Change (and Spring) is in the Air

& WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for March 27, 2016

The last 12 months have seen a flurry of activity here at WFDU-FM. After receiving approval from the Federal Communications Commission, the station installed a new transmitter last fall that essentially doubled the size of our listening area. We also launched two HD channels and increased our online offerings to provide more varied programming than any other public station in our area. WFDU programming can also be heard on iHeart Radio as well as other aps that enable my station to reach more listeners than ever before.

WFDU is celebrating our 45th anniversary this year and I will mark my 41st anniversary with the station in September. I joined the station, which is owned by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, on my first day as a freshman in 1975. A couple of years later I created the folk music program TRADITIONS which will celebrate its 36th anniversary in April. I am extremely proud of this show, which is the longest running series on WFDU-FM. In recent years I’ve launched a site on Sound Cloud that features excerpts of recent interviews and I hope to add some archival interviews in the coming the months.

Marjorie Guthrie and Ron Olesko

Marjorie Guthrie and Ron Olesko at WFDU-FM in 1977

I mention this after my broadcast on Easter Sunday for a couple of reasons. Easter Sunday and folk radio have a special connection for me. The first “folk” offering that I produced on WFDU came on Easter Sunday in 1977 when we aired an interview that I held with Marjorie Guthrie, the widow of Woody Guthrie. Marjorie also brought a guest to our studio, an actor/singer by the name of Tom Taylor who was working on a one-man show as Woody Guthrie.

Back then, the recording of this type of show was “radical” for the station. No one on the station was doing these kind of interviews at the time, and having musicians in the studio was unheard of. Part of it was for practical reasons as the equipment and accommodations we had in 1977 really did not easily lend itself to presenting live music. However, we pulled it off and the show was well received. I interviewed Marjorie a few more times before her untimely passing in 1982. I was inspired by Marjorie and I credit her as the catalyst for my radio work that followed. Excerpts of my original interview with Marjorie were featured in the books Wardy Forty and Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty: The Interviews, 2013. Both books, written by Phillip Buehler, were published by the Woody Guthrie Archives and detail Woody’s life at Greystone Hospital in New Jersey where he was institutionalized after being diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease.

Because of that initial broadcast on Easter Sunday in 1977, I began airing more folk music on the progressive rock show that I was hosting. This eventually lead to the start of Traditions on a Sunday afternoon in April 1980, so I look fondly at Easter Sunday as the day where my radio connection with folk music first pieced together. The fact that the show can still be heard every Sunday afternoon from 2 to 5pm is a testament to the loyal listeners who make it possible.

As for WFDU-FM, the station has grown by leaps and bounds over the years – thanks to a creative staff of radio hosts and a visionary management team led by Carl Kraus who retired in 2015 and was re-placed by his assistant Barry “Duff “ Sheffield. The studios are comfortable and the equipment is kept up to date, and for that thanks also goes to our listeners who support the shows and station each year. Without their dedication, we would not be able to offer the programming that we do.

The second reason for my reminisce about WFDU and Traditions is due to another change that is occurring on the show. In the early 1990s, after my children were born, I came to a quick realization that I needed to spend more time with my family and could not sacrifice every Sunday afternoon to the station. My friend Bill Hahn came along and we worked out an arrangement to alternate weeks hosting the show. It worked.

Now, in 2016, radio audience habits have changed, and both Bill and I, and my children, are a lot older. Starting April 3rd, Bill will now be hosting his own folk-related program every Sunday morning from 10am to 11am on WFDU. I will return to hosting Traditions on Sunday afternoons from 2 to 5pm on a weekly basis. This means more folk music for listeners along and will also provide weekly programming consistency.

Ron Olesko

Ron Olesko on the air at WFDU-FM in Teaneck, NJ

Yes, radio listening habits have changed. When I started Traditions in 1980, the Internet had not yet been introduced to the public at large. Satellite radio was not an option. CDs were not yet being manufactured. Only a few independent artists were releasing their own recordings on vinyl, the rest of the music was coming from the independent record labels that catered to folk music. Audiences back then were accustomed to “appointment driven” radio – tuning in shows that they could find on their radios at specific times on specific days. You could only listen to what was being broadcast on terrestrial radio, limited to what you could pick up in your locality.

Flash forward to 2016. Yes, the Internet has certainly changed our lives and habits. Via the Internet you can now hear literally hundreds of folk music radio shows broadcast and streamed from all across the continent, not to mention other parts of the globe. There are also Internet only services that will feed you a brand of “folk music” that is picked out by algorithms and without interruption from DJs or announcements. Recording decent CDs or files have become affordable to most artists. The choices are abundant, not to mention other forms of entertainment that compete for our time.

Where does this competition leave local folk radio? As I’ve said before in these columns, I am encouraged. Folk radio hosts need to remind ourselves that we CAN offer something these other outlets cannot. Study groups may show that audiences do not want to listen to DJs and tune in only for the music, but I think that is misleading. The motor mouth jocks that typified top forty radio of previous decades might be a thing of the past, but folk audiences still need voices that share important news and information. Artist interviews and in-studio performances can still be unique listening experiences, and I am dedicating myself to doing more of these in the weeks and months to come. News about concerts and events can be shared effectively on local folk radio and I will also do my best to keep audiences informed.

Folk music has always been about the songs and tunes that rise out of and reflect a community. Listening to a computer program that is randomly choosing songs does not build a community. By acknowledging what our listeners tune in for, and meeting the needs that differentiates us from these other outlets, true folk radio will insure that our unique audiences stay with us AND will grow in time. Folk music is in no danger of disappearing, but it does evolve as a living tradition.

If I remain healthy, and with a stiff breeze behind me, I am ready for the exciting challenges of producing a weekly folk show in this day and age and in the years to come. If you are not doing so, I hope you will make it a habit to join me each week – whether live on Sunday afternoons from 2 to 5pm, or via our archives that enable you to listen on your own schedule. Connect to us at www.wfdu.fm .

The times they are a changing, and together we can embrace those changes as an enhancement for the music that we all love.

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About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.

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