Wanda Fischer is pretty passionate about the things that interest her, such as music, the Boston Red Sox and tennis. You can put her family at the top of that list, and somewhere in the pecking order you can also throw in her love for radio.
Of course, after 30 years as the host of WAMC’s folk music show “The Hudson River Sampler,” the music and the radio business have quite a close connection. Still, even without the music, she has long enjoyed a special bond with radio.
“I was always interested in radio, even when I was a little kid,” said Fischer, who grew up in Weymouth, Mass., and was a longtime Schenectady resident before recently moving to the town of Guilderland. “When I was around 6, I would tell people I wanted to be on the radio or TV. It was all pretty new when I was a kid, and I was fascinated by it.”
Doing it live
Her fascination hasn’t waned. She could produce her show the way many of them are done these days: by heading into a studio at her convenience and taping. Fischer, however, drives to the WAMC studios on Central Avenue in Albany every Saturday night to do her show live between 8 and 10.
“I do tape, just a couple of times a year, but I just love to be here at the studio and do it live,” she said.
“A lot of people call me while I’m on the air, and I really enjoy that interaction with them. I think people are depending on me to be here because they’ll have a question about the music, or they’ll tell me how their daughter is getting married and they need help remembering a song title. They sing a few notes, and they think I might know it and will be able to help them find it.”
All of Fischer’s interaction with her callers is off the air.
“They can call with requests, but I don’t put any of it on the air,” she said. “These people know me after 30 years, and if I’m not doing it live they’ll call the board operator and want to know if I’m all right. I have a relationship with them, I know all about their families and bits of other news, and there are also those people who don’t or can’t go out that much, and I feel like they’re relying on me.”
An English major at Boston University, she began her radio career at a small station in Worcester, Mass., hosting a show similar to “The Hudson River Sampler.” Fischer moved to this area when her husband began his medical practice in Schenectady, and soon after arriving she sent her resume to WAMC President Alan Chartock.
“Alan asked me to give them a tape of one of my shows, and he said, ‘OK, let’s try to do a folk music program,’ ” remembered Fischer. “I remember I had a really good lead-in in ‘The Prairie Home Companion,’ but Alan and Dave Galletley, the station manager at the time, really went out on a limb for me.”
Thirty years later, “The Hudson River Sampler” is one of the longest continuously running radio programs in the Northeast.
“ ‘The Hudson River Sampler’ has earned a national reputation, but when this show began, compact discs didn’t exist, WAMC only had 32 vinyl albums in its collection, and we took a chance that folk music fans would support the program,” said Chartock. “Thirty years is a long time for anyone to hold a job — that’s almost unheard of — so congratulations to Wanda and thanks to all the fans who support WAMC.”
Fischer broadcasts the music she loves, and that includes folk music and other kinds of traditional American offerings.
“The music I play has a lot to do with my own personal taste,” she said. “I play traditional music, a little bit of Celtic music, and I don’t like the heavy kind of percussion stuff. I like to be able to hear the words. It’s the curse of the English major. I love the poetry in the words, not just the music. I also try to play local musicians as much as I can. Our area has so many talented performers.”
Fischer, who recently released her own CD, titled “Singing Along With the Radio: Wanda Fischer and Friends,” continues to sing herself these days but not nearly as often as she used to.
“I made my debut as a very young girl singing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ at a family reunion down in Virginia,” remembered Fischer. “I always wanted to sing and I’ve continued to sing right along, although I don’t do it much for hire now. Maybe I’ll do a wedding for friends or something like that. I do folk music and acoustic style music. Some people call it country, but it really isn’t. It’s not twangy.”
Listening to country
Fischer grew up listening to country music because that was what her parents listened to. She was born in Kingsport, Tenn., where her father had become friends with Joe and Janette Carter and other members of the famous country music family.
“I didn’t have much of a choice growing up,” said Fischer, referring to her musical tastes. “My father went to high school with the Carters, so that’s what we listened to. But I liked country music, and after we moved to Massachusetts I listened to other music, too. My mother was a big Eddy Arnold fan, and I liked rock ’n’ roll in the ’60s, and listened to The Beatles and the Hollies and others. But my love was always folk music. It was music with a message, and I loved listening to Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Joan Baez — all of them.”
She also enjoyed listening to Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, and when asked to name a personal favorite she struggled.
“There are so many great musicians, but I can answer that question this way,” she said. “The very first album I bought with my own money was Tom Paxton’s ‘Ramblin’ Boy.’ He’s in his 70s now but he remains one of my top favorites.”
Her move to the Boston area as a young girl resulted in her becoming a huge Boston Red Sox fan, and just last month she earned the distinction of serving as public address announcer at Fenway Park for a Red Sox-Minnesota Twins game.
“Their P.A. announcer was killed in a car accident in May, so they’ve had guest announcers over the rest of the season,” said Fischer, who works in the state Office of Medicaid Inspector General in Albany.
“So I applied to do it and they accepted me. I did the whole nine innings and only made one error. I announced the wrong Twins’ player. I wouldn’t have made that mistake with a Red Sox player.”
If she isn’t working, watching the Red Sox or playing tennis, she’s probably spending time with her family. She and her husband, Bill, have two children — Becky is a school teacher in Boston and Tim recently graduated from law school — and one grandchild named William.
For her 30th anniversary show on Saturday night — she has no plans to retire anytime soon — Fischer may have a few invited guests showing up to play live music on the air. After 30 years she has developed quite a large group of friends in the music business, none more dear to her heart than the legendary Pete Seeger.
“How can you not love Pete Seeger,” she said. “He really is quite genuine and a wonderful guy. I’ve met him a couple of times, and just a couple of months ago I was working a benefit down in Woodstock for Kim and Reggie Harris. Pete shows up and asks me, ‘Do you think you might have time for me to do a couple of songs?’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll squeeze you in.’ ”