Enthusiastic audience is big part of WAMC’s ‘Dancing on the Air’

It’s a few minutes after 8 on a mild Wednesday in January, and musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason h
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It’s a few minutes after 8 on a mild Wednesday in January, and musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason have already tuned up violin and guitar.

Now, it’s time to tune up the audience at the Linda Norris Auditorium, the small, cozy theater on Central Avenue in downtown Albany. Sixty people have taken their seats inside WAMC-FM/Northeast Public Radio’s performing arts studio, all waiting in the dark for the next edition of Jay and Molly’s live show, “Dancing on the Air.”

If folks hear something even mildly humorous, the musicians say, they should laugh loud and long. And if the crowd appreciates efforts on the stage, boisterous applause is preferred over polite hand claps. The pep talk works; fans of energetic folk and bluegrass music are ready to do their parts for live radio.

The bow work, string-picking and singing begin at 8:06 p.m., once the top-of-the-hour news break is over on WAMC (90.3-FM). Stations in WAMC’s extensive network known as Northeast Public Radio, including those in Kingston, Middletown, Plattsburgh, Ticonderoga, Utica and Great Barrington, Mass., also hear the music and enthusiastic reactions.

Ungar and Mason, whose partnership continues off-stage as a married couple from Saugerties, have been hosting the show on the second Wednesday of the month for nearly 20 years. The program began as “Bring It On Home” in 1986 by Happy and Artie Traum, who invited musicians to perform and guests to listen in a small studio room inside WAMC’s headquarters across the street from the current Linda. Ungar and Mason were occasional guests on the show.

“One summer, they asked us to mind the show for a few months while they took the summer off,” said Ungar, 61. “At the end of the summer, they said, ‘You know, keep it.’ We thought we’d do it for a while but now it’s almost 20 years. It’s the fun factor.”

Mason, 53, already knew live radio as a former member of the house band for longtime public radio darling “A Prairie Home Companion.” She said part of the fun of “Dancing” is seeing and playing with musician pals she and Ungar might not normally spend time with.

Guests stopping by

Guests are always glad to stop by. Past shows have included highly regarded performers such as Tom Chapin, John Kirk and Trish Miller and Kate Pierson of rock music’s The B-52’s. Teresa Broadwell and Thrivin’ on a Riff, Reggie’s Red Hot Feet Warmers and the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band are among other artists who have played around with Jay and Molly. This Wednesday, folk singer and songwriter Rod MacDonald and John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, will be in town for the two-hour show. This week’s performance will not air live, but instead will be broadcast Feb. 20.

“We’re right in the middle of a fund drive, that’s why,” said Howard Glassman, manager of the Norris auditorium.

Mason thinks people stop by for different reasons. “One is, some people just want to be on the radio,” she said.

Others might want to share the microphone with the pair and participate in songs they might not normally play.

“There’s a certain amount of times when we and the guests will play together, things we’ve never done before today,” Ungar said. “We enjoy the spontaneity of that; it’s very on-the-edge. It could fail or it could be great and we just live with that — that’s what we like about live radio. You don’t get to go back and do it over again; you have to live with the faults. But you also get some moments that could never happen if you had to think about it, if you had time to rehearse.”

There’s enough spotlight for everyone. During the January show, Ungar and Mason opened with Emma Dusenberry’s old, politically tinged “The Dodger Song,” with longtime “Dancing” associates multi-instrumentalist Peter Davis and drummer Sam Zucchini. Within minutes, Boston guests Matt and Shannon Heaton were on stage and gave the program an Irish accent. Little Toby Walker would show up later.

Compelling combination

Glassman, who kicks off the shows for both studio and home listeners, says people trudge to and tune in the program because of the quality of the music.

“Jay and Molly get in the folk music circle and the Cajun bluegrass circles; they get people who are beyond well-respected. They’re the crème de le crème of players. I think it’s a combination of seeing these people up close, the ticket price is affordable and the people are fans of the station.”

There could be another reason. People enjoy being part of a live radio broadcast, throwbacks to the days of Hank Williams’ “Mother’s Best Flour” shows of 1950 and the “Louisiana Hayride” programs from the late 1940s throughout the ’50s.

“The times we’re living, people want to escape for two hours into a simpler time,” Glassman said.

Immediacy is a plus

Alan Chartock, president and chief executive officer of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, said immediacy helps sell any live radio program.

“What’s the difference between listening to Benny Goodman live on a CD or Benny Goodman just having recorded some cuts?” Chartock asked. “There’s always something exciting about the interaction with an audience and the immediacy of it, and you know anything can happen. That’s the great thing about live radio, somebody can make a mistake, which scares the hell out of me, . . . and there’s always the camaraderie that comes out of those moments.”

Paul Rosenberg, 55, of Albany, has been making monthly visits to WAMC since the “Bring It On Home” days. Back then, he said, the performances did not cost anything.

“It was the best free entertainment one mile from my house,” he said. “For the first seven or eight years, I don’t think I missed a single show.”

Rosenberg feels comfortable at the Ungar-Mason house parties, and that’s part of the folk musicians’ plan.

“Jay and Molly have this warmth about them,” he said. “To me, it’s a real down-home atmosphere. You just feel real cozy, they have just a welcoming attitude.”

Esther Haskvitz, 54, of Troy, has been a consistent audience member because she appreciates Ungar and Mason. For the January show, she brought a friend, Doug McDonnell of Schenectady, who had never seen “Dancing” live.

“I love this kind of music,” said McDonnell, 59. “I like to dance — this is the kind of music I like to dance to. Live music that you can dance to is a great environment.”

Eva Gigandet, 39, of Schoharie County, prefers the auditory rewards.

“I like guitar music,” she said. “I enjoyed it the last time I came. Great venue, not too loud, that sort of thing.”

By 8:15 p.m., several couples were dancing on the auditorium floor, a wide space off stage left reserved for exercise. Mordy and Moni Lapin of Pittsfield, Mass., were the first people dancing on the air.

“If we were home, we’d be listening to it,” said Moni Lapin, 76, “but we’d rather be here.”

Sometimes, things out of the ordinary are part of the Wednesday adventures. Performers have missed cues, leaving vacancies on stage.

“We have to have the gift of chat to keep things going for a minute or two while things come together,” Mason said.

When America launched its military “Operation Desert Storm” against Iraq during the winter of 1991, Ungar remembered one of the scheduled programs was not broadcast.

“We recorded it and it was aired later,” he said. “It seemed pointless to go home. We had all these guests here and an audience sitting here. So we just did the show.”

Cooking on four burners

Mason and Ungar would not mind larger audiences, at least on the radio. They have hundreds of hours of music in show archives, and would love to find some way — and perhaps some people — to package and syndicate the “Dancing” shows. The December show is already repackaged as “The Pleasures of Winter” and is played at public radio stations around the country.

Chartock also would like to find a way to fly Northeast Public Radio’s flag in other places, and “Dancing on the Air” in a place like Nashville would only help the cause.

“We have done many, many syndicated programs,” said Chartock. “It certainly is something to think about. I think [Ungar and Mason] would love to have it — I know we’d love to do it. It’s just a matter of available resources. We’re all cooking on four burners now.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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