Who Needs the DJ?
07-06-06 Seleccionado por: Arty Show
Story by Chris Dahlen
Gary Sredzienski, one of the few living community radio legends, occupies a ranch house in Kittery, Maine. Scattered throughout his house, from the closets to the basement, you can find about 60 accordions of all makes, models, and wear. Sredzienski keeps the ones that he takes to performances in his bedroom, and they include Angelina, a showy, ruby-red model, and Oxford, a smaller model whose bellows are patched with old glove leather, that he believes came from World War II Germany smuggled in the backpack of a G.I. In the basement, smaller models line the shelves: Sredzienski takes them to the schools where he gives kids a chance to play them, possibly warming up a new generation to what adults call the squarest instrument around. His other collections include 3,000 LPs-- 1,000 of them focused on polkas and related ethnic music-- as well as wind-up toys and robots, and an array of old glass bottles that he has meticulously dated and researched after digging them up from the banks of nearby creeks and rivers, where he swims year round, thanks to a combination of scuba and surf gear that he claims defends him from waters that are cold in the summer and excruciating in winter. The oldest bottle dates to the 1750s.
If Sredzienski's neighbors on what he calls his "Beaver Cleaver street" think it's strange when they see him headed for the river in a wetsuit in the dead of January, his audiences have the same reaction watching him front his rock/surf/"extreme polka" band, the Serfs, while playing an accordion. That is, they have that reaction for a split second, and then the Eastern European rhythms catch them and make the whole room shake.
Sredzienski is one of a handful of full-time, professional accordionists in America, and he's been recognized by everyone from the accordion teacher's association that once ranked him as Connecticut's #1 nine-year-old accordionist, to the U.S. State Department, who once sent him to represent America on a tour of Romania. But if it hadn't been for his radio show, his music career might not have taken off. In some circles, Sredzienski is famous not as a musician but as the DJ and host for one of New Hampshire's most legendary radio programs: "The Polka Party", which airs every Saturday morning from the University of New Hampshire.
While the little old ladies way out in Worcester, Mass., who drive to the top of a hill to pick up the 6,000 watt broadcast, love the show for the music, it's safe to say that many of its fans-- who span every age and demographic, from babies and busy parents to UNH students on their way to team practice-- would never switch it on if Sredzienski weren't the DJ. "The Polka Party" is a hit because of its host.
The show goes like this: at 9 a.m. sharp, the theme song, the Kryger Brothers' "Raj Raj Raj (The Laughing Polka)", kicks in, and Sredzienski announces once again that he's coming at us from the Polka Shrine at WUNH. "Polka music is happy music!" he shouts, like a carny. In real life Sredzienski, 43, looks like a normal, middle-aged guy-- not too tall, of medium build, with a full, scruffy head of hair and an affable face-- but from the gruff bark of his radio voice, fans believe, "I'm short, fat, bald, old. 'He's playing polkas, he must be some old guy with his pants up his chest.' And that's fine! Let people think that. That's the beautiful thing about radio."
And you hear his voice throughout the show. In, around, and over the songs Sredzienski reads from a script he's assembled of facts and folklore, as well as jokes and dedications sent in by his listeners. Throughout the holiday season, you learn about the traditions and music of a wide swath of Europe, but especially "the old country." He describes how Polish villagers in the late 1800s celebrated Christmas, the superstitious rituals that predicted if you were destined for marriage that year, and the celebrations and festivals that broke up the slow, cold winters. The script Sredzienski follows is scrawled across 30 or 40 sheets of notebook paper, with items printed from the 'Net and taped onto the pages among his own notes and annotations. It takes him a full day each week to prepare, and he spends the show's two hours working three turntables-- "like making pizza," he'll say, flipping the vinyl between announcements-- and once in a while, he even plays a little accordion.
Sredzienski grew up surrounded by polka: Born in 1962, he says, "I felt like I caught the tail end of the Golden Age of Radio, of what radio in America used to be." He recalls one show that "broadcast live from the Polish National Home in Hartford. You could hear the bottles clanging in the background, the dishes, you know, and what a feeling it was. And it was the type of radio where [the announcer would say] 'Happy Birthday Mitch,' 'Happy Birthday Stanley and Stella.' You talk about how churches are focal points for an ethnic community, or bakeries, or whatever. But radio was [also] a focal point." He started taking accordion lessons when he was eight, and his first gig came at age ten with a Connecticut vaudeville act called the Hog Hollow Hooters. He's been a performer ever since, but when he came to the New Hampshire seacoast area in 1980 to attend the University of New Hampshire, he decided to study forestry. And he had no plans to become a DJ until he debuted "The Polka Party" in 1987, just as a one-off. New Hampshire then-- like now-- was no ethnic mecca, but there was a Polish club in Newmarket, as well as plenty of elderly listeners around the area. They tuned in first, but in no time, everybody was listening-- and the polka party turned into an 18-year career.
"These people are so freaking into it, and they're not only Polish people," says Sredzienski. But the senior citizens form his core audience, and they won't let him go. They ask about his personal life, look up and call his parents, and force pie and gifts on him before his gigs. Everything in his life is open to their scrutiny: "They think I'm their son and they can talk to me like this." And some of them don't think of him as a son. One 85-year-old woman has sent him "dirty e-mails" about her fantasies of being with him, describing how he might gently massage her neck.
After college, Sredzienski landed a job with the forestry department, "counting tree rings every day, and I was saying, 'I'm more than this!'" It looked like a dead end until he got an offer: He could take a communications job with the department-- but it meant giving up "The Polka Party". He decided to quit the forestry department. Around that time, his radio fans started hiring Sredzienski for gigs playing accordion, so after he left the forestry department, he turned into a full-time professional musician. "And I was so hungry, I was living on sardines and popcorn for the first two years. But every year it got better and better and better."
/ / /
Spinning old polka records may sound like an easy, nostalgic gig. But Sredzienski is getting burned out. The conflicts and arguments in the polka community rival any other music's, and the audiences are stubborn, difficult, and possessive of their culture-- and of Sredzienski. On a bad morning, waking up early to do the show can feel thankless and aggravating. And there's one other problem: Sredzienski doesn't even like polka.
If you press him, he'll say that he likes some of the older polkas. "I have to admit I like the 1940s and 50s records. They're very entertaining." But for most of each broadcast, he ditches the show's namesake to play other European ethnic music, whether it's Greek, Jewish, or Swiss, or especially, old Polish village music. "It started off as a polka show, just polkas, and over the years I felt like, 'God, they don't have polka bands in Poland!" Sredzienski can tell you the roots of the polka, which is an American invention that came from immigrants who brought Polish folk songs to America in the 20s and 30s, and combined them with the big band jazz popular at the time. The music was Americanized, popularized, and over the years, sanitized. Sredzienski prefers the original folk forms. "To me, there's nothing worse than a saxophone playing Polish village music."
When he gets new polka albums in the mail, he throws them straight into the trash. "Today the accordion is just used to bellow-shake in a polka band, and it's mostly two or three trumpets playing now. It's turned into a brass form. And to me it sounds like a freakin' invasion of a country." About Jimmy Sturr, the squeaky-clean, 15-time (as of this year) winner of the Grammy for Best Polka Album, Sredzienski says, "He's the fucking antichrist! I'm not kidding you, his mother makes his bed for him every day.
"He's even made a reference to me I think, in his interviews, saying, 'Well yeah, there's guys that complain about me that play the traditional stuff. But it's my stuff that sells. It's what the people want.' Yeah, the bluehairs, [that's] what they want!"
There's another divide in his repertoire: the generation gap. He grew up with his parents' popular music, but he had to hide his rock and roll records. To this day, "I hate Lawrence Welk, I always did. To me, I know the old timers, my parents, my family, they all loved him. He was God. But he ruined [the accordion] for our generation! He really did. It's like that sickly-sweet type of music that's not real. It doesn't really reveal any ethnic culture."
Yet he can also play every popular song from the World War II era, having mastered the repertoire for his gigs at nursing homes. (These are a big moneymaker for him: one time he played 93 nursing homes in 15 states in 5 weeks.) "'Stardust,' 'Harborlights,' World War II songs...that generation, that World War II generation, they had all these songs. My dad was born 1926, and back in their day, they were all together on these songs. To me, America's lost that folk heritage, that folk culture."
On a mid-January broadcast, he brought up a complaint that he gets from his Polish listeners: That "The Polka Party" should stop playing music from other cultures, and stick to Polish-American music. "That's a kick in the groin!" he told his listeners, each word landing like a footstomp. "Every single culture in this world has something beautiful to share, and that's what I want to celebrate on this show! If you're too narrow-minded to open up to other cultures, this show is not for you!" And to make his point, he rattled off the names of other polka shows in New England.
Even when he sticks to Polish music, he has to cross divides. "I played a few weeks ago, they had a Polish Christmas," he says. "It was in Lawrence, at a Polish church, and they're so divided, Poles. They had people from Poland on one side who came after World War II, and Polish-Americans. They didn't mix, didn't talk to each other. I'm going from table to table, going back and forth, playing traditional Polish music, [then] going and playing the Polish-American polkas for them. Going back and forth, back and forth. They have a few drinks in' em, finally the wise-asses come out! I'm playing a mountain piece for the people from Poland, they're getting up dancing. They like it fast. So this old Polish-American comes up to me, 'Why you play so goddamn fast for? Jimmy Sturr doesn't-- ' I go, 'Don't you know anything about your heritage? I'm playing Polish traditional music for them! I'll be over to play your polkas for you in a minute!'
"So I go over and play the Polish-American polkas, there's a drunk guy from Poland at the bar. 'In Poland, we do not play polka! Maybe one a night and that is it!" And I'm saying to myself, 'Never at a [regular] gig do I have to fight with people. Ever.'
"Then there's one guy that looks like a professor. He goes, 'You're Gary Sredzienski? We want to hire you to do a talk on Polish culture for so and so and so.' And I go, 'Wow, there's somebody sane in here.' I go, 'Yeah, music today in Poland is really suffering. They're trying to be modern, you know.' And he goes, 'No, because it's Jew-ified. The music is Jew-ified.' 'Fuck,' I said to myself! I didn't want anything to do with him after he said that.
"I'm driving home and I'm saying, 'You know, if I have another gig like this, I will go back into forestry.'"
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Community radio has all but disappeared from the air, and the personal touch of pirate radio and podcasting have yet to replace it. Meanwhile, thanks to the digital music revolution, we have more choices, and more sources of broadcast or streaming music than ever. And most of them don't have DJs.
For example, on the cable TV music service MusicChoice, you'll never hear a human voice unless it's singing a song. Stuck in the high range of your cable selection-- my Comcast box puts it in the 500s-- MusicChoice offers a few dozen channels of music, from old-timey and classic rock to contemporary hip-hop and adult alternative; to take one, "Retro-Active" plays post-punk and 80s new wave and pop from the X-Ray Spex to Culture Club. One song follows another with no pause in between, and the text on the screen lists every new name, album, and performer, as well as rotating facts and trivia about each artist. Many people let the stations run for hours, and nothing intrudes on the music. As Director of Music Programming Justin Prager says, "We're not trying to talk to anybody. We're not trying to put any crazy messages across the airwaves. When somebody puts us on, we want to make sure a guitar is playing or a drum is playing. They don't want to listen to anybody else, they just want the music."
Prager, who's in charge of rock, explains that his team has a music meeting once a week where they listen to upwards of 80 new songs, and select the ones that'll make the rotation. According to Prager, no focus groups or consultants advise them: All of the music on the service is picked by his team, who also write the content that flashes on your screen. (The team does not, however, schedule which song plays when: Instead, they assign descriptive tags to the songs and place them in Selector, an industry-standard software package that constructs the playlists. Selector also manages the music at over 7,000 radio stations and other services.)
An Arbitron survey from 2004 found that 85% of listeners actually look at the TV when a new song comes on, to check who the artist is. This suggests that we still want to learn about the music we're hearing-- at least to get artist and title, and through the news and trivia, a little context on the music. But we don't need a voice. "Now that there are DJ-free alternatives, if the DJ doesn't actually add to the experience, there's no reason to have one. The bar is set higher," says Kurt Hanson, the CEO of Internet radio service AccuRadio and publisher of the Radio and Internet Newsletter. The satellite radio services, XM and Sirius, display the artists and titles on the receiver, and Internet radio stations almost never bother with a DJ; in fact, more and more of them-- including AccuRadio-- give users the power to skip songs or to filter what they're hearing, a feature that some of Sredzienski's listeners might appreciate.
But none of this rules out the DJs: It just clarifies where we need them. And it starts with getting us to listen to music we don't want to hear.
With nothing but a turntable and a few minutes to talk between songs, the DJ has to bridge hundreds of divisions. He or she has to serve the people who want to explore new cultures, as well as the cultures that want to hear nothing but their own music; and he or she has to balance the people who propagate their music, who need to pass it on to the next generation, with a next generation that may not care. Sredzienski's parents banned rock and roll from the house, and exposed him to Lawrence Welk; some of us burn mix CDs for our two-month-olds, because we convince ourselves it's incredibly important to teach them where we're coming from and see if they'll respond. Passing on a musical heritage is important and natural, and it's also oppressive.
A DJ like Sredzienski stands in the middle of this tension, and moderates between all sides. He has to dig up the grit and drama that make the younger listeners respond, and to smooth over the edges that turn off the mature listeners. He plays off all sides of a community to convince it that it is a community. He provokes yet respects us, and he delivers a rowdy party without ticking off the hosts. And most of all, he should never take sides.
Of course, when you run down the list, sometimes it's easier to settle for a computer.
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One early February morning, Sredzienski shouts from the radio, "Gary Sredzienski, comin' at you every week! No pay! That's right."
After almost 20 years broadcasting from WUNH, he has frustrations with the show. Sredzienski has carried his records to the show in the same canvas bag since day one, and the bottom of the bag has holes. He jokes superstitiously that when the bag breaks, the show will end. But even when he talks about the mounting frustrations, the angry listeners, and the cluttered WUNH studio and broken turntables coming off a week of abuse from the student DJs, he also says that something in his head won't let him quit.
After all, it's not just his show. People from all walks of life tune in, and as the elderly listeners move on, young ones take their place. The fans are demanding, but they're also generous: whenever WUNH holds a fundraising drive, "The Polka Party" rakes in more than one-third of the revenue-- on average, $7,000 or $8,000 each time.
One time during the first Gulf War, under pressure from his mother, he decided to play "God Bless America", following the lead of other polka DJs who were ending their shows with the song. Sredzienski never talks politics or religion on the show, ever-- but he spun the record, and "I didn't say I was pro-Bush, anti-, I didn't say anything about the war. I just said, 'This is for our families overseas to come home in one piece.'"
A minute later, he got a call at the station. He picked up the phone and an anti-war listener yelled at him, calling him "every name in the book" before hanging up on him. Sredzienski grabbed the mic, stopped the record he was playing, and shouted right back at the anonymous caller-- and then the station switchboard lit up with people calling in support. "A Naval Captain drove down from the Navy Base saying, 'God bless you Gary for what you did!' I got a phone call, 'Hey man, we're the bike gang from Seabrook, you want us to come down there? We're down there for you buddy. God bless you...And two different people wrote letters to the paper, and they [headlined] it, 'Polka DJ stands up for our troops.' And I said, 'Holy shit, I never asked for this!'"
Thanks to the internet he's picked up listeners worldwide, and he's explored doing a national, live radio program. He even shot a TV pilot with Paul Lally, who directed "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood". And staying on the air doesn't hurt his music career. He plugs his solo shows as well as his gigs with his band, the Serfs, who get away with a far deeper fusion of styles than the Polka Party. The serf/polka/rock band has recorded CDs, picked up fan mail from as far as Moscow, and landed a song on CBS' "Love Monkey". They pack every room they play on the seacoast. "Having those old-fashioned Polish parents and all that, you didn't play rock and roll, and I always wanted to," says Sredzienski. "That band is the joy of my life. It really is."
And even the generation gap has started working in his favor. Sredzienski still gives talks and demonstrations at schools, and it's always a hit with the kids. The students recognize the accordion from the music to "Spongebob Squarepants"-- and "the young kids don't know who Lawrence Welk is," he says. "Thank God."
Gary Sredzienski's website is You can stream or download "The Polka Party" from WUNH at
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