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Pirate Joe's Retro Radio: WHVW 950 AMby M.R. Smith

It might take a minute to dial in, negotiating around the sports, religious programming, and the right wing talk shows, smack dab in the middle of the AM radio dial. But you’ll know once you get there, it’s like a breeze from a bygone era, a blend of jazz, folk, swing, blues, R&B, gospel, country & western, rockabilly, Cajun, and early rock. Real American music made by real musicians. And coming off the narrow sonic band of AM radio—as non-digital a format as can be imagined—it just sounds, well, like home.

Welcome to J. P. Ferraro’s musical menagerie: WHVW 950 AM, broadcasting from downtown Poughkeepsie. As commercial enterprises go, it’s a modest venture; though they do sell advertising, they still rely on volunteer staff. And with the rich history of American music just sitting out there, virtually untouched by modern corporate media, they fill a niche that probably has more fans than anyone really knows. That fan base has never been properly measured by any poll or survey.

And the heart of it is J. P. Ferraro—a.k.a. “Pirate Joe”—and his voluminous collection of vintage shellac 78s. “Pirate Joe” comes from J. P.’s background in radio. “I grew up (in Yonkers) getting into radio, because I was fascinated with it as a child. My father built radios and TV sets in the basement. In those days it was a wonderful art, and broadcasting then and now—are just two different animals, unrecognizable, one to the other. I just loved the idea.” This was back when a radio station was still a nebulous concept, and J. P.’s interest led to the concept of Pirate Joe. “There were a few build-it-yourself radio stations in my ‘illustrious’ career. Hence the moniker,” J. P. chuckles. “I know you probably expected it to be a little more glamorous than that, but that’s the truth of it.” Ever get caught? “Oh yeah, back in 1971. Not much happened. (The penalty) is a lot worse now than it was then.”

The collection of 78s has been a lifetime obsession. “It’s been a long term occupation. I still have records that my father and other relatives gave me when I was a kid. I’ve scoured around through stores, record dealers, basements and attics, asking people: got any of these things?” But why only 78s? “78s encompass probably 85 to 89 percent of the music I’m really interested in, in other words the ‘era of 78s.’ And the integrity of what you found on most 78s is far better than what you’ll find today.” J. P. is something of a purist, no re-mastered stereo-fied reprints for him, although vinyl pressings from original plates are a welcome sight. And fortunately, turntable manufacturers—still doing well thanks to the new DJ culture—started putting the 78 speed back on new turntables. “I remember I saw the ads for it, it said ‘NEW,’” laughs J. P. “New old?”

Here you have a guy who loves radio, has a huge and obscure collection, so, of course, a station must be obtained. Fortunately one became available, for a song (so to speak). WHVW started out in 1963 with a Top-40 format, quickly becoming the top station in the area, and was sold to Castle Communications Corp. in 1975, which flipped it to a news format the following year, effectively smothering their ratings. In following years, format changes, multiple owners, and financial difficulties plagued the station, which never regained its footing. In 1992 WHVW was once again for sale, and J.P. soon had his station.

Thoughts of having a highly successful commercial venture, while maintaining musical integrity, were soon out the window….in favor of integrity. “My first few months, I was trying to be a businessman. But that kind of an approach wasn’t me, I want to do what I want to do. Pre-packaged formats and modern music just doesn’t do anything for me.”

“Years ago, most stations were like mine. But as the decades went by, it was slowly converted into a marketplace-oriented endeavor. And the ownership rules were changed to allow speculation, changed so you could own thousands of stations.” Back in the day, conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus would have been illegal. But the Telecommunications Act in 1996—signed under Bill Clinton—makes them possible today.

So WHVW does it for the love, and it’s quite the mix of music and community-based programming. Sally Stark kicks it off with her early jazz show followed by John Flowers’ call-in show weekday mornings. Joe La Scolea spins a mix of old favorites as well as his popular Frank Sinatra “The Chairman of the Board” show on Thursdays from 1 to 2 PM. Saturday mornings it’s politics with Joel Tyner and Rich Carlson as well as gospel early on Sunday, Darwin Lee’s “Real Hillbilly Music Show” from 3-6 PM. with rock ‘n’ roll, Hispanic, German, and old-time country shows spread across the week.

And, of course, there’s J. P., whose signature show, “The Pirate Joe Country Music Radio Show and Old Blues and R&B Extravaganzo” features music from the vintage collection and airs Tuesday through Thursday from 3-6 PM. J.P. is never afraid to provide a more left-leaning viewpoint to counter the roar of the AM right as well.

And though new technology beckons, they’ll keep it analog, thank you very much. Internet streaming isn’t even on the radar; too much trouble for clearances, even with all the public domain material in the collection. “Obviously, there are things I could put on the air that would make more money. But do I want my name next to that? When I hear some of the stuff on other stations, I think, well now they’re all corporate, what do they care? But it’s pretty sad. Some stations—which will go nameless—even play mp3s on the air. And I used to think cassettes were bad!”

“Look, the rules of the game are, if you’re doing anything worthwhile, you’re probably not going to make money at it. It’s inversely proportional. If you’re doing garbage, you are going to get rich. And as we become more of a corp-tatorship, that trend is only going to get worse.”

Might as well just enjoy the music, then.

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