Speaking out on the “Last Chance Medicine Show”
Fred Boenig has been in the “business” for many years and I admire his passion, honesty, and courage. That said, I feel that he’s a little harsh on the Americana Music Association and radio promoters. It should also be noted that Fred is a radio promoter in addition to being a DJ. Here’s what he had to say about his time on the radio:
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and what other stations have you worked at and what were the stations like?
Fred Boenig: I started on radio in 1996 on a station in New Jersey called WDVR. When I started I had a show called “The Sunday Night Revival” and got permission to create a two-hour show called “HepCats and Neon Armadillos,” playing something called “Americana Music,” which grew to a three-hour show. I was chairman of the programming department and during my stay at the station we added just about 108 hours a week of traditional country, bluegrass and Americana music. The annual budget also grew from $20K to almost $200K.
After 9/11, the company I worked for disappeared, literally, so I decided that after having over 75 artists stop by to stay in my home over the previous six years — all of which were broke — I would help. While at WDVR, I had the pleasure of bringing on to the staff some important names in Americana music. “Big Kev” Ploghoft, R W Shamy (Twangcast), Rich Evans (Bluegrass DJ) “Torchie Blaine,” Russ Hunsberger, “Mr. Ed” Kilker, and [I discovered] some incredibly talented artists including Moot Davis.
I also had shows on WMUH, in Allentown — “Broken Hearts and Auto Parts,” and [I] was the morning guy on WXLV, an Americana station that the legendary Burr Beard (the founding general manager of WNCW) and I put together and programmed. [We did it] for three years.
When Burr left they brought in a new GM that hated twang! So, after a morning where I asked the listeners if they wanted to continue with 24 /7 Americana or go to freeform programming, I received 84 calls in three hours, plus [I] gave away a CD to caller number 30 in 28 seconds. Kevin Higgins and Barbara Maltese were guests that morning. They said, “We never saw anything like it.” After I realized I couldn’t answer all the calls, I gave the president of the college’s phone number out over the air and it tied up the college’s phones for four hours, with irate listeners and death threats. The next day, they had police escort me off the campus.
Within a year, the station went from one of the top stations in the Lehigh Valley to being sold to a Christian broadcaster. I was already on WLVR in Bethlehem since 2006. When WXLV let me go, WLVR made me their morning guy and it’s been great ever since.
Where do you work now?
I work at WLVR, 91.3 Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. [I’m on] Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday from 6 – 9 a.m., and [I] usually hang with Big Kev on Saturday til noon. [I also do] “The Last Chance Medicine Show,” with your “most humbled” host Chance Austin. WLVR has been voted the #1 non-com in the Lehigh Valley every year since 2008.
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
The Last Chance Medicine Show is a show about music and social commentary, blending the songs of the poets of our time with weekly news events. [It’s] like talk radio, where the music does the talking. If we were talking about the death penalty, I’d be playing “Ellis Unit #1” (Steve Earle) – “Karla Faye” (Mary Gauthier), or “25 Minutes to Go” (Johnny Cash). We cover sex, drugs, religion, and politics. I say there is a song about everything.
One of the more humbling experiences I have had is while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging, at 7 a.m., I read the Department of Defense casualty releases each morning. In 2010, I lost my 19-year-old son in the Air Force in Afghanistan. I went to work the next day and cried on the air every time I opened the mic for two weeks. I owe a great thanks to my program director, AJ Fritz, who understood I had to work through the sorrow. His wise decision bonded our listeners to the station because every day they got a real raw emotional roller coaster on their drive to work. Reality radio! I owe him probably my life and my sanity.
When I was reading the casualties on the morning drive, I would just start to cry. But I would get through them and play about a half-hour of anti-war songs. We have three other kids serving in the Marines, Army, and Navy, making it especially hard to imagine losing another one. I would read the number of wounded and total casualties each morning too. I have read every single name of every one of those kids that died since the beginning of the Afghan War — over 7000 names.
On Saturday mornings, we have done for 10 years the Saturday Morning Wake and Bake — a half-hour of songs about the obvious topic. The show runs on the thread of my A.D.D.-affected mind, songs that segue from one to another in a “logical” order.
How do you define Americana music?
Americana is a radio format, not a genre. It certainly it is not based on the AMA Chart and the “cabal” that runs it has no interest in making it about the music or what people who originated the radio format call Americana.
You should understand that most charts, e.g., commercial country, rock, or AAA, all have stations very similar in format. Most are playing exactly the same kind of music. The Americana chart is based on all kinds of different stations playing all kinds of different styles of music — some with more spins than listeners, some with more spins than actual programming time. So, if you had two bluegrass stations with big numbers of spins, Americana would be Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs. But they added over 60% AAA stations, making Tedeschi Trucks Band #1 and now guys like Fred Eaglesmith or Dale Watson have a harder time charting. Since huge amounts of the spins on their chart are mathematically impossible based on the hours of programming available on each station, and stations own online tracking not matching their reported playlist, using the chart as an accurate snapshot of what is “Americana” is pure nonsense. Big Kev says it best: AmeriKinda.
How do you prepare for your show and what thoughts go into preparing your sets?
Well, I get up at 4:20 every morning. I listen to NPR and right-wing talk radio on the drive into the station. I usually pick a story and maybe a song to start. Then the race is on to follow it up and continue the segue/thread of thought. It’s a challenge, but for almost 20 years, we have been collecting a digital music library. We have a 4 TB hard drive with most of the Americana format since 1996, classic rock, classic country, bluegrass, and soul. We have instant access to so much music I can find a song in seconds.
How many new releases do you play?
We try to hit around six current releases an hour, but sometimes if I’m doing a particular topic that doesn’t have a lot of new music, then I’ll dedicate the next hour to just new releases. We play what works, regardless of label or style.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
Wayne “The Train” Hancock’s Thunderstorms and Neon Lights [in] 1997, it changed everything for me and it’s been downhill since.
Who are your favorite artists? Who defines Americana music for you?
John Prine, Grant Peeples, Yarn, the Mavericks, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Zoe Muth, Eilen Jewell, Slaid Cleaves, Jeff Talmadge, Chip Taylor.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
Not much different than it is now. The powers in charge of it have no interest other than throwing a party to pay their salaries each year. After almost 20 years, no artist has broken out. Until it’s about the artists instead of making money for the industry people, [Americana] will never be more than it is.
When I was on the Board of Directors they wanted to eliminate the “artist” members because they take up to much of the Executive Director’s time when he can be out “fundraising.” So, since the priorities are mixed up. There is likely little chance of the independent artists getting a fair shake. That goes for the Grammy nominations … members of the board had influence in changing the rules on the Americana Grammys to prevent an outsider like Linda Chorney from ever getting the nod again.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I like the new Shawn Mullins CD, especially the “Pre Apocalyptic Blues,” and the new Grant Peeples CD, Congress of Treason, the new Left Arm Tan CD, the track “Freedom Bus.” Buford Pope’s The Poem and the Rose, Chip Taylor’s Refugee Children.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests?
Well, I own a political news aggregator magazine called The Daily Ripple and spend a lot of time in Washington, DC, meeting political figures and political activists. I guess stopping a war is my newest hobby, but in reality I’m just trying to keep my kids and other people’s kids safe.