Vin Scelsa Leaves the Airwaves
By Jon Michaud
Just before ten o’clock on Saturday night, Vin Scelsa concluded nearly fifty years on New York’s airwaves by playing Lou Reed’s “Goodnight Ladies,” a suitably bittersweet song with the refrain “It’s a lonely Saturday night,” a sentiment that perfectly summed up how fans of Scelsa’s long-running free-form show, “Idiot’s Delight,” felt after he signed off. Two hours earlier, Scelsa had opened his show with Sopwith Camel’s “Hello, Hello,” the first record he ever played on the air, in November, 1967, when he hosted “The Closet,” on WFMU at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey. “Goodnight Ladies” and “Hello, Hello” share a vaudevillian vibe and an outdated sensibility that were apt bookends for this finale. Scelsa followed Sopwith Camel with “Sunday Morning” by the Velvet Underground and Nico, which echoed the sixties pop of “Hello, Hello” while providing a bridge to the Reed track at the end of the evening: From hello to goodnight; from Saturday night to Sunday morning; from the obscure to the legendary. Such ligatures were Scelsa’s hallmark and stock in trade. Whether explicit or subtle, his segues were almost always unexpected and revealing. His listeners parsed them with exegetical glee.
“Idiot’s Delight” was a wonderful anachronism: unscripted, idiosyncratic, and unashamedly out of step with contemporary listening habits. Scelsa, a Jersey boy whose aspirations to join the Marist brothers were derailed by rock and roll, believed in the sacramental powers of his vocation. He improvised his playlists, following his whims, pursuing thematic links, frequently playing multiple versions of the same song to plumb the nuances of different interpretations. At times, he would talk a lot, riffing and prognosticating; at others, he’d retreat and play a half a dozen songs without saying a word. In the middle of Saturday’s broadcast, he strung together a representatively eclectic set that included the Jefferson Airplane, Vince Guaraldi, Bob Lind, Benny Goodman, the Beatles, and Fred Neil. Afterward, he explained that each song was a tribute to a former colleague from the heyday of free-form FM radio: Scott Muni, Dennis Elsas, and Alison Steele.
It is possible to see Scelsa’s entire career as one extended flight from the authoritarian controls of programmed commercial radio. From his college days at WFMU (which remains defiantly free-form to this day), he moved on to WBAI before eventually becoming a d.j. at WABC-FM (later rebranded as WPLJ). In the early seventies, as WPLJ management began to curtail its hosts’ freedom to choose their own music, he moved to WNEW, where, from 1973 to 1982, he was the voice of late nights. In 1985, he joined WXRK (K-Rock). It was there that he started calling his show “Idiot’s Delight.” Howard Stern, who anchored the morning show on K-Rock, liked to quip, “They should call it ‘Idiots in the Studio.’ ” (Off the air, Stern respected Scelsa.) When K-Rock changed format, in 1995, Scelsa returned to WNEW on Sunday nights. From there, in 2001, he moved to WFUV, the voice of Fordham University. It is fitting that he ended his career pretty much where he began it, at a New York-area public-radio station attached to an institution of higher learning.
Given his methods, it was no surprise that Scelsa balked at the restrictions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998—especially the cap on the number of consecutive songs he could play by a given artist. Initially he kept his show off the Internet rather than bowing to the terms of the D.M.C.A. Later, he found ways to circumvent the legislation’s limits, including having artists perform live on the air. His ethos ran conspicuously against the user-oriented way that music is disseminated in the digital age. With the nearly boundless resources of Spotify and iTunes at our disposal, we can all be our own curators now, but how many of us can match the creativity, curiosity, and range of a d.j. such as Scelsa? A onetime road manager for Townes Van Zandt, Scelsa had a knack for discovering new talent. Norah Jones and Laura Marling both made their U.S. radio débuts on his show.
I came to Scelsa relatively late, during his second run on WNEW. At that time, I was living in a basement in Astoria with neither a television set nor an Internet connection—the perfect mark for a welcoming radio voice. I happened to be listening one night in 1998, just days after Linda McCartney died. Scelsa turned the show into an impromptu meditation on fame, marriage, mortality, and, of course, music. It was like eavesdropping on a wake. A large part of the draw for me was that writers appeared on his show as frequently as musicians. Over the years, he had Paul Auster, Richard Price, Nicole Krauss, Dan Chaon, Pete Hamill, and others as guests. The interviews were lengthy and leisurely. Often the writer got to play d.j. In those days, “Idiot’s Delight” had no set end time. Scelsa would come on the air at eight and not wind things up until three or four in the morning. It was an after-hours salon to which no invitation was required.
Though for many years he had a twice-a-week midday show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, Scelsa was always, to my mind, a nighttime presence. His companionship was steady, ruminative, and intimate. Scelsa didn’t scream. Rarely, in fact, did he ever raise his voice. If, as Nick Paumgarten once wrote, sports radio’s “Mike and the Mad Dog” was “the sound that New York makes when it is talking to itself,” then “Idiot’s Delight” was the sound of the city whispering in its sleep. Scelsa joked that he chose to retire because the other career-ending outcomes (getting fired or dying on air) were far less palatable. In this final decision, as in everything else he did on the radio, he refused to let someone else call the shots.