A Little Look at the Big Broadcast

Originally posted in 2009

In years gone by, when returning by car from vacations (usually on a Sunday night), I always looked forward to two certain landmarks that signified that we were back in New York. One was the red light on the broadcast antenna atop World Trade Center One.  The other was the sound of WFUV’s The Big Broadcast.

Helmed by the cheerful, mellifluous-voiced Rich Conaty, this 35 year old radio show might be called a nostalgia program but for the fact that very few people are old enough to be nostalgic for the records he plays. Never mind the oldies stations, playing “your favorite hits of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s”. Conaty strictly spins jazz from the 20s and early 30s. When I say strictly, I mean just that. Don’t go expecting to hear any radical young whippersnappers like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw on his show. That stuff is practically hip-hop as far as Conaty is concerned. The Big Broadcast is where to go to listen to the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Bunny Berrigan. It’s the sound I like to think of as Little Rascals music.

For me, listening to a show like The Big Broadcast is radio at its most pleasurable. The experience is best in the dark, with only the light of the radio dial for illumination. The sounds of that era were warm and pleasant, not angry and harsh. It’s like being transported to some inexplicable, eternally safe planet. It’s an illusion, of course. They had their share of misery back then; and we have our share of happiness now. Perhaps the real pleasure lies in the mere act of taking a trip anywhere.

At any rate, the one thing you’re not supposed to do with an illusion, if you want to keep enjoying it, is look behind the curtain. But I find I can’t ever resist. I want to KNOW. At any rate, a few months ago it was my good fortune to spend some time with Rich and actually ride shotgun while he broadcast his program.

I don’t think the bloom is off the rose any. Mostly because Conaty is an enigma. A lot of people who have an affinity with a previous time period, tend to go whole hog, as a sort of lifestyle choice. This is increasingly prevalent in our post-post-modern age, at least in the cities. New York has whole subcultures where people pretend they’re F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, or Bram Stoker characters, or 1970s-era punk rockers. People in this town go in for swing dancing, square dancing, step dancing. They wear bowlers, cowboy hats, feather boas. If you were to ascribe any time period (besides now) to Conaty you might say the 1950s. Like the baby boomer he is, he tends to sport a Richie Cunningham, jeans-penny loafers-button down shirt kind of look. He also drives a 1950 Nash. At the very least you might expect him to be playing Johnny Mathis records. But that’s too new-fangled. It is as though there were two levels of nostalgia going at once. Conaty is a guy in 2009, who looks like a guy from 1950, who just happens to like music from the 1920s.

Nor, equally mystifying, does he have any particular connection to the music. According to him, no one in his family was particularly musical. There are no bandleaders or coronet players lurking in the family tree. Not only did he not take music lessons, but no one in his family particularly listened to music.  As a kid growing up in Queens, Conaty’s main interest was collecting: coins, stamps, comics.

And then, he says “in about 1969 or ’70, when I was still in high school, I heard this music on Hofstra’s radio station. I can’t articulate why it spoke to me. I never cared about music before. But I started to get into it. A lot of these artists were still around back then., I saw Paul Whiteman on The Merv Griffin Show. Nick Lucas was on The Tonight Show. I saw Bing Crosby in early 1970 on his last tour.”

He attended Fordham as a communications major and took to the airwaves on the college station in 1973. He’s been on the air ever since. After close to 2000 shows under his belt, he has more than his share of experiences with his heroes. “I got drunk with Cab Calloway one time, “he boasts, “He had the first CD player in the city of White Plains. I got to meet Soupy Sales, who had my favorite tv show when I was a kid. I used to do a live show with Les Paul. Woody Allen listens to the show. [Ed Sullivan impersonator] Will Jordan is a fan.”

According to Conaty, the online version of his show gets hundreds of thousands of hits, so he’s quick to praise the internet – as far as it goes. While it helps him gets his radio show out, he feels that a lot of the internet-only shows and stations lack some of the discipline of actual radio. “There are all these internet channels that play music 24/7, but with no commentary, no context,” he says, “there’s an educational aspect to what I do. How are you going to know to Google Bix Beiderbecke in the first place, if you’ve never heard of Bix Beiderbecke?”

And there’s an art to what Conaty does. He makes his set lists out carefully on yellow lined paper – and requires a particular pen with which to do so. He won’t repeat the same record until 20 other songs have played first. And he builds a show based on the tempo of the tunes, which he is able to do since he knows all the records by heart. To protect his priceless old 78s he’s copied most of them onto CDs for playing, a rare concession to modernity.

Still Conaty’s loyalty remains firmly where it has always been. The past.

 “We’re the only show on the radio that gives the death dates of the artists we play”, he quips.

The Big Broadcast is on WFUV 90.7 fm Sunday nights 8pm-midnight, and also at http://www.wfuv.org/programs/bigbroadcast.html

Update: Sadly, Rich Conaty passed away in 2017.