STORY WRITTEN BY DAVID W. WANNOP
For Digital First Media
Father of FM Radio, Dean of American Folk Music, co-founder of Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Philadelphia Walk of Fame inductee, Gene Shay, wrapped up his regular spot on WXPN.
However, his retirement sounds busier than most people’s lives.
He will continue involvement with Sing Out! Magazine, Northeast Regional Folk Alliance the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammy Awards and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Shay will be working on his memoirs, a joke book, and other projects.
During a recent phone conversation, he spoke about his life and career. Living in Wynnewood, surrounded by 65 thousand recordings, Shay is a down to earth individual who often seems unaware of his influence. Yet, Bob Dylan’s first area performance was arranged by Shay. Joni Mitchell played her song “Both Sides Now” first on his show. He introduced English groups such as Fairport Convention and the Strawbs to Philadelphia radio listeners. He is always open to helping local musicians. He changed the region from an AM radio market into an FM radio leader. Since 1995 he has had three hours of live and recorded folk on WXPN.
“I was at WRTI Temple before I got my first professional radio show. At that time they played all kinds of music. I remember Bill Cosby used to clean the floors there. He locked the doors. Kicked out the guys hanging around,” Shay said, speaking of his earliest radio experience.
Soon thereafter, he was at WCAU Channel 10 Television. He has many stories from that time. “They were filming ‘The Burglar’ with Jane Mansfield and using WCAU Channel 10’s studio and I was working in the film department. Later, I got a draft notice. It was peacetime and when they sent me overseas they made me the editor of the ship’s newspaper, then they housed me in a German castle and I did Armed Forces Radio.
Upon returning from military service, Shay found radio in flux as new regulations stopped the simulcasting that was prevalent at the time. He said, “When I came back the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] decided to open radio up. For a while the AM and the FM stations played the same audio, but the FCC decided that stations would lose their license if they didn’t make the FM different. It was to get more variety. So, WHAT made their FM into a jazz station and hired me.” Indeed, Shay hosted jazz, Spanish, Irish and many other cultural radio shows early on. This is how WHAT FM became WIOQ and a place Shay would return to later in his career.
I’ll be eighty on March 4,” said Shay. “On March 1 at the Unitarian Church in Center City there will be a concert with Sing Out! Magazine featuring Janice Ian, Tom Paxton, Christine Lavin, Julie Gold, John Flynn, and more.” Shay will continue to be available for special appearances.
The variety of positions and responsibilities he has had over the years is impressive. He mentioned, “I worked my way into management for WHAT and appointed to the board of directors of the Folk Song Society. I also did promos for WCAU 10 Television. I was all over the place. I had Group II Promotions, and there was Sliced Bread Records,” he said.
One of his most beloved projects may surprise even the biggest Gene Shay fans. He recounted, “Secrets of Magic Revealed was my first book in 1970. I was a big fan of magic tricks as a kid.” Shay has always been able to integrate childhood passions and put them into his work. Radio was an early influence of course. D’X’ing was a childhood hobby he enjoyed which involves getting a radio to pick up signals from far away. He heard many of the great announcers from New York to Chicago. And yet, he eventually settled into a relaxed conversational style which felt more natural. In a way, he was among the first to have an anti-announcer voice. The neighborliness of the speech matched the folk music culture and led to a career spanning seven decades.
Feb. 1 marked his last broadcast from WXPN.