, a program primarily funded by student fees. Effective Dec. 1, 2006, only full-time students would be allowed to participate. McGuire, by then the full-time Surplus Manager, would lose his show. But station administrators weren't going to let that happen.
"We had a few non-students here, and for a non-student to have a role here, they needed to work in a mentorship capacity. Essentially, WKNC needed to be a better place with that person here," says Jamie Lynn Gilbert, the university's assistant coordinator of Student Media Advising. "That is certainly the case with Sam."
WKNC now has 86 people on staff, and 11 of them aren't students. Like McGuire, many of them teach incoming student DJs how to operate on the air. McGuire mentors a new student every semester and during the summer-school sessions.
"I was living a pretty sheltered life as a carpetbagger ... but WKNC has been such a huge part of who I've become and what's in my life now," he says. "I'm glad to give back to the station that's given me a whole lot."
Leah Hewett deejayed at WKNC from the spring of 2003 until the summer of 2004. That's when McGuire was in the truck, listening to WKNC at least six hours each day, he says. He noticed one DJ named Leah consistently played Soul Coughing, one of his favorite bands. He finally called during one of her shifts and requested "Bus to Beelzebub." Last August, McGuire and Hewett got married in Sunset Beach.
"I heard her and spoke to her on the phone many times before we met," McGuire says. "That's the biggest part of my life, you know? Meeting your wife—and just being able to stay plugged into new music and rock 'n' roll."
The fifth annual Double Barrel benefit pulls only from the Triangle. "All eight bands are solid, and every one of them is from one of the points in the Triangle.... I take a lot of area pride in that," says McGuire. "The way the lineup hangs together, it's probably the best it's been." Doors open at The Pour House at 8 p.m. both nights, and tickets for each night are $7 in advance and $9 at the door.
THE FUTURE KINGS OF NOWHERE: Bustling acoustic emotion from Durham; frontman Shayne O'Neill paints layered pictures of relationships with a guitar strum that ticks like a nervous heart. 9 p.m.
NORTH ELEMENTARY: Alternative amalgamation from Chapel Hill; John Harrison's songs pull from alt.country and space rock structures but are shot through the arm with experimental hankerings. 10 p.m.
THE NEVER: Three-piece power pop from Chapel Hill; Trekky Records' flagship streamlines its production of late, sharp guitars lifted through precise beats to shape smooth hooks. 11 p.m.
ANNUALS: Bombastic big-band rock from Raleigh; newly signed to a Columbia Records imprint, the six-piece is loud, whimsical and dramatic, like a teenage daydream in accomplished Technicolor. Midnight.
TOOTH: Blunt force metal from Durham; the quintet's two guitars are like the sturdy wheels of a handmade steel rickshaw, dragging and prodding one of the most promising bands in the state to places formerly visited by the genre's high priests—Sabbath, Maiden, Sleep. 9 p.m.
RED COLLAR: Punk kinetics and arena-rock melodics from Durham; guitars, keyboards, shout/clap-along choruses and enough onstage sweat to shower the first few rows combust into one of the most exciting live shows in these parts. 10 p.m.
FIN FANG FOOM: Looming, textural rock from Chapel Hill; now with cello and entering its 11th year, the quartet still manages to line corners of light into its menacing expanses. 11 p.m.
SORRY ABOUT DRESDEN: Wiry, winding indie rock from Chapel Hill; Saddle Creek's N.C. outpost doesn't play often anymore, but their bouncy-to-buckling past is worth revisiting. Midnight.