When Dave Ladd broadcasts his "Kosmik Radiation" show from 2 to 5 a.m. Wednesdays on WORT, he's typically locked inside the Bedford Street studio by himself.
"There might be some guy from the news department writing a story in the basement until 3 a.m.," Dave says. "But otherwise it's pretty solitary."
An hour before Tuesday night becomes Wednesday morning, Dave's wife, Jenni Schwaner Ladd, begins her WORT garage/rockabilly/punk show. Her "Leopard Print Lounge" gives way to "Kosmik Radiation" at bar time.
When the clock strikes 2, Jenni has to exit quickly to survive the next day.
"I have to be at work Wednesday morning, so if I leave right away, I can still get home for 3 or 4 hours of sleep."
The lonely world of graveyard-shift radio DJs on noncommercial stations like WORT may not seem glamorous. But this married couple find enough meaning in the experience to volunteer for one exhausting unpaid night every week. Where others see fatigue and isolation, Dave and Jenni see energy and a chance to share a love of music.
Known on the air as Dave 3000, Ladd says he relies on the eerie solitude he feels at WORT to put him in touch with the third-shift reality of his listeners.
"The feedback I've gotten from most of my listeners is that they're a captive audience at work," he says.
"Most people who work night jobs work alone. They're doing things like driving a delivery truck. Music helps the time pass."
With his mix of psychedelic and progressive underground music, Dave turns the darkness of overnight solitude into a swirling world of noise. The driving, heavy guitars seem to represent the will to last until sunrise.
A recent playlist included walls of sound from Comets on Fire, the Paybacks and Yo La Tengo.
Broadcasting in the earlier hours of overnight, Jenni plays the Cure, Elvis Costello and the Gore Gore Girls. Compared to "Kosmik Radiation," her show has a raucous, party feel.
That fits an audience she says "might be leaving a club" or ending a late-night excursion with friends.
Still, there's no shortage of solitude to Jenni's three-hour shift. And sometimes she has to explain to listeners that no one else is around to answer the phone.
"When I do a ticket give-away, I have to say, ‘Please wait until I start the song. I am just one person in a little box, with short arms.'"
What kind of personality aspires to be a graveyard-shift radio DJ? Here are some clues:
Jenni, 34, has bright red hair and glasses. She describes herself as "Emily Post meets Lizzie Borden." She was born in Alabama, but spent half her childhood in Australia. She has an M.A. in theater history and an M.F.A in professional costume design from the University of Illinois. She clerked at an indie record store in Champaign-Urbana for three years.
"I had a college radio show when I was an undergrad at the University of Missouri," she says. "When Dave and I first moved here from Chicago in 2002, we volunteered for the promotion committee at WORT. Then we did a Friday night show together once a month until 2004, when these overnight slots became available."
As for the title of her radio show, Jenni had this to say: "I wear a lot of leopard print, so it seemed like a natural."
Dave also got his radio start in college, at WCBN in Ann Arbor. He's maintained a strong connection to noncommercial, community radio ever since. Having completed his undergraduate degree at UW-Madison in 1992, Dave returned here a decade later.
"One of the reasons I wanted to move back had to do with WORT," says Dave, 35, who describes himself as "an obsessive record collector."
Jenni and Dave both admit that their on-air commitment yields a weekly bout with fatigue.
"Wednesday is a tired day," says Dave. "But it becomes a regular pattern, and it also breaks up the week. Thursday is here before I know it."
Jenni says there is one main reason she defers mattress time to go to WORT every Tuesday night:
"You gotta love rock 'n' roll more than you love sleep, and I do. There are all sorts of things you can do for money. This is what you do for love."