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The Shoestring Radio Review #1

Western Mass has a vibrant music and spoken word scene in the air all around us. It’s time more people tuned in.

The author's well-loved car stereo.

“I really like to listen to radio because it’s what takes me to the place. If I listen to music on my computer, I could take it to China and it would be the same music. But if I turned on the radio in China I don’t know what the fuck they’d be listening to. That’s how I utilize radio these days. I make sure to carry a radio when I move around.”
Juan Wauters

Here as in other parts of the country, the FM dial is in a degraded state compared to how it sounded decades ago. As recorded music became so portable listeners could fit their entire collections into their pockets, and spoken word media quickly followed, radio’s listenership, and consequently its attractiveness to advertisers, plummeted in much the same way that newspaper readership did. As a result, locally owned stations folded or were bought up over decades until only a few massive companies controlled most of the airwaves.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some local gems to find. 

Thanks in part to institutional support from colleges and universities, enterprising community-minded founders of “low power” stations and local people who step up to keep these stations running, western Mass still has its share of great shows to tune into every day. As the digital commons are eroded further by tech giants seeking to turn manipulated attention into profits, some folks never left the first technologically facilitated commons. And in the shadow of the Internet, their voices still flourish.

In that spirit, The Shoestring Radio Review hopes to remind readers that when we allow the publicly owned commons of the airwaves to be eroded and instead consign ourselves to listening to our private collections and preferences of words and music, we are missing out on an opportunity to connect with our community. For anyone inspired to dust off the old FM dial and hear the sounds of the Valley, here are my recommendations for each day of the week.

Note: Future editions of this column will highlight more college radio programs. I also invite any DJs whose shows I missed, or fellow radio fans, to reach out with any suggestions or pitches for future columns!


While I don’t love starting this list with a syndicated program, The Jazz Train with Jon Pollack is a great way to start the week. Airing from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. on Mondays on WMUA at 91.1 FM, the show takes the listener through a series of recordings from a particular date throughout the history of jazz music. WMUA has other, mostly automated jazz programs every weekday morning. Jazz a la Mode on NEPM from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night, with a rotating cast of hosts who bring their own themes to each show, offers a pleasant bookend to WMUA’s morning jazz programming. But perhaps my favorite place to hear jazz is 90.7 FM WTCC Springfield, which usually features its own jazz programming mid-morning on weekdays, also with a rotating cast of hosts. In general, WTCC is the place to go to hear a DJ who has spent their whole (often long) life loving the genre they’re spinning. For serious noise heads, I recommend tuning into 90.7 while driving or biking around Montague, Leverett, or Sunderland and letting the landscape itself DJ you a sonically- and sometimes thematically-dissonant mix of WTCC and New Hampshire Public Radio.

In the afternoon, WMCB 107.9 FM in Greenfield delivers Radio Cures with Art Ames, an eclectic mix of rock and jazz from a wide span of the 20th and 21st centuries. When I listened last week, the deep-voiced and amicable Ames had chosen the theme “sunshine” to chase away the heavy rains. (It might have worked.) And Monday evening brings one of my favorite shows: Age of Exploration with DJ Quils on WMUA. A stalwart of the local music scene, Quils spins all-vinyl shows of everything that’s funky Mondays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Check him out for funk, hip-hop, reggae and more, as well as the occasional themed show — this year’s St. Patrick’s Day special of all Irish music introduced me to sounds I’d never heard from the island before.


Valley Free Radio, WXOJ-LP 103.3 FM Northampton, has some great programming, much of it — and I say this with so much love — hosted with some goofy, white-dad energy. One of these programs is the Soul Patrol, hosted by Dave Keating Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., spinning a generous helping of classic soul, plus just enough newer artists to be interesting but not annoying, over some avuncular vocal breaks. In the evening, catch two expansive WMUA programs, Tick Check and Need Money for Laptop, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., respectively. Both present a broad selection from folk and indie rock to house, techno, noise and more. (Need Money for Laptop is hosted by The Shoestring contributor Ben Parra.) 


Wednesday is the day to catch global grooves across a couple different stations. Starting at 11 a.m. on Valley Free Radio, Planetary Hi-Fi brings deep dives into a specific artist or genre from around the world each week, and at 2 p.m., Cosmic Slop on WMUA delivers similarly well researched looks at particular moments, trends or subcultures of popular music. I have been following this latter program with excitement since I first heard it last year. Later in the evening, DJ Vinyl Scratch delivers a well-rounded mix of African music (and some cringe-inducing pronunciations) on The Warm Heart of Africa from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., back on VFR, which is then followed by Poison Ivy of the Mind. Poison Ivy is the kind of program that could only be hosted by a serious vinyl addict, which is confirmed by the host’s frequent asides about his bargain bin hauls from local record stores. The show makes the familiar strange: old forgotten covers sandwich B-sides from artists you thought you knew well, with a healthy sprinkling of the completely bizarre interspersed throughout. It’s a perfect way to end a Wednesday and has been a frequent comfort to me on late drives home from work.


In another presumably unintentional coordination across radio stations, Thursday is the day to hear blues. From 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. on WTCC, catch Blue Lunch, which tends to feature more classic blues from the South as well as some Chicago blues and other later variations. On WMUA from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., listeners can catch Katie Wright’s Rhythm and Blues Review, which features many of the same classics as Blue Lunch as well as some modern blues (which skews whiter to the chagrin of many contemporary black blues artists) and occasionally gets into genres that were in conversation with the blues, like jazz and soul. (There is also a blues program on VFR Friday afternoons, Blame It On The Blues). Thursday night brings Rick Haggerty’s Kickin’ It for Peace, Culture and Education on VFR from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., a program with themed episodes mostly highlighting different aspects of 20th century pop and a host whose excitement and style on the mic is unmistakable once you’ve heard it.


Friday evening is about as prime-time for radio as you can get, and the stations of the Valley do not disappoint. WTCC hosts its Friday Evening Jam from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., featuring a wide selection of old-school and proto-hip hop, as well as some of the funk and soul those early artists were sampling. It’s all blended live by DJ James Maurice Tucker — something you don’t find too often around here (notably, you can find live DJing on Hartford’s Hot 93.7, a corporate-owned pop and hip-hop station that has its moments). 

All evening, you can hear the sounds of Funky Friday on The River, 93.9 FM. The station could do a better job of living up to its slogan, “different is good,” and thus I haven’t featured them much on this list, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t tune in from time to time looking for some low-calorie funk to start the weekend. But the real gem of Friday night is Table of Contents with Mark Bove, on VFR from 10 p.m. to midnight. Bove is liable to be spinning just about anything — I once heard him play a monotone reading of the lyrics of “I’m Your Boogie Man” over an instrumental remix of the track for a Halloween special. He’s also a frequent flier at local DIY shows and has been known to slip some favorite Valley bands into his mix.


Though any day is a great day to listen to WTCC, Saturday might be my favorite. Starting at 11 a.m., Raquel Obregón hosts Cantares Latino-Americanos. At 1 p.m., Dave Helman hosts Country Corner, a deep dive into the annals of classic country and bluegrass music and its history. I learn something every time I listen to Country Corner, and particularly appreciate Helman’s continued emphasis on just how common interracial collaboration was in the heyday of these two genres. In the evening, I check out WTCC’s reggae and Caribbean music show, Caribbean Culture, which kicks off at 5 p.m., and later, at 10 p.m., I’ll catch It’s a Wonderful Punk Rock, a show that is appropriately rowdy in all the right ways for a Saturday night.


On Sunday morning, I’m tuning into WTCC again to catch Inspirational Beginnings, a gospel show hosted by Denise Stewart from 6 a.m. to 11a.m. At noon, I’ll jump over to WMUA to catch another Katie Wright show, The Jump Back, which counts down songs from the R&B Billboard charts from particular years in history. The weekend closes out with Raquel Obregón’s Tertulia on NEPM at 88.5 FM. Taking its name from culturally-oriented social gatherings across the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, the show plays music in these two languages, drawing primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean. Obregón’s soft tones are the perfect balm for a case of the Sunday scaries, and her bilingual narration doubles as an exercise for anyone trying to brush up on their Spanish or English. 

Sunday night also brings WTCC’s New Polka Show from 9 p.m. to midnight. Polka shows seem to get wedged into late or early timeslots around here — WMUA’s used to prominently feature on a weekend morning, but now is over by 10 a.m. on Saturday. And while polka can be quite grating, what I always love about a polka show is what I also love about the gospel show and any number of the niche programs offered on the Valley’s airwaves: they imply a strong community of listeners, callers and fans attending live performances across western New England. 

Brian Zayatz is a co-editor at The Shoestring.

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