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Published: 10/22/2006

Tune in, Toledo: Listeners get a bit of nostalgia with their music on local radio shows

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
J.J. O'Shea, above, and Jim Van Deilen play traditional country and folk music on <i>Sunday Ramble</i> at 7 p.m. Sundays on WCWA. J.J. O'Shea, above, and Jim Van Deilen play traditional country and folk music on <i>Sunday Ramble</i> at 7 p.m. Sundays on WCWA.
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Tucked away on a corner of the radio dial generally reserved for sports blabbermouths and noisy political commentators is a portal to the not-so-distant past.

Tune out the AM static - sort of like wiping the snow off a window to get a look inside a warm, cozy house - and you'll find it on a Sunday morning or evening, a glimpse into a time when radio was a major part of the glue that held a community together.

For a few hours on Sunday mornings and then later in the evening, WCWA (1230-AM) features programming that has nothing to do with market studies, religion, Arbitron ratings, or the Billboard charts. Instead the distinct oompah-oompah of Polish or German music, the high-energy reels of Ireland, or down-home traditional country fill the air, casting listeners into a nostalgic flurry of familiar sounds and songs.

"They are meant to please, easy on your ears, the toe-tapping kind of songs," said 83-year-old Pete Petersen, the host of The German Hour every Sunday morning for the past 28 years.

"I picture my audience on Sunday morning listening to the radio, having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and listening to my show."

With his German accent and Old World charm, Petersen is an authentic connection to this area's European roots, just as John Connolly and Ted McHugh are with their Echoes of Ireland show a few hours later.

A native of Ireland, Connolly started his 11:30 a.m. show 17 years ago simply to reconnect the local Irish community.

"The Irish in Toledo in my opinion had lost communication with each other," said Connolly, whose co-host McHugh has been on the air with him for the past 16 years. "My philosophy was that we need to educate these people to what's going on in Ireland and what's going on in the Toledo area as far as the Irish community."

For J.J. O'Shea and Jim Van Deilen, their Sunday Ramble at 7 p.m. is a chance to spread the gospel of traditional country and folk music. They plan to broadcast their 200th show tonight (the show may be running late because of the Cleveland Browns game at 4 today) and no doubt it will feature their down-home mix of easy-going banter, traditional music, and educational raps about the music they play.

Long-time friends who play in the bluegrass/folk band the Chicken Pickers, the show came out of a kitchen-table discussion when both guys were bemoaning the lack of their favorite music on commercial radio. Van Deilen decided they ought to do something about it: come up with their own show.

"We have a deep love and respect for American folk music, traditional country, and bluegrass," O'Shea, a 63-year-old retiree with a background in radio, said. "We couldn't find any of the music we loved and we thought, 'What's wrong with this picture?' "

Most of the AM dial is turned over to religious music, infomercials, or sports talk on Sundays. Along with Melodies of Poland, which is devoted to Polish music and chat, the programs reach very specific audiences, providing a relief from the sonic assault of pop music, contemporary country, and classic rock.

"They're the ideal form of local community service," said Peter Cavanaugh, a former Toledo radio professional who helped Connolly and McHugh establish their Echoes of Ireland show. "Ironically, these ethnic shows become infinitely more involved with their ethnic communities than other programming."

Corporate radio has so homogenized its product - with limited local news staffs, programming that comes out of cities thousands of miles away, strict playlists - that shows like Melodies of Poland provide an important niche in reaching a very specific community.

Janet Gawle, the 46-year-old cohost of the show along with Rob Szczublewski, said her show provides a voice for Toledo's traditional Polish neighborhoods and families.

"When I was growing up the Polish communities were a lot tighter, a lot stronger. And I think there are still people coming in from Poland, but after World War II is when most of them came in and as the generations progress they lose track of the customs and the language and everything," said the daughter of Polish parents. "I have to try and give people a chance to reconnect with their ethnicity."

The Sunday programs are folksy reminders of a time when people turned on the radio and heard music that seemed to be coming from far away and nearby at the same time. Petersen's show features songs by German artists that could be emanating from somewhere in rural Bavaria.

But the commercials are for local businesses only, and Petersen's patter is distinctly Toledo-oriented, addressing issues of concern to his very specific audience, one that is older than what most radio stations reach.

"The kind of music I play may be a little bit of age for Germans. But it depends on the person of course. The old senior people kind of go for my music, folk music, easy listening," he said.

O'Shea and Van Deilen like to mix more contemporary country music into their shows, deftly playing a Martina McBride or Rhonda Vincent song, followed by Buck Owens or the New Christy Minstrels.

"When we say traditional country music, we don't mean old," O'Shea said. "Traditional to Jim and I means very simply that it's not all pop/rock."

All of those involved in producing the programs have expansive CD and record collections and they plan their music in advance, hauling the discs down to the station on Summit Street for each show. A technician runs the board for them, playing the CDs and pre-recorded commercials and keeping them on schedule as the show progresses. Their only responsibility is providing a running list of what runs when and keeping the show moving.

Each of them has their own flavor. O'Shea and Van Deilen invite other musicians on to talk about their music, allow sponsors to come in and talk about what they've got going on, and spend time educating listeners on where someone like Owens fits into the country pantheon.

Connolly and McHugh chat back and forth about personal issues and spend a good chunk of time talking about Ireland. Both men return to the island several times a year and are well-versed on the culture and politics of their native country.

"We try to tell the people about the new Ireland versus the old Ireland. The new Ireland today is probably one of the most modern countries in the world," Connolly said.

And each show is ultimately a labor of love. The participants pay for the air time on WCWA, which is owned by Clear Channel, though none would say how much it costs. They sell ads for their shows and whatever they bring in once their payments to the station are made is profit.

Suffice to say, there's not much of it. Van Deilen and O'Shea and Petersen said they make money on their show, and even then it's not much.

"In 17 years I have not made penny one," Connolly said.

Bill Michaels, the program director for Clear Channel, did not return calls for comment for this story.

The listenership for the shows is mysterious and hard to measure because they are only on for an hour a week, but Petersen estimated he has about 6,000 listeners, including one woman who thought maybe he ought to bring religious music into the mix.

His response reflects the determined pride he and his cohorts have in keeping their music unique to their audiences.

"My answer was, 'Lady, I have an agreement with the churches: they don't play any polkas and I don't play any church music," Petersen said, laughing.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.



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