UW Radio alums snag a British legend
Retired Madison broadcast engineer recounts the unlikely story in a BBC radio interview listened to by six million-plus.
One day last month, a retired Madison broadcast engineer named Kevin Peckham was interviewed on the BBC Breakfast show, a program that Peckham was told attracts north of six million viewers.
It required Peckham to rise at 1 a.m. It was six hours later in England. Peckham showered, got on Skype, and told the unlikely story of how a bunch of former University of Wisconsin–Madison student radio geeks lured a wonderfully eccentric British radio legend named Deke Duncan to their internet radio station.
It involves two parallel tales, each starting in the 1970s.
It was 1971 when Peckham arrived in Madison to study engineering at UW. He began working at the campus radio station, WLHA, which broadcast exclusively to the lakeshore dorms.
“A great experience,” Peckham says.
He fell in love with radio and met others who shared his passion. They played music and spoof commercials, occasionally sending listeners on quixotic quests like finding the Morgue Bar in Slab City, Wisconsin.
It was a blast.
“Normally, college radio has some adult supervision,” Peckham says. “A faculty adviser. That wasn’t the case here. It was all student operated.”
It was so much fun that for a few years afterward, Peckham aspired to be a famous disc jockey — “the next Larry Lujack” — until reality set in and he began a broadcast engineering career that took him to NBC-15 and Full Compass Systems in Madison.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in 1974, a 29-year-old man named Deke Duncan, upset over the lack of good radio in Stevenage, England, began broadcasting a regular show from the shed behind his house.
Duncan had an audience of exactly one: his wife, inside the house. The BBC got wind of it and did a feature on the iconoclastic broadcaster.
That might have been that, except that in 2018 — 44 years later — BBC Archive put the piece out on social media, resulting in questions about whatever happened to Duncan.
The answer — which brought another BBC feature — was that he was still doing radio, now in Stockport, and still broadcasting to an audience of one — his second wife.
In Madison, across the decades, Peckham was regularly in touch with numerous alumni from his WLHA days. Many had stayed in radio one way or another, including Lee Harris, the longtime morning anchor of WINS all-news radio in New York City. They swapped stories from the old days, laughed, and eventually — a dozen or so years ago — put up a WLHA tribute website.
At one point, Harris came across the 1974 BBC video on Deke Duncan, and sent it around to the WLHA group with a note saying, in effect, “This crazy guy likes radio as much as we do.” Everyone loved it.
A few years ago, as they neared retirement age, the WLHA crew began talking about resurrecting their college days in the form of a streaming internet radio station.
It would be professionally done and include everything they loved about radio — the camaraderie, the loose patter and hijinks, the music — and nothing they didn’t. No consultants or business meetings.
The station (WLHA, of course) debuted in November 2018. You can access it live off the website or its app. Peckham does a weekday morning show with his buddy from college radio days, Kevin Ruppert, recently retired as chief engineer of WISC-TV. Harris, still on the air in New York, does a Sunday morning show. Longtime Madison media guy Dan Smith provides spoof commentaries.
It was Peckham who spotted the 2018 BBC update on Deke Duncan. And it was Peckham who reached across the pond.
“I found him on Facebook and sent him a note,” Peckham says.
It turned out his BBC celebrity had resulted in Duncan being approached by numerous stations, but all had programming requirements he couldn’t abide.
Peckham encouraged Duncan to listen to WLHA.
“He loved it,” Peckham says. Offered a shift, Duncan replied, “That would be jolly cool.”
Once it was set — Duncan’s show is on 10 a.m. to noon Sundays, after Harris — Duncan says, “I’ll alert my friends at the BBC. They’ll be interested.”
A joint appearance with Peckham and Duncan on BBC Breakfast was arranged. The Brits are delighted Duncan has found an American home. And some days now WLHA has more listeners in the United Kingdom than the United States.
It’s hard to say whether Peckham or his new star is more excited. “Deke is really into it,” he says.