The thing about free form radio was that you really got to know the DJs. They had taste and they demonstrated it every show. Sometimes the music was your style, sometimes it was something you’d never heard before in a style you didn’t know existed.
This is different than Pandora, which tries to match you with bands that play in a similar style to the bands you like. Free form mostly exists at college stations these days, and most of those shows feature a DJ known for playing a single style, at least most of the time.
But back in the hey day, the big palette was a virtue, at least for those of us who loved it, and WNEW was an incredibly great station while it lasted. In those years I also lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, both of which had great free form rock stations, and Boston, which had a great oldies station.
Today, Boston has one of the best college stations in the country, at Emerson College. WERS is sort of free form, like Fordham’s WFMU (Scelsa’s last radio home), but is also fully aware of the value of having contributors who enjoy (and pay) for the programming.
Free form radio was (and is) great art, but it is niche. The Iheartmusic industry is built on the scientific finding that most people like to hear what they know, and are repulsed (or bored) by what isn’t what they already like.
Perhaps the best free form radio station today is WPKN in Bridgeport Connecticut. It takes no commercial or syndication money and relies solely on listener contributions. This is great, but most PKN shows are dedicated to a form. Bluegrass, polka, country, blues, free jazz, you name it. There is a show, but it isn’t a Vin Scelsa show.
Vin Scelsa’s thing was wild leaps of musical imagination, a love for Firesign Theater (if I’m remembering correctly), and a digressive patter that could extend to long closely-tended tales that I’ve long forgotten, but the memory of which produces astonishment still.
When I started this website, my heart was in this free form mixing of styles and enthusiasms and the energetic exploration of different stuff. That’s because of Vin Scelsa. And Jonathan Schwartz. WNEW DJs when I was in high school. And my high school (11th grade?) social studies teacher, Charlie Backfish, who is to this day a DJ on the SUNY Stoney Brook radio station.
There is an archive of Idiot’s Delight (the name of Scelsa’s show for all those decades) recordings, where you can get a short or long taste.
Nick Paumgarten writes about him in this week’s New Yorker, which does a good job of capturing Scelsa’s quirky personality.
Paumgarten also mentions that for his final show Scelsa opened with Sopwith Camel’s Hello Hello and finished with Lou Reed’s Goodnight Ladies. Both feature a brass bassline that sounds good to me.