On May 2, Vin Scelsa -- a pioneer of free-form radio, a warm and wise voice on New York's airwaves and a hero to a generation of DJs through his stints on WFMU, WNEW, WXRK and most recently WFUV and SiriusXM -- will air the last installment of his decades-long show, Idiot's Delight, on WFUV. Scelsa, 67, shares some parting thoughts on his nearly 50-year-long career.
After all these years, there were only a couple of ways that it could end. One was that I'd drop dead or get so sick that I couldn't work anymore. Another was that I'd get fired. But another is the way I chose: that I'd decide when and how it ends, which is very rare. Usually, the DJ never has a chance to say goodbye, and listeners are left scratching their heads. So I have opted to voluntarily end a long career where I have always been in control.
I started in 1967 at a college that doesn't exist anymore -- Upsala in East Orange, N.J. At the time, its nondescript little station -- the now -- independent WFMU -- was run like a club: If the guys who were on that day didn't feel like doing it, the station never signed on. But there was enormous potential, and a couple of guys and I took over and ran it as a total free-form station. I became program director, and I always considered my job to be this: Hire the right people and leave them alone. It was a direct reflection of the culture of the time. The shows were a personal expression of what the individuals were feeling. I was able to bring that same spirit into my commercial radio career, first at WABC in the early '70s, and then at WNEW. And for those golden few years, we -- the DJs -- were able to call the shots.
During 47 years of radio you see all kinds of genres of music come and go. It's like watching a river flow -- and I have been lucky enough to watch a certain aspect of pop culture flow by, tap into it and reflect it to the audience. In a very dramatic way, a highlight for me personally was the night John Lennon died in 1980. I was allowed to turn WNEW into a sort of communal wake -- we dispensed with the usual programming and opened the phones. A radio station helped people get through their anger and sorrow in a very immediate, direct way.
A very different kind of highlight came at 'FMU, when Iggy & The Stooges came by. I was interviewing Iggy Pop in this little announcer booth when all of a sudden he got very pale, leaned over -- and threw up on me. On the air! So I just played a few records while I cleaned up. I will always remember Iggy throwing up on me.
I guess the thing I will miss most is the excitement of hearing something new and being able to go on the air and turn people on to it. And I will miss the one-way relationship: People will miss me more than I will miss them. I don't mean that in a snide way -- I just mean that listeners know me, but I know very few of them. Yet there are thousands who feel like I am their friend, and that is a wonderful thing.
This article first appeared in the May 2 issue of Billboard.