A month or so ago I became aware of radio station WBZI in Xenia, Ohio. I think somebody posted a note on the CBA message board with the URL: myclassiccountry.com. And, most important, the tip that Monday through Friday from 1-3 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. to noon here in California) banjo picker and broadcaster Joe Mullins is on the air with two bluegrass shows — an hour of gospel, “Hymns from the Hills,” and an hour of secular bluegrass, “The Banjo Show.”
Since I got the first taste of Mullins’ superb shows, I have been a regular listener. WBZI (and three sister stations that simulcast) takes me back to my youth, when KNBA Vallejo was my steady music source. KNBA played a lot less bluegrass, but it had that same folksy feel that Mullins calls “personality-driven radio.”
I get so irritated by radio advertising that I listen almost exclusively to PBS stations or KPFA here in California, except when I might be needing a little weather or traffic from KCBS in San Francisco. But I actually listen carefully to Mullins’ commercials and sometimes think to myself that if I was in Ohio I’d be patronizing the businesses he’s touting. Joe is either just doing these ads off the top of his head, or he is an amazing conversational writer. It’s clear that he knows the people he is talking about and has a high opinion of them. No jingles, no little skits, just a friendly voice telling the listener where they can buy a new car, or get a good deal on carpet, or find someone to come and pick up their riding mower and take it in, service it and return it. Or where you can get some really good rural Ohio cooking. Some of those food places sound almost worth a vacation trip.
“I grew up hearing quality radio programming that included bluegrass, on mainstream radio,” Mullins said by telephone recently, explaining his philosophy as a broadcaster. “That means not just a couple of hours on Sunday night on a local community or public radio station. I’m thankful that we have community radio, public radio and internet radio that includes bluegrass, but to have full service commercial radio station that puts the spotlight on bluegrass right along with the stock market report, the news headlines and other things that large numbers of listeners rely on daily is extremely valuable, especially in an area as important to bluegrass fans and artists as our area. Southwest Ohio has thousands of bluegrass fans and has been fertile ground for the entire bluegrass community since the late 1940s.”
Mullins is a second-generation picker and broadcaster. His father, Paul “Moon” Mullins was a famous fiddle player (with the Stanley Brothers among others) and pioneer bluegrass broadcaster. He wrote the bluegrass standard, “Katy Daly.”
“I was fortunate growing up, my father was fiddler with a lot of good bands in the 1960s and ’70s,” Joe Mullins said. “I started fooling with the banjo pretty seriously in the late ’70s. I’ve been playing bluegrass professionally for 30 years and programming about the same length of time.”
Mullins now fronts a group called Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. From what I’ve heard on WBZI, they would be a great group for the CBA’s Fathers Day Festival at Grass Valley. And that’s not just my opinion as the band was named 2012 Emerging Artists of the Year by IBMA last month. “We’ve played all over the country the last six years,” Mullins said. “We’ve toured 68,000 miles through 25 states. I’m fortunate that I have a full-time staff of radio professionals here and they can fill the void when I am gone.
“I do maintain a pretty strict playlist,” he said. “You’re going to hear the same music mix even if I’m on the road with the Radio Ramblers.”
When Mullins isn’t broadcasting his bluegrass shows, WBZI plays classic old country material, with an occasional bluegrass track, sometimes one per hour, sometimes more. “We have a variety of bluegrass programming on the weekends,” Mullins said. “My son Daniel hosts a show that’s kind of on the edge on Saturday afternoons, 3-5 p.m. (EST), called Bending the Strings. He plays a little progressive bluegrass, Americana music, and singer-songwriter music along with traditional bluegrass. He’s a third-generation of Mullins broadcasters here in the area. He’s finding his niche.”
On Sunday evenings Terry Herd’s syndicated bluegrass show “Into the Blue” is on WBZI. It is sponsored by Owensboro, KY, touting the International Bluegrass Museum and other happenings in the town.
Xenia is in Greene County, Ohio, east of Dayton. Its sister stations, WKFI in Wilmington, one county south, WEDI in Eaton (West of Dayton) and FM 100.3 in Xenia combine signals to cover from Cincinnati to Columbus to Dayton.
“We updated all the technology in our web site within the last year or two, to include unlimited online listening at myclassiccountry.com. With both iPhone and Android apps, that lets us be heard by a lot of people,” he said.
And I say: check it out!