Category: Archive

The on-air art of Kathleen Biggins

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Too much of current commercial radio is awash in sudsy, silly blather, hate-fueled apoplexy, or untoilet-trained self-reference. The sound those radio hosts love to hear remains the same: ka-ching.
Noncommercial radio fares better, but it too can be inept, inert, or inexplicable. When I first went on the air at a small, college radio station many years ago, I remember one of the other hosts used to broadcast the musical soundtracks of Japanese monster movies starring a Chrysler Building-sized moth, pterodactyl, or other reptile invariably on a rampage in Tokyo. What was even more surreal is that this same radio host summarized the plots of these films on the air. I thought: Does this guy know what the sun looks like? His legacy was a broken swivel chair that squeaked in the studio. I knew then that hell was real.
Relief from the hell of radio inanity, however, can still be found at the noncommercial end of the FM dial. In 2006, the Irish Echo honored two longtime noncommercial radio program hosts, Kathleen Biggins at WFUV-FM in New York City and Brian O’Donovan at WGBH-FM in Boston, as its Irish Traditionalists of the Year.
In my “Ceol” column tribute to them both, I wrote: “Over the years many traditional performers from Ireland have privately vented their frustration to me about U.S. disc jockeys who are musically careless or clueless. In all that time, I have never heard so much as a peep of a complaint about Biggins and O’Donovan, whose knowledge, preparation, and courtesy make musicians visiting from Ireland feel as if they are home. In a crucial sense, they are, and that is also part of the radio magic effectively conjured by Biggins and O’Donovan each week. Even the names of their radio programs convey an open invitation to drop by on the dial: ‘A Thousand Welcomes’ and ‘A Celtic Sojourn.'”
The secret of effective radio is not so secret: a listener should think the host is speaking only to him or her. This feeling of one-to-one communication creates its own intimacy, and even detached listeners can become happy eavesdroppers to what they hear on the air.
I was reminded again of how skillfully and comfortably Kathleen Biggins handles her hosting duties on “A Thousand Welcomes” at WFUV-FM, 90.7, between 9 and noon on Saturdays, when button accordionist John Whelan and I were her guests on June 13. We were there to celebrate John’s 50th birthday with his music and our chat, and Kathleen allowed John and me to talk without Charlie Rose-like interruptions. John performed in the studio, I provided a couple of live recordings of his playing from the 1980s, Kathleen played some album tracks by John, and it was all stitched together with conversation. If it sounded as if we were having fun, we were.
Credit Kathleen. She listens attentively to her guests’ responses and takes her cues not from a laundry list of prepared questions but from what her guests say on the spur of the moment. That’s radio without a net, and Kathleen’s grip on the trapeze of spontaneous talk is firm yet pliant. Her program sounds real because it is real. She trusts her guests, and we, in turn, trust her. Her expansive knowledge of Irish and other Celtic traditional music and musicians, and the discernment she brings to selecting music for broadcast, combine with her natural, friendly interviewing ability to create a very rare radio program, Irish or otherwise. I know she’d blush at this statement: she is an on-air treasure.
What few people realize is that next year Kathleen Biggins will mark her silver anniversary of broadcasting Irish music on WFUV-FM. Technically, she began at the radio station in 1983 when, as a Fordham University student, she worked in its newsroom. But on Palm Sunday of 1985, Kathleen began co-hosting “Ceol na nGael,” and in 1986 she hosted “A Thousand Welcomes” on Monday evenings before shifting it in 1987 to Saturday mornings, when a large, loyal following tunes her in for three hours.
In the mayfly world we now live in, Irish radio host Kathleen Biggins has survived and thrived. In April of 2010, she’ll turn 25 in Irish music radio years. My hope is that the occasion won’t be celebrated quietly. Radio broadcasting as rare and rewarding as hers needs to be recognized, as I’m doing here.

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