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Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned By Listening to Free-Form Radio

I don’t listen to the radio anymore. At least I don’t like to listen to the radio and never do so voluntarily. I don’t like the radio anymore because its scripted and predictable. Every station plays the same 20 songs, in keeping with their stated format. If they have an actual DJ, the DJ says the same stupid things about the weather, the traffic, sports that every other DJ says. There’s nothing surprising, nothing real. It’s hard to discover anything new or unusual.

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with free-form radio. I grew up during the era when radio was becoming canned and programmed but, fortunately there were a few golden holdouts, like the legendary DJs of WNEW-FM in New York City, my hometown.
My biggest free-form radio love was Vin Scelsa. When I was a listener, he had his long-running program on WXRK. He called it Idiot’s Delight. It certainly was a delight.

I’d tune in every Sunday night, having looked forward to it all week long. I’d listen to all four hours, or five hours or however long he decided to stay on the air that evening. I did not care about not getting enough sleep before school on Monday, this show was that important to me.

When Vin was on the radio, he would talk about whatever he wanted to talk about, he interviewed whoever he wanted and went deep, he played whatever the hell he wanted to play. If he was on any kind of kick that day, that’s what you got to hear. You never knew what was going to unfold on Idiot’s Delight.

This is what made it so amazing.

Free-form radio, like the best things in life, unfolds organically. Songs and conversations segue from one to the next, sometimes with obvious connection but often with nothing except, perhaps, unconscious intent. Interviews are conversations, not pre-designed lists of questions that just skim the surface.

My vintage Fisher Studio-Standard. I listened to a lot of free-form radio on this.
My vintage Fisher Studio-Standard. I listened to a lot of free-form radio on this.

And, like most of the best things in life, the results and outcomes of free-form radio shows cannot really be measured. Ratings and algorithms be damned. You don’t look for “return on investment” with free-form radio.

Free-form radio was the foundation of my musical education. I was exposed to artists and songs I otherwise never would have heard because they did not fit any prescribed formula. I got to hear how artists thought, and how they went about making a life through their art. I learned the little things, like how Graham Parker was inspired to write “Big Man on Paper” while at the Hudson Valley Mall. I got to hear them play from the heart, live on air. Diane Ponzio singing “If You Were Only Here” comes to mind. I’m so glad I caught that on tape.

Lucinda Williams, Warren Zevon, Graham Parker, Black 47, Christine Lavin, are a few of my favorite musicians who I discovered on Vin’s show. In these pre-internet days, where else would I have found these great musicians? Certainly not on Jack-FM or Z-100!

One of my favorite aspects of Vin’s show was that the tenor of the show reflected whatever he was feeling on that particular day. If Vin was melancholy, the music tended to reflect that. If he was excited about something, he’d talk about it constantly and you would not forget it. It made a great meandering map. You never knew what you were going to get until it unfolded on the air.

This is what made it so amazing.

Play what you want. Try new stuff. Interview who you want. Talk with them as long as you want, about whatever you want. Work without a script. It dawned on me, this is more than just a “formula” for a great radio show. This is a way to live. Not coincidentally, this is how I do my podcast.

I learned this in adolescence. The problem is, like many things you learn at a young age, I did not realize it at the time. So as I got older and stepped into the scripted roles of perceived adulthood, I was never happy. I have never been able to work straight off a script or a written plan that was anything beyond a skeleton sketch, even when I’d written it myself.

I always have to leave a wide berth for whatever happens organically in life. Just as they do on free-form radio. This isn’t to say that I throw caution to the wind and life a life completely devoid of planning. If I did, I probably would not be avoiding an all-Doritos diet and wine would be my sole beverage choice.

As it stands, I eat (relatively) sanely. I sleep 8 hours a night. I run regularly. I balance out my wine consumption with copious amount of coffee. To me, building a life is a series of small choices, not one big epic decision, and making these important small choices is much harder when you’re trying to follow a script.

When it comes to the friendships I keep, the conversations I have, the way I relate to people in the world, free-form is the only way to go. I can’t be a good listener when I am attached to getting through the list of questions in front of me. I am not paying attention to what you have to say when I am focused on a pre-determined outcome for our time together. I cannot figure out what you want me to build when I am trying to direct you in a linear way that meets my needs, not yours.

We are told more and more to do stuff that matters, to make a “ruckus”, and I say, yes. I also know that the times I’ve been able to do this were the times I followed the lessons I learned from listening to free-form radio:

Be interested.
Be interesting.
Ask questions.
Play what you want.
Throw out the script.

(Note: My friend told me that Vin Scelsa is still doing Idiot’s Delight and through the magic of the interwebs, you can stream it online at WFUV).

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