by Dr. Swig McJigger
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana’s well-known warning particularly resonates with me in the penultimate month of the year, specifically during the annual fundraiser for radio station WMBR. I get carried away and pledge multiple times, soon thereafter chewing on life’s gristle as my scant funds are diverted to 88.1 FM; the pattern’s been repeated for the most of this millennium.
Thanks to the Noise, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the M.I.T.-based station’s stalwart volunteers, to wit, Eli Polonsky, Tuesday host of the Lost & Found program. Take it away Eli!
“I knew I wanted to get involved in radio because I just loved the form. I turned on a radio as a little kid in the ’60s and just loved what I heard. I knew it was something I really wanted to do, and I really didn’t know how to go about it. I did a show on this little internal station at my high school, which was basically a tape recorder going into the speakers in the cafeteria. I recorded it at home. When I was in junior high in the early ’70s I sort of boosted this little Radio Shack talk-through-your-radio thing, and my school friends could hear it about a quarter-mile around my dad’s house. I picked up two turntables, a tape deck, a microphone, and a little mixer, and created my first little radio station. It was so low wattage that it was legal.
I wanted to do radio, but really had no idea of how to go about it—wasn’t going about it. But then a friend whom I’d gone to high school with was working at M.I.T. and got involved with the radio station; this was the early ’80s, a good six years after graduating high school, and he was doing a morning show—and I read the news. He ended up training me there on the equipment. The show was called Sleepwalk, which was a ’60s music show from 7:00 to 9:00am, and that show, after a couple of name changes, ended up becoming Lost & Found—the show I do now. The name Sleepwalk didn’t work well at noon. In June of ’82 some people left the show and my friend ended up the producer. He was the scheduler of hosts for the show, and he gave me one of the days—that’s how I started being on a legitimate station—and I loved it.
There were some changes that went on around 1983 at WMBR; it was much easer for outside people as opposed to M.I.T. students to get involved because M.I.T. basically wasn’t paying attention to the station. Nobody was enforcing the M.I.T. student activities at ’MBR. It was supposed to be at least half-students, but when I joined , it was probably less than 10 percent students. But there were a lot of great people doing great radio. It was a little weird that all these people were just doing this radio on M.I.T.’s graces, and didn’t really “get” the basis behind it. There just seemed to be this free access and eventually that kind of hit the fan in 1983 when the station was essentially running out of money and started appealing to and communicating with M.I.T. That’s how they noticed what was going on. We did a big student recruitment drive that turned out really well. The station got a lot of talented new people, both on the air and behind the scenes—as far as doing technical work, which was always done by its own internal staff (students, alumni, and some by community people). But the station was built by students originally and it’s been maintained on that basis ever since. So anyway… we created a student morning show—a current rock show called Breakfast of Champions in the fall of 1983. To accommodate the new show, Sleepwalk moved to noon. I remember in the summer of ’83 the station didn’t even sign on ’til 10am, because there was this opening waiting for Breakfast of Champions to start in the fall. Although I’m not sure if they realized why.
Noise: You’re on Tuesdays—has this always been the case?
Eli: No, actually I took a couple of breaks from Lost & Found for different reasons. I was off the air in the late ’90s, and returned doing Thursdays. Then I took another break for about a year in 2004. I came back doing fill-ins, then doing every other Tuesday, trading it off with another person who eventually left and I ended up with my old slot full time.
The Noise then asked a question regarding the makeup of Lost & Found DJs who tend to be long-timers like Eli, prompting him to not: “It’s really difficult to get students involved with Lost & Found. We had some, but a combination that the music is so much older than they are and the fact that it’s the middle of the day when they have a lot of classes makes it difficult. The last one we had on a regular basis, a guy named James Sannino, graduated M.I.T. in 2008… he was really good, but since he left we haven’t been able to get another student on—we’ve had a few fill-ins here and there, but…”
The format of Lost & Found, in sketchiest terms, is rock, pop, and soul from the ’60s and early ’70s. The Noise asked Eli to expand on that, and share what he himself tends to offer on the show: “I play a lot of album tracks that weren’t singles. My own show features the artists and groups that are probably the best known (out of the Lost & Found spectrum), but I play tracks that aren’t played by the FM stations up the dial. I try to emulate what I remember hearing in the early days of progressive and underground FM radio here in Boston. Which in those days began on the commercial bandwidth in ’68 on WBCN. Although it was happening on M.I.T’s WTBS before that. WMBR used to be WTBS. I’m not as deep of a record collector, honestly, as other DJs on Lost & Found. I wish I had more time for bin digging, Internet digging, record conventions, all that, but I don’t. So a lot of the music I go with I either own or the station has it. I play about fifty percent my stuff and fifty percent the stations’. Some of the other guys use all their own records. And it’s great. As long as people are doing good shows, it doesn’t matter if its super-obscure or just semi-obscure. My guideline is just: not the same songs that are played on the big stations. Once in a while I might play a familiar song here and there if it happens to fit with a theme I’m doing. Or if a listener really wants to hear it. Or if I’m interviewing an artist for their sake I might want to play one of their big successful songs.
Subsequently, the Noise asked whether there is a distinct demarcation among the respective Lost & Found DJs’ bills of fare. Eli: “Each DJ has sort of their own style and their own genres that they specialize in. Some play more of a mixed bag than others. I play most of that extended album rock from the late ’60s/early ’70s, sort of the mainstream side of psychedelia, some folk and folk rock, blues rock, that sort of thing. We can’t play more than four songs by one artist or group during the program. That’s part of the federal law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It began 10 years ago and applies to streaming radio stations.” Rather than venture any further into the arcana of the industry, let’s let Eli proffer a more user-friendly summation of his beloved WMBR: “I call it the best fluke on the radio dial—both students and community people can come in with pretty much total freedom to do these unique shows. WMBR doesn’t care about the things like the Arbitron ratings. Our listeners are faithful and come through for us when we need it.” That last bit is a direct reference to the funds raised each November.
Tune into 88.1 on your FM dial, or go to wmbr.org. Lost & Found airs noon to two o’clock each weekday. Eli Polonsky mans the mic on Tuesdays.