Weasel: Baltimore’s radio treasure makes his home now at WTMD [classic article]

Before you give up entirely on radio and the corporate behemoth giants from elsewhere telling you what you should listen to, check out one of Baltimore’s treasures. Jonathon “Weasel” Gilbert has returned to Baltimore’s airwaves every Saturday from noon to 3p.m. on 89.7 FM WTMD (affiliated with Towson University). Gilbert began his radio career at the very indie-oriented WHFS FM in the early 1970’s. His encyclopedic knowledge of rock, roots, punk, new wave, and singer-songwriter music gives listeners back the kaleidoscope of sound that they’ve been missing since the era of the great DJ’s.

Weasel was one of the first to give airplay to such acts in their early days  – as articulated by The Baltimore Sun – as The Allman Brothers, NRBQ, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Cure, REM, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Smiths, Television, The Ramones and many others. He has not forgotten his radio roots, to be sure, on WTMD. Where else could you hear Andy Griffith’s recording of “What It Was, Was Football” for the Super Bowl?

I got the opportunity to speak to Weasel:

Do you think there’s a co-relation between the cutting of music programs in the public schools and the cutting of classic songs from radio? If you’re not singing “This Land is Your Land” in school, you probably won’t know Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger.

That’s very very true! Somebody complained about during  Martin Luther King me playing We Shall Overcome! It was a middle aged person and he didn’t understand that was a seminal song to the movement. I had a music education in Long Island: I played clarinet, was in chorus and band.

You were speaking on the fund drive of the disconnect with radio programmers that they think certain songs are dated, yet this country loves its TVLand, Turner Classic Movies, etc.  I thought everyone knew that the Boomers have money?

Well, there’s a disconnect. There’s a worship thing with our youth. The 25-54 age demographic is the sweet spot of advertising. It’s the NPR, PBS stations who cater to the boomers. In  Washington DC, San Francisco, the public stations are in the top 5.

It seems that it’s not a coincidence that with the homogenization of corporate radio you now have people grabbing so much music from illegal downloads, that the will of the people to listen to interesting stuff for free is insuppressible. 

I tend to agree with that. All of a sudden, great research skills have become important. Nothing can replace the dexterity of a good programmer. That’s the human element. If I do my job, I’ll get people discovering more. I’m kind of a teacher.  I have those skills.

It seems that so many cool bands came into public awareness through college performances. Do you think that with SonicBids taking over programming roles at so many colleges and festivals that will have an effect on what music comes out in the future? Is there something inherently wrong to make a band pay to send a demo with no guarantee that it will even be listened to?

That’s true. What’s harming – the 360 deals – when one company takes over all the functions of marketing, programming, promotion, performance, recording – they’re so powerful, they leave out the other markets. The concentration of music left out the regional music that there used to be: New Orleans, Chicago.

Does Payola still exist?

In a different form. It’s no longer a guy coming over with a briefcase of money. It’s the more subtle 360 deal.

Having interviewed and done gigs with so many musicians, you no doubt have the insider’s view on band promotion. Did you ever want to go into that side of the business?

I thought about it. I don’t have the personality to do that, to scream and yell.

Appearances and presentation have always been part of musical performances, but it seems like it’s taken over. Singers have careers with ProTools that they would never have had. What do you think the trend for that will be in the future?

That started with MTV in the early ‘80’s. People who didn’t adhere to MTV’s  beauty standards couldn’t get on. Now we have Lady Gaga. It really started with The Beatles’ complicated studio performances. They couldn’t take that on the road. Also, you can’t hear yourself in a stadium. You have to lip sync.

Modern medical studies point out the benefits of listening to certain kinds of music. Apart from your acclaimed “desert island” list, did you ever put together a soothing list of music?

That’s kind of how I program my radio show! Tempo, key, texture. Gradually accelerate. Muzak were the first people to study the psychology for factory workers: faster, higher keys as the day progressed, like a coffee break! They studied it and it worked.

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