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Legendary radio career framed at WBFO

UB Idol: Tommie Babbs wows the crowd and judges with “Always and Forever.”

Jim Santella reputedly became the first and only disc jockey to quit while on the air when he walked off the job at WYSL-FM 103.3 during the early 1970s when the station abruptly instituted a restrictive format for the DJs. Photo: KENNETH MACDONALD

  • “No one ever taught me how to do real radio, so I felt real comfortable with my nose touching the microphone.”

    Jim Santella
    DJ, WBFO 88.7 FM
Published: August 5, 2009

To listeners who only know him for his work over the past decade, Jim Santella is the voice of the blues on WBFO 88.7 FM every weekend, working the mojo of Muddy, Buddy, B.B., Koko and everybody who’s anybody on the blues scene nationally and locally.

But to those with deeper listening roots, Santella was the voice of underground radio, introducing listeners to now classic rock bands, and before that the voice of jazz when WBFO was in its fledgling years.

He also has been a voice of reason, one of the most natural and knowledgeable disc jockeys who ever made his way across the FM dial. “No one ever taught me how to do real radio,” he says of his intimate style, “so I felt real comfortable with my nose touching the microphone.”

Santella was always fascinated by radio and, as many other youngsters did in the post-war era, built a crystal radio set. When he was 13, he talked his way into appearing on a Saturday morning teenage disc jockey radio show hosted by Bernie Sandler on WEBR. That was his introduction to the airwaves.

After acing high school, Santella entered UB in 1956 as a psychology major. When that became a struggle in his sophomore year, he left to gig around town as a jazz drummer. Then, Uncle Sam came calling with draft notice in hand. After the service, Santella returned to UB, this time as a music major—later, he would also try a stint as a theater major. His roommate, Joel DiBartolo, a bassist who later would secure a 20-year gig with the band on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” introduced Santella to his cousin, Greg Perla, who was doing a jazz show on WBFO. The meeting led to Santella beginning his radio career in 1965 with his own jazz show.

“Anything I know about radio, I got to work out at WBFO,” he says with a nod to the constant presence the station and the university have played in his career. “That was the time where the groundwork of (station manager) Bill Siemering and public radio was being set up. Public radio was developed at WBFO.”

Santella’s jazz show came after a program on quantum physics and a show on Appalachian music—block programming, he recalls, that wasn’t exactly designed to keep an audience from one hour to the next. Then toward the end of 1967, what came to be known as the underground began to rise up at WBFO.

“We went off the air at 11:30, so they decided they would extend the hours. They wanted to get a bunch of people who were willing to do a show of anything they wanted to, any kind of music, from 11:30 until they got tired. If they felt like doing an hour show, fine, then put the sign-off in and close down the transmitter. It was free-form. It was going to be called ‘Extensions,’” he recounts. “At the time, I was the jazz disc jockey. I knew about rock ‘n roll, I liked it, but I really didn’t know much about it. That’s when I first started learning about rock ‘n roll.”

Turns out he was a fast study. It was the beginning of album rock with cuts and whole sides being played from artists like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane, along with anything and everything that suited the DJ’s fancy. And as for nouveau rocker Santella, it was a blend of fancies to match his eclectic interests.

“The fun part, I thought, was to put together arcane kinds of connections,” he recalls. “For instance, I would play something from the first Cream album, follow it with Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and then some folk music. It was that kind of free-form radio.”

In 1968, WYSL-FM 103.3 (now called the Edge) decided to adopt the new progressive underground format and recruit college students as disc jockeys. Santella got the job and began his commercial radio career on Jan. 9, 1969

“Everyone suddenly discovered all this music,” he recalls. “We played Elton John when Elton John was dangerous to play. It was the time of Frank Zappa, the Who, Genesis at the beginning that gave those bands the opportunity to be heard. There was no such thing as what you couldn’t play. We didn’t know anything about radio. We weren’t really disc jockeys. We were college kids who were hippies. It was my choice—so much so that I thought it was my right to play what I wanted to. Since (station management) didn’t pay much attention, you knew how to get away with playing what you thought was best.”

Actually, it wasn’t all his choice. Santella says that being on campus everyday—he also held a full-time job as stack supervisor in UB’s Lockwood Library for 11 years—he came to know what college students wanted to hear because they told him. “It was an exciting and significant time on campus. I had never been as tapped into my audience as at that time.”

The station made Santella’s reputation as a knowing purveyor of great new sounds and a wry commentator on the fiery political scene. It all came to a screeching halt four years later when Santella reputedly became the first and only disc jockey to quit while on the air.

“I remember waking up that morning and listening to the radio station and it didn’t sound like my radio station. The music was different. I called the jock on the air and asked what happened. He said they came in and reduced the library. We had about 10,000 albums and they removed all but about 500. The management wanted to get rid of the people on the air because we were thought to be not professional,” he remembers.

The die was cast for Santella who was determined to make a statement against the new restrictive format by walking off at the beginning of his 9 p.m.-1 a.m. show that night. “The date for me was significant—April 24, 1972—which just happened to be my birthday. I said (management) has the right to do what they want because it’s their station, but I also have the right to express myself. And I knew what I was going to play when I walked off the air—a Jefferson Airplane song called “Lather” (“Lather was 30 years old today, they took away all of his toys…”).

Word on the street was that Santella would never work in Buffalo radio again. He had his library job to fall back on and a month later returned to the air on WBFO with a rock ‘n roll show. Contrary to any anticipated burned bridges, however, over the next 25 years he proceeded to travel up and down the local FM dial, from 97 to 98.5 to, yes, 103.3 again, to 104, to 107.7—with a couple of AM gigs along the way—returning to 88.7 in 1997, where he has held blues court since.

Santella feels he has come full circle in his long radio career. A product of Buffalo’s East Side, he grew up in an environment steeped in rhythm-and-blues and gospel, and recalls appearances on the South Campus with such legendary blues figures as John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf, interviews with B.B. King, and his contributions to advancing the blues community here.

In the meantime, Santella finally earned degrees at UB after, as he says, accumulating credit hours (more than 300 over 32 years) like they were going out of style. His interest in film and video—scripting and shooting—earned him an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s in media studies.

Santella lives with his wife, Mary Lou, in a comfortable home near the North Campus. Although he says he has yet to use his degrees, he continues to employ his own master’s in communication—words and music—that he has earned over a lifetime of broadcasting to generations of Western New Yorkers.