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Santella Signing Off

Legendary local radio personality plans his final shows

Since 1969, Buffalo radio audiences have been enjoying the smooth, personable voice of DJ Jim Santella over the FM airwaves. After getting his start at WBFO—the then student-run radio station of the University at Buffalo, which launched the NPR careers of personalities like Terry Gross and Ira Flatow—Santella carved out a persona that appealed to a broad range of listeners.

From 1969 to 1972, he worked at WPHD-FM (Formerly WYSL), during its transition from a top 40 format to that of album-oriented-rock (AOR). Up until that time, popular radio had been focused on playing singles from artists. In the early 1970s, a number of progressive DJs across the country had begun digging deeper into albums, giving spins to tracks that would not ordinarily have enjoyed such exposure. The exposure of these “deep cuts” put a number of acts we now refer to as “classic rock” staples on the map, and helped seal their enduring popularity. He notes that his radio career got its start around the same time Led Zeppelin released its first album.

Chatting in the suburban basement he refers to as his “man cave,” surrounded by an entire wall packed floor to ceiling with old vinyl records, a personal computer, a drum kit, and hundreds of books that illustrate his longtime interest in cinema and the theater, Santella takes pride in retelling some mischievous anecdotes that made for a somewhat bumpy start to his career in radio.

His first professional gig began on January 9, 1969 at WYSL in Buffalo. By May of that year, he got fired.

“A friend of mine from school came in to visit me while I was doing the 10pm to 2am shift. He said, ‘Why don’t you introduce me to the AM disc jockey? Tell him I’m from the FCC.’” He pauses, recalling this youthful episode. “I have no idea why I would want to do such a stupid thing.”

The jock in question spent a lot of his time on the job trying to pick up girls, and Santella thought the vocation deserved a bit more reverence, so he went along with the gag. As he went off shift, he told the next jock to explain to the AM colleague that it was all a joke—his friend wasn’t with the FCC. But somehow signals got crossed.

“The upshot of the whole thing is that the DJ tells the program director, ‘Some people from the FCC came in.’ Soon the radio conglomerate, McLendon Corporation of Dallas, immediately calls their lawyers in Washington. The lawyers in Washington call the FCC. The FCC says they wouldn’t send anyone out to a station like that, especially not at midnight,” Santella explains. “So they called me.”

“I realized immediately what had happened. And I thought: I could tell the truth, or shut up and cover my ass.”

Santella told the truth. Twenty minutes later he got a phone call letting him know he was no longer employed by WYSL-FM.

How old was he when that happened? “I’ve lied about my age all my life. So I’ll tell you: I was not young enough to be that stupid. In other words, I was old enough to have known better. I’ve always felt that I was in the wrong decade.”

From that playful evasion, Santella the storyteller segues into the next chapter in his radio career. Now, he’s back to UB at WBFO, spinning rock records and catching wind of something.

“A friend of mine and I hear about this concert that’s gonna be held in the middle of the state. Woodstock, obviously. There’s gonna be like 32 or 33 bands playing. It was monumental. Can you imagine? Well, you don’t have to imagine because you know that it’s true. So we called for press passes using the station, and they sent us four pairs,” he recalls, with a hint of surprise still lingering in the memory.

“So some disc jockey friends and myself went to Woodstock. We made the decision at the last moment, we got the tickets at the last moment, and we were among the last people that were let in before they closed it off. And I had three days of fun. There was a widespread variety of acts, all coming for one show. It was a chance to see all the bands. That’s why we went. There was no…meeting of the tribes kind of vibe.”

For Santella, the iconic event of the 1960s generation was straight-up about the music.

After he returned from Woodstock, he received a call from his old employer WYSL. They’d found drugs at the station. They found some pot behind the plants. Management felt they’d ascertained who was responsible, and had shown the culprits the door. Now they were calling Santella to see if he wanted his old job back.

For all the career detours he has blamed on youthful indiscretion, there seem to have been as many instances when he’s been at the right place at the right time. He took his old gig at WYSL, which then changed call letters to WPHD. He would eventually have a falling out at that station when the decision was made to cut the station’s music collection. He spent 1972 through 1973 spinning records as an all-night country music DJ for WWOL-FM.

He went back to AOR format again at WPHD, and did another year playing Pop/Adult tunes at WEBR-FM. Through it all, he was a student at UB, and worked in the Lockwood Law Library. “So I had two full-time jobs with small salaries, but it added up to enough to keep going,” he explains. From 1975 to 1980, he worked at WGRQ-FM. There, he spent three years writing commercial copy and continuity. He eventually started doing an evening AOR format with a weekly telephone talk show. He also worked mid-days and produced a weekly one-hour music special, interviewing Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger, among many others.

In person, Santella is as thoughtful and gentle as he comes off on the radio. A jazz drummer, he can talk very intelligently about music, referencing sometimes obscure examples of songs, or giving his theory on why the Yardbirds were the greatest rock and roll band. But he’s also well versed in theater, and is happy to veer onto a tangent to describe the absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Luigi Pirandello. His knowledge of cinema is equally extensive. We discovered we’d both studied film history at UB under Professor Brian Henderson in the Media Study Department during the 1980s.

With such a fire burning in the mind, it may come as a surprise to learn that in two short weeks, Jim Santella will be retiring from his weekend show at WBFO, “The Home of the Blues.” For several years, he has been putting together mixes of blues artist ranging from the seminal to the contemporary. He has a specific fondness for the stripped-down acoustic players, whose work boils down the 12-bar blues to its bare essence, until the music’s very simplicity creates its power.

He feels, however, that he hasn’t been at his best on the air in recent months.

“And if I can’t be at the top of my game, I’ve decided it would be best not to carry on with the show,” he says. As we pour through scrapbooks meticulously compiled by his wife, Mary Lou, he elaborates at length over certain news clippings. Then, he delicately describes his current struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He has some difficulty getting around. I ask him if that information is something he would like included in this interview.

“It’s not something I feel comfortable telling my listeners. So in a way, I’d like to use you, to get the news out there,” he explains.

After he wraps up his “Home of the Blues” shows in a couple weeks, he will continue doing the popular “Theater Talk” segments with Artvoice theater editor Anthony Chase at the same station. He also intends to do some overdue traveling with his wife, and work on writing some of his marvelous stories of life in radio.

In the meantime, be sure to set your radio to 88.7 on the FM dial this Saturday night, 7-11pm. The hour from 9pm to 10pm will be subtitled “Got Blues if You Want It,” which will be a tribute to the role of the Rolling Stones in the history of the blues.

Then, the following Saturday (December 1), tune in at 7pm for the final show by this legendary local DJ, complete with stories toasting the man of the hour from over a dozen old radio friends who will be chiming in from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mississippi, and elsewhere. It promises to be a moving broadcast, not to be missed by fans of real American music and the genuine disc jockey who has taken such pleasure sharing it with us on the airwaves over the years.

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