At the Woodstock Library desk, a woman I didn’t know recently asked me, “Are you Leslie Gerber?” I asked how she knew. “I recognized your voice,” she said. “I used to listen to WDST.”
She had a long memory, but I’ve had this experience occasionally over the years, since I left WDST in 1991 after eleven years on the air. I actually launched the station; my weekday program, “The Concert Hall,” was the first of the station’s regular broadcasts, at noon on April 30, 1980. I still have a recording of that show, which I can use to embarrass myself whenever I need taking down. But I did get a lot better.
WDST started out as an idea of Jerry and Sasha Gillman’s. After they moved to Woodstock in the 1970s, they soon realized that there was no radio station in Woodstock, nor any nearby that reflected the cultural life of the town. Since Woodstock was already “the most famous small town in the world,” due to the festival that had not occurred here, they thought a Woodstock station might do well in the surrounding area. Eight years after their first application for a license, WDST finally went on the air. The station’s nickname was “the bulldog of the Hudson Valley.” It was chosen partly because of the tenacity required to get the station started. Also, the Gillmans had bulldogs as pets.
Jerry thought that a successful radio station didn’t have to be homogeneous. He was planning to run a commercial station and to make money with it–which he did–but he also wanted to have fun and to do things he thought were worthwhile. After deciding what kinds of music he wanted on his station, instead of looking for radio people who could handle those types of music he looked for people who knew the music. He told me he thought it would be easier to teach radio skills to people who knew music than to teach music to people with radio skills.
As it happened, one of his first hires, Jeanne Atwood, had gone to broadcast school. But most of the rest of us had little if any radio experience. I had done college radio for only a few months, and I had made many guest appearances on classical music stations, but I hadn’t run my own program for twenty years. It didn’t matter. I learned quickly. So did everyone the Gillmans hired with the sole exception of John Herald. John was a wonderful bluegrass musician and songwriter and an excellent programmer, but after months on the air he was still uncomfortable with “the board” and he gave up.
At the reunions we’ve had on the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the station’s beginnings, most of us who were on the air in the early days have assembled to share our happy memories of the place. We were a fun crowd in the early days, and we had a real sense of accomplishment. Jerry, who was very interested in news and politics, had a real news staff providing a lot of local reporting and occasional features. He interviewed many of the area’s politicians, often repeatedly. My own classical music programs reached a lot of people who caught them because they were listening for something else on the station. The promoters of one local concert series told me they could never have survived without my listeners. Betty MacDonald, herself a fine jazz singer and violinist, worked tirelessly to promote jazz performances in the area, and hosted many interviews with jazz musicians. She told me that one of the highlights of her life was interviewing Sonny Rollins. (One of mine was interviewing Aaron Copland for one of my programs.)
In the earliest days the station tried out a number of specialty programs which quickly fell out of favor. I remember a Sunday opera program, hosted by a strange woman whose name I can’t remember. One week she came in with what she said was her favorite recording of a Mozart opera, and apologized because the LPs had been “well loved.” At the beginning of the show I wondered how she was going to fit that work, which ran for three hours, into her two hour time slot, but I needn’t have worried. The records skipped so often that she finished well within her time. On her final week, she opened her program by saying she didn’t feel like listening to opera that day and she played instead some avant-garde music so weird that even I couldn’t stand it.
One rather feckless woman named Cindy did a one-hour Sunday program of Broadway show music. I happened to be engineering for her the week she interviewed the participants in an upcoming performance at the Woodstock Playhouse. One of them was a surly teenager who answered all her questions with “Yeah” or “Nah.” Instead of sticking with the other cast members, Cindy kept asking her questions.
As the station evolved, more and more of what I called the “mutant” programming fell out. But as long as the Gillmans owned the station, it remained a “mixed format” station, and a very successful one. It started making money fairly early in its run. I remember that in 1987 we saw an Arbitron survey of local radio which showed that WDST was the #1 Ulster County radio station on weekends, which was when we still had the most “mutant” programming, including lots of classical music.
After the Gillmans sold the station to a lawyer, the advertising staff began making the decisions, and the quotient of pop music started rising. I left when I was told that my Sunday afternoon classical program was being canceled. The owner asked me to stay on for Saturday and Sunday mornings. I told him that all my best programs, with interviews and even live performances, had been possible only on Sunday afternoons and that if I couldn’t do them there was no point in staying on. “But,” he protested, “right now you’re getting the highest pay of anyone on the air.” I was making $7.50 an hour.
Today, WDST is a pop music station. The only “mutant” programs left are the “Woodstock Roundtable” hosted by Doug Grunther (the only one of the original programmers still on the air, I believe) early Sunday mornings, and “Blues Break” with Big Joe Fitz on Sunday nights. I hardly ever listen to it anymore. Remembering the old days is much more fun.
My specialized knowledge of Christmas music came about because I am Jewish. In 1980, my first year on the air at WDST in Woodstock, the management asked for a volunteer to run the Christmas eve airshift. Nobody else wanted to do it; they all had places to be on Christmas eve. I didn’t care, so I volunteered.
When I do things, though, I like to do them right. So, with several weeks’ notice, I set about putting together a collection of good Christmas music. Since my own tastes are very eclectic, I decided that the widest variety of music I could play would make for the most fun. And anyway, who would be listening to the radio on Christmas eve?
So, I searched my memory for outstanding examples of Christmas music. I’ve always loved the gorgeous melody and irregular phrases of “Lo How a Rose” by the great early baroque composer Michael Praetorius, so that went in. “Silent Night,” of course, is a gorgeous inspiration, the only surviving composition of Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863). But I had to find a non-corny performance of it. One of my favorite Christmas song recordings ever is a version of “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” retitled “Holy Babe,” sung by a group of convicts at Cumins State Farm, Arkansas, in 1942, one of Alan Lomax’s field recordings. It’s still been issued, as far as I know, only on a Library of Congress LP called “Negro Religious Songs and Services,” but I had a copy. (Because it runs so long, the original recording was on two 78 rpm disc sides, and that division was preserved on the LP dubbing. But someone at the station copied it onto an open reel tape for me and eliminated the break between sides, and I used that for the next decade.)
When the evening arrived, I went on the air at 7 p.m., prepared to go until midnight with the material I had on hand. But I also took requests from listeners, and as long as I thought they were decent enough music, I played them also.
It turned out, to my surprise, that quite a few people were listening, decorating their trees, wrapping presents, and doing other typical Christmas Eve activities. While a few callers didn’t like going from Gregorian chant to Ella Fitzgerald, most people enjoyed the program. I wound up doing a Christmas Eve program every year during my eleven years on WDST. I didn’t always manage to make time for my favorite Christmas work, the “Midnight Mass” of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (based on old French carols). But I played it most years, and I played “Holy Babe” every one of those eleven years. Sometimes people even called to make sure I would have it on before they had to go to sleep. I continued to take requests, but there were some things I would not play. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was one of them.
It was during those years that I became acutely aware of how little many “Christmas” songs have to do with Christmas. And fewer still are “Christmas carols,” a term that sometimes gets applied even to such non-Christmas winter songs as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
A carol is a “joyful religious song celebrating the birth of Christ,” according to Dictionary.com. “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is not by any stretch of the imagination a Christmas carol. It is, in its oblique way, a Christmas song, since in the U.S. we have come to accept the whole mythology of Santa Claus and his sled drawn by reindeer (presumably the wildlife normally found closest to the North Pole capable of pulling anything heavy). That image doesn’t fly in most other countries, but I’m not trying to become a cultural dictator so I’ll accept Christmas any way we want it here in the U.S.
Still, there are many, many songs typically played at Christmas time which have nothing to do with Christmas in any way. Here are some of what I call Winter Songs which have no Christmas relevance at all:
Let It Snow!
Frosty the Snowman
All of these appear (one of them twice) on the latest edition of an Ella Fitzgerald Christmas compilation, “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.” There is no singer I esteem more than Ella Fitzgerald. But she either she didn’t know the difference between Christmas carols and winter songs or she didn’t care.