JENKINS TWP. — It was pure luck that George Graham returned home to Carbondale after graduating from Duke University — lucky for him and lucky for WVIA.
Graham graduated in 1972 with a degree in electrical engineering and four years of on-air broadcast experience at the university in North Carolina. It just so happened that same year the public broadcasting organization for Northeastern Pennsylvania was planning to start a radio station.
“It was a bit of a coincidence. … I was fully expecting to find a job in North Carolina because I developed a lot of friends there,” said Graham. “But I wanted to come and see the facilities at WVIA.”
So, he toured the WVIA television station and was introduced to the chief engineer.
“He said, ‘You know, we’re looking for somebody. We’re going to put a radio station on the air,’” recalled Graham. “I said: ‘Oh, really? Well I have just done that.’”
While he was at Duke, Graham said, there were several students who already had major-market broadcasting experience and also “a good deal of ambition.” “So while I was there,” he said, “we took what was essentially a campus-restricted AM radio station and put it on the air as a commercial FM station by literally buying a commercial station in town.”
Decades of experience
So, with a college degree and four years college radio experience under his belt, Graham helped get WVIA-FM on its feet. Today, 40 years later, he is senior producer and host of “Mixed Bag,” “All That Jazz” and “Homegrown Music” on WVIA Radio, and the “Homegrown Music Concerts” on WVIA-TV.
“George is the type of a person who is one of these low-key individuals, very unassuming, and he cranks out extraordinary work, and that’s the way he likes it,” said colleague and morning on-air host Lisa Mazzarella.
“He’s the night hawk, and he knows every single release on every single piece of vinyl in this library. It’s almost like an encyclopedic knowledge,” said Mazzarella. “Aside from that, he’s a wonderful colleague.”
Chris Norton, WVIA’s vice president of radio, said it’s “very unusual and a real blessing for us to have a fully qualified broadcast engineer who is also a remarkable on-air talent and music producer. It’s an amazing package we get in George.”
Norton noted that Graham has engineered CDs that have been commercially released. And some of the area bands that he’s produced, just as a way to give them a chance and a platform, have turned out to be national recording acts.
“His own website lists all the artists. The hundreds and hundreds of acts who have performed on his “Homegrown Music’ series is another thing to celebrate,” Norton said.
A cultural pioneer
Graham said it’s a pleasure to see new local artists and give them a venue. “I probably take a degree of pride in the production of the ‘Homegrown Music’ series and the fact that we’ve created such a big body of work; it’s become a real archive of the regional music scene,” Graham said.
Area reggae artist George Wesley said he first was a guest on “Homegrown Music” in the mid-1970s with a band called Dead Branch Band, “a Grateful Dead tribute band before there were any tribute bands.”
“For me, it was my first opportunity to be taken seriously and to get my music on the air,” Wesley said. “And it’s been that way for countless other musicians.” Wesley said Graham’s ability to find and showcase talented singer/songwriters “turned me on to talent I never knew existed in the area. … He’s very much a cultural pioneer.”
Thought put into music
Graham believes the work he and others do at WVIA-FM radio also “helps preserve the potential of the medium in the current environment in which commercial radio finds itself having to make sacrifices — cut back and reduce staffing and pile up simulcast stations and reduce widths of play lists. It’s kind of sad,” he said.
He doesn’t hold commercial broadcasters to blame, but rather market forces that are driving a medium that faces a great deal of competition. “Anyone with an MP3 player or an iPhone or anything like that can get all kinds of programs.”
He’s proud of the way he puts together a show, given all the automation in today’s radio market. “Each block of music is organized into a set,” he said. “It’s theme-based or genre-based and I put a great deal of thought into the order of the music and how it flows.”
Graham believes the business has changed a great deal for commercial radio, but surprisingly little for public radio.
“On commercial radio, they’re competing on trying to get people to listen so they can sell advertising. They’re having contests and basically trying to bribe people to listen. Commercial radio is different degrees of more hits and more of this and more of that, but it’s basically the same thing — a relatively limited swath of the music world,” Graham said. “We have to do programming that’s different and good enough for people actually to want to support.”