Tonight I renewed my membership in WUMB-FM. WUMB is a public radio station out of UMass.-Boston. It specializes in acoustic and roots music, and in giving radio voice to the Boston area’s vibrant music scene.
I’ve been a member since not-quite-forever. I have two WUMB T-shirts, two mugs, and a sticker on my car. I discovered WUMB around 1997, as Wintertide Coffeehouse neared the end of its long, slow death. In my life it played part of the role that Wintertide had been playing for the previous dozen years: It introduced me to the wonderful troubadours who passed through New England, and in many cases were based here.
What it couldn’t do was introduce me to the music being made right here on Martha’s Vineyard. To be sure, it’s a thrill to hear on WUMB a song by young Willy Mason, or a blues recording by the late Maynard Silva, but Willy and Maynard I already know. I couldn’t volunteer and hang out at ‘UMB either, it being in Boston and me being here. And I try not to wonder why I never hear the likes of Libana and Sweet Honey in the Rock and Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir on WUMB. Still, the station saved me from total withdrawal and total ignorance of the national and international roots music scene.
My membership renews in March, and every March for the last several, I’ve sworn that I wouldn’t renew. WUMB isn’t what it used to be. Year by year my favorite shows vanish from the schedule, like Afropop Worldwide, or are banished to time slots when I’m not awake, like Midnight Special. Once upon a time I started listening when I woke up on Saturday morning and didn’t stop till I fell sleep Sunday night.
Then Barbara Neely (yeah, that Barbara Neely — author of the Blanche mystery books and an altogether awesome interviewer) left as host of the Sunday night Commonwealth Journal public affairs show; her replacement was 90% affect and 10% substance, and it seemed she was only allowed to interview UMass. professors who had new books out.
Then Barnes Newberry was replaced as host of the wonderful Saturday morning Highway 61 Revisited show by a jerk who sounds as if his entire knowledge of the music comes off the liner notes. And the weekend schedule was further disrupted by moving Downeast Ceilidh from Saturday night, where it was a natural segue from Celtic Twilight, to Sunday night. And so on and on — Dick Pleasants and Dave Palmater are the only weekday deejays worth listening to, and Pleasants is ill with Parkinson’s and isn’t on the air much anymore.
So I’ve been listening to WUMB less and less as the years go by. I’m not, however, listening to other radio stations. I’m listening to my CDs. I’m listening to Pandora — last year I cut a big chunk out of my WUMB contribution and upgraded my Pandora to the ad-free version. More recently I started using iTunes in earnest. I learn about new performers from word of mouth or word of Facebook. Thanks to the Pit Stop, I’m getting reacquainted with what’s going on in my neck of the woods.
I was all set to let my membership lapse, but the semiannual fund drive is on and during Celtic Twilight this afternoon I slipped: my hand reached for the phone, I punched in the numbers, and I renewed. My reasoning, or rationalizing, went something like this: Yeah, the station seems to have lost its way. It doesn’t have its daggerboard in the water. I don’t listen very much anymore. But at least two-thirds of my CDs are by artists I heard for the first time on WUMB, and WUMB gives airplay to wonderful musicians who aren’t heard on many, or any, other stations. If I keep my membership up, I can keep going to the archives and listening to the live interviews and concerts with performers I like. And even on my limited budget $50 is not a huge amount of money.
If you’ve got a hunch that I’m not just talking about public radio here, you’re right.