Ousted from UMass station, DJs find new home

  • Radio personality Fern hosts her two-hour show, the Oblivion Express, at WXOJ, Valley Free Radio in Florence. DAN LITTLE

  • Radio personality Fern hosts her two-hour show the Oblivion Express at WXOJ, Valley Free Radio, Tuesday in Florence. —DAN LITTLE

  • Radio personality Fern hosts her two-hour show the Oblivion Express at WXOJ, Valley Free Radio, Tuesday in Florence. —DAN LITTLE

  • Radio personality Fern hosts her two-hour show the Oblivion Express at WXOJ, Valley Free Radio, Tuesday in Florence. —DAN LITTLE

  • Radio personality Fern hosts her two-hour show, “The Oblivion Express,” at WXOJ, Valley Free Radio, Tuesday, in Florence. DAN LITTLE

  • Radio personality Fern hosts her two-hour show, the Oblivion Express, at WXOJ, Valley Free Radio in Florence. DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 07, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Playing songs such as “Without You” by Harry Nilsson and “Go Now” by the Moody Blues, and interspersing commentary about the recent decision by voters in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, Fern Spierer creates a traditional free-form show for her listeners

Each week, the only constraints for Spierer’s “Oblivion Express,” broadcast on WXOJ-LP, Valley Free Radio at 103.3 FM, are her own creativity and Federal Communications Commission regulations.

But her oppportunity for chatting to listeners about topics such as Brexit, and playing a spectrum of music for her audience, was at risk in the past year, when she, like many other former DJs at WMUA, the University of Massachusetts radio station at 91.1 FM, were not given shows or voluntarily left.

After 35 years broadcasting her program from the campus studios in the Campus Center, Spierer has resumed the show at the low-power station housed in the basement of the Florence Community Center, with live broadcasts from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, and rebroadcasts 12 hours later.

“This station could be pretty amazing just filling it with some of the WMUA alumni,” said Spierer, speaking from the studios in the former school building at 140 Pine St. during a recent Tuesday broadcast.

Spierer is one of four former WMUA hosts at WXOJ. They are no longer at the UMass radio station because of new rules adopted by the UMass administration in December that included capping nonstudents to 24 hours programming a week and not allowing them to be voting members of the station. These rules were put in place following a comprehensive external review and after controversies that included the reassignment of longtime adviser Glenn Siegel and the issuance of a two-year trespass order to “Martian Gardens” host Max Shea.

“I was shocked my show got cut,” said Spierer, observing she was not vocal during the debates about the future of WMUA and the role community members should play. “I did everything to support students.”

Spierer said she was no stranger to previous controversies at WMUA, such as those that came at a time when there were demands for more hip hop music, but these were successfully resolved without intervention from higher-ups.

Since arriving at Valley Free Radio earlier this year, Spierer has been joined by Ron Freshley, Ed Malinowski and Shea.

“I’m glad we still have community radio for people like me, Max and Ron, to have an outlet for our music,” Spierer said.

WXOJ outreach director Brianne Zulkiewicz said the decade-old station has benefited from the experience of those who wanted to continue programs on a station that is emphasizing more local content.

“Over the past few months, we have been pleased to welcome several new DJs who were unable to continue their shows at WMUA to the Valley Free Radio family,” Zulkiewicz said. “We are happy to have been able to expand our local programming with their shows.”

Back on the air

Having resigned from WMUA after 12 years in October, Freshley, of Florence, recently began doing his “Fresh Sounds” program, which is on air Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m.

“What I missed most of all was connecting to the listeners,” said Freshley, whose show focuses on contemporary jazz music.

Freshley said he left WMUA because he grew tired of the battles between the community members and the students “Last year was so toxic and unpleasant that I don’t miss it at all,” Freshley said.

While WXOJ is not as high-tech as WMUA, he said the retraining on use of the station’s second-hand control board was not too difficult. “Now I just have to get used to what button to press,” he said.

He appreciates that the station can be accessed by anyone with minimal costs that include a $30 monthly fee, which can be underwritten by a sponsor, along with a $30 annual fee and attendance at one board meeting.

“They’ve really been pushing to get more live DJs on the air, ” Freshley said. “These are people primarily from the community.”

Meanwhile, in the first week in February, Malinowski resumed his program “Nine Volt Heart,” which had been playing Americana and newgrass for five years at WMUA. He is on WXOJ Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m.

“It was very bitter at the end at WMUA, and it was a welcome mat at WXOJ, basically,” said Malinowski, a Montague resident.

During most of his five years at the UMass station, he said he enjoyed a good experience and positive relationships with students, including serving as a DJ trainer for students just learning how to be hosts. But, like Freshley, he observed an increasingly hostile environment, and in the winter session got what he termed the 4 a.m. penalty slot, the pre-morning drive time. For the spring semester, he learned that he would no longer be on the air at all.

He appreciates the opportunity to work at WXOJ. “They asked me to let people know this is a home for people who wanted to migrate here,” Malinowski said.

Another who has returned to the airwaves is Shea, the host of “Martian Gardens” who in April 2015 was issued a two-year trespass notice from the UMass campus and removed from the air after 17 years. While a UMass police probe concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing, Shea said he was told by UMass police that the reason for the trespass order was because he made then-program manager Haley Chauvin feel uncomfortable.

In January, Shea resumed his focus on contemporary classical and electronic jazz, setting up a mixing board in his home and using Adobe Addition software.

He records the show from his home a day or two before it is to be broadcast, transfers the sound files over to WXOJ electronically and doesn’t have to drive to the studios when his show is broadcast, from noon to 2 p.m. Fridays

It’s not the nighttime slot that he is accustomed to. “The best time for a show like Martian Gardens is the evening, but the afternoon is fine,” Shea said.

Louise Dunphy, who was a spokeswoman for the WMUA community members, said volunteers helped Shea get back on his feet.

“It’s replanted and growing, and has new blossoms,” Dunphy said.

Other hosts

Dunphy, meanwhile, has continued her “Celtic Crossings” on WRSI: The River at 93.9 FM, prerecording it for broadcast Sunday mornings at 7. Next month, she will be going live Sundays from 7 to 9 p.m.

“I’ll be back live, which is what I prefer to be,” Dunphy said.

Previously she had three hours production time at WMUA, and would cut and email the contents to the Northampton station. Now she is doing the show in Northampton.

While some former WMUA hosts are doing shows elsewhere, others remain at WMUA, though they now have no official role in the station.

How people were chosen to continue with shows is unclear. “A few people who applied for shows were told they were no longer members in good standing” Dunphy said.

One of the hosts whose show remains on the air is Todd Zaganiacz, who is in his eighth year of broadcasting “Polka Carousel,” though due to the limits on nonstudents it has been downized to two hours. It forms the last remaining block of polka Sunday, still followed by Helen Curtin’s “Polka Celebration.” One of the longest-running shows, “Polka Bandstand,” hosted by Billy Belina for 37 years on Saturday mornings, was removed last spring.

Volunteer DJs have no say in WMUA policy and work at the pleasure of the station manager. “We’re just individuals doing a program,” Zaganiacz said.

Since the changes, former elected community representative Heather Milkiewicz, as well as Katie Wright and Dave Hart, have continued their programs.

Another loss was the “Focus” public affairs program. Once WMUA pulled the plug, the hosts decided not to seek another outlet for the show, which often centered on Amherst politics. The show was founded in 1968 by Kenneth Mosakowski and continued by his friends for nearly a decade following his death in 2006.

“Unfortunately, nothing has really changed, it’s just not the same station it used to be, as far as atmosphere,” Zaganiacz said.

Zaganiacz said students who were given the long-standing Saturday morning polka slots faced a barrage of phone calls from listeners unaware of the changes that had been made in programming, an unfortunate side effect of the decision to limit the hours community members could broadcast.

Though the consultants who handled the external review suggested the cap on nonstudent hours could be lifted during the summer and winter, that didn’t happen.

“An awful lot of automation is running right now, which didn’t need to be the situation,” Zaganiacz said. “I think it’s a shame there’s so much automation this summer.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.