WAMU celebrates 50 years

WAMU, the American University-based public radio station – the leading station for NPR news and information in the greater Washington D.C. area – celebrated 50 years of public broadcasting in Washington, D.C. this past Saturday, October 29.

The evening event featured a formal dinner and dancing to Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra. The award-winning (2011 IBMA Album of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year) Gibson Brothers represented bluegrass programming to the approximately 600 guests.

The radio station paid tribute to the Founders of WAMU, and present three special honors to the William J. Clinton Foundation, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, and Susan Stamberg for their service to the global community and contributions to the field of public broadcasting.

WAMU has a much storied history since switching from an AM station on October 23, 1961.

On July 2, 1967, WAMU 88.5 introduced its first bluegrass radio show, the half-hour Bluegrass Unlimited, with Dick Spottswood as host and Gary Henderson as engineer/associate producer. At which point the station increased power from 13,500 to 31,500 watts. Spottswood and Henderson were among the co-founders of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, the first edition of which was dated July 1966.

In 2001, the station spun its bluegrass programming onto the Internet with the launch of WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, a 24/7 all-bluegrass online transmission.

In 1983 WAMU 88.5 was named Bluegrass Radio Station of the Year by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) and in 2003 BluegrassCountry.org received a Fast 50 award from Fast Company magazine.

The radio station continued implementing their expansive plans. In 2007 Bluegrass Country did its first ever remote broadcast covering the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.

Many of its presenters have been feted by their peers; a reflection of the continuing enhanced status of WAMU 88.5. In 1983 Gary Henderson was named Bluegrass Disc Jockey of the Year by SPBGMA. Jerry Gray was another nominee for the award.

Then in 1991 Lee Michael Demsey, host of Capital Bluegrass – now The Lee Michael Demsey Show, was named Broadcaster of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). Through the years several other DJs earned similar recognition; Eddie Stubbs (in 1996 and 2002); Gary Henderson (1999); Red Shipley, host of Stained Glass Bluegrass (2006); and Katy Daley (in 2009 and 2011).

The IBMA also recognized the stellar work of Gary Henderson (in 1998), Fred Bartenstein (2006) and Dick Spottswood (2009) by presenting each with a Distinguished Achievement award.

Other notable presenters on BluegrassCountry include Ray Davis, Tom “Cat” Reeder,  the late Les McIntyre, Bill Foster, Bob Webster (the current presenter of Stained Glass Bluegrass), Carol Beaugard, Lisa Kay Howard and Mike Kear of Hawksbury Radio in Australia.

WAMU’s Bluegrass Country’s mission is to keep bluegrass and Americana music alive and vital in the eyes and ears of a worldwide online audience and the Washington, D.C., regional Bluegrass community. Our public-supported programs entertain and deepen knowledge of Bluegrass music’s past, while pointing the way toward its future.

Katy Daley puts it in more practical terms…

“What it means is it’s our job to keep the music going and growing 24-hours-a-day with programming on more than just terrestial radio. Bluegrass Country can now be heard in the Washington area on the new, improved 105.5FM signal, on WAMU HD 88.5-2, streaming online on www.bluegrasscountry.org and with the iPhone app.”

WAMU and the very active local bluegrass music community have inter-reacted through the years, as Ms. Daley reminds us …

“Bluegrass is more than just music on this Washington radio station. Bluegrass is a part of Washington’s history.”

Of course, BluegrassCountry is only a part of what WAMU has to offer. For information about the station and the many stories that it has covered visit its website.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.