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Radio is as essential as ever - Irish Coffee show hosts Brendan Mallon and Mike Palardy

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Patrick Clifford

The most pleasant surprise awaited me as I was rambling through town and running my Saturday errands not long ago.  When I clicked on the ignition Irish music filled the car.

This is not surprising for an Irish rock reviewer, but the delight came from knowing that it was being played on the college radio station where I met my wife and got my start in this sordid music business!

WMCX, Monmouth University’s radio station, is now known as X889 (www.wmcx.com if you’re streaming live). The Irish Coffee show is on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until noon and is hosted by Brendan Mallon and Mike Palardy, two lads who were able to do what I could not when I was music director there in the late 1980s -- stage an Irish radio program on my college campus.

After spending a few minutes with the young Mallon, a burgeoning trad fiddle player hell bent on following the family tradition of law enforcement when he graduates, you can see the steely determination that made it possible.

“My family has been listening to Ceol na nGael on WFUV every Sunday without fail for years,” Mallon explains. “I was looking for an Irish scene down here once I transferred to Monmouth and there wasn’t one, so I thought I would start my own. The reaction to the show has been great!”

Indeed, WFUV’s Ceol na nGael, Fordham University’s Irish radio program, has been an institution in New York ever since its inception in 1974. The current hosts, Tara Cuzzi and Megan Scully, exude enthusiasm about continuing the show's tradition of celebrating Irish music and culture.

I visited them during my press tour for my new book, 50 Shades o’ Green, and their passion for Irish music is on full display. Like Mallon, these lasses were born and raised on Ceol na nGael and consider hosting the show to be the true honor that it is.

You can tune in while in New York to 90.7 FM every Sunday between noon and 4 p.m. to hear all kinds of Irish music, often accompanied by dedications, and to stay connected through the community bulletin boards. Two of the program's highlights are the weekly news from Ireland, reported by Declan O'Byrne in Dublin at 2 p.m., and the sports from Ireland, with Brendan Tier, immediately following. Like most of the shows mentioned in this piece, you can listen online as well by logging onto www.wfuv.org.

As my book publicity tour kicks into high gear, I am encountering the most diverse and interesting personalities behind the microphone, including Louise Dunphy, host of Celtic Crossings on WMUA, the station within University of Massachusetts.

Louise Dunphy’s Celtic Crossings.

“Hosting Celtic Crossings is certainly an extension of me and who I am fundamentally,” reasons Dunphy. “I was asked to do it for just three months. I fell in love with it and still doing it almost eight years later. It just made sense that an Irish Catholic girl from Boston raised on the blarney would feel such a natural fit!”

Celtic Crossings connects Dunphy to the bustling Celtic community in the Berkshire Mountains. 

“Live music is now central to my life and has really added a dimension of culture and beauty that has raised up my life spiritually and emotionally,” Dunphy enthuses.

“And I get that back tenfold. A week does not pass that someone does not mention to me that my community needs Celtic Crossings. I am always thanked deeply by people who I meet when I am out in the community.”

I’ve come across many stations that have rock and rollers twiddling the nobs. Tommy Burns is a solo artist who also plays with the Canny Brothers and alternately hosts each Sunday from 6-7 p.m. The Voice of Ireland program at Rutgers University (www.WRSU.org).  For these artists, the programming of an Irish radio program is an extension of their own creativity.

“A performing/recording artist and a radio host each present music and words, both spoken and sung, toward one or more specific ends,” reasons Patrick Clifford, former bassist to the legendary New York group Four to the Bar.

He is now a solo artist who just released the critically acclaimed Chance of a Start and hosts the Celtic Brunch show on WDVR (www.wdvr.org) based in Northwestern New Jersey on most Sundays.

“You’re making statements. You’re evoking moods, emotions, and memories. You’re giving voice to a culture, or at least your perspective on that culture,” he says.

“Most important, you’re trying to have an effect on how that culture progresses, evolves, and thrives. A two-hour show includes only about 20 tracks; an album includes only 10-12. So in each case, I feel like they all have to count. Being a radio host has fostered a critical listening that I think has carried over to my live shows and recordings and songwriting.”

Black 47’s Larry Kirwan entered the halls of Sirius Satellite Radio seven years ago for an interview for his album and book Green Suede Shoes; he essentially has not left the place since and has gotten his own show, the popular Celtic Crush program. Like Clifford, he gets a huge boost out of programming this wildly popular show.

“It's another opportunity to be creative, to find songs that fit in some thematic form, and then to talk about them in a meaningful way,” Kirwan reasons.

“Because I produce the show myself I can veer off into any subject that comes to mind.  I can be political or humorous, or just let rip.  It's a three hour show so I have time to experiment. 

“I begin with a three or four minute opening talk that often sets the tone for what comes after.  But I do the show without any notes and take chances, just as with Black 47.  I love doing long cross-fades between songs, especially those dissonant moments when the two songs clash before the new song takes over.” 

Clifford shares hosting duties with other Celtic music fans, which translate into a wide range of music that is played on the show based on the individual host’s taste.

“We are lucky to have access to WDVR’s large library of music.  I find it interesting and valuable to see how broad is the range of material that people -- listeners, musicians, publicists alike -- consider Irish or Celtic,” Clifford says.

“Even within the Celtic Sunday Brunch crew, every host presents a different show, covering everything from archival recordings to new-age harp, to Frank Patterson, to rock like the Saw Doctors and modern folk like Susan McKeown.”

Though many of the radio programs air live, many of the stations archive their Irish shows on websites, or they get sliced into a podcast form. This according to Clifford, adds “a layer of abstraction” with doing a radio show nowadays.

“Occasionally, I get feedback on shows I did months before but that’s okay, because I have come to realize that for most listeners -- interestingly, myself included -- radio is not an interactive media,” he says.

“I do love getting phone calls at the station, but not getting phone calls doesn’t upset me. I understand that my job is most often just keeping people company while they drive, or creating a Sunday afternoon feeling in their homes.”

Like Mallon, Clifford looks to Ceol na nGael on WFUV as an influence, calling it “a shared sense memory that immediately made us practically cousins.” 

“Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, Natalie MacMaster from Cape Breton and Larry Kirwan of Black 47 stand out to me,” when I ask Dunphy about her favorite interviews on the air.

“For sure, one of my favorite interviews of all time took place many years back with Liam of Hothouse Flowers. I will never forget the fabulous, wonderful Donovan asking to see me during a break at his performance in Northampton, Massachusetts. Donovan was my teen idol. He was fantastic and sweet to me.”

For Kirwan, Ray Davies of the Kinks was the most special guest to share his airwaves.

“I had so many questions I wanted to ask him and he more than answered them, including a blow by blow account of the recording of Waterloo Sunset,” he recalls.

“Rosanne Cash is an old friend and we always go deep into her music, life, and her relationship with her father.  Sinead O'Connor can be daunting.  Dave King and Brigid Reagan of Flogging Molly are special because we go way back. 

“To tell you the truth, I've enjoyed every interview. Musicians tend to open up more to another musician because I understand where they're coming from.”

Celtic Crush airs Saturday from 7-10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Ch. 28, The Spectrum on Sirius and XM with a repeat on Tuesday at 11 p.m.  The last two shows are archived at on demand at www.siriusxm.com

Sirius survives largely by support of members, and the same can be said for these college and independent radio stations that stage fund drives to keep the lights on. These stations provide an essential lifeline to our Irish American culture, and I encourage you to tune in and support your local radio program!

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