Folk DJ spinning after 25 years

Ben Plassard

Jim Blum, radio host for WKSU-FM, has been with the station for more than 25 years. Blum hosts folk music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. LAUREN ANDERSON | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Steve Schirra

For more than 25 years, folk music has been a staple of WKSU, and Jim Blum has been there for every note of every song.

From the casual listener to the die-hard fan, audiences have always felt at ease knowing Blum was behind the music, taking them on a weekend journey into the heart of folk music.

Now, as Blum turns 50, and the demands of programming a radio station and a 24-hour streaming Web site grow, the man Judy Collins calls a “national treasure” seems to be so caught up in his work that the music and job may be losing its allure.

Blum puts in 60-hour weeks at WKSU. He coordinates all of the folk-music programming for the station as well as folkalley.com, a 24-hour streaming folk Web site. He selects every song and every artist that will be played and then meticulously creates a playlist for every second of airtime.

Strange, but the man whose name is practically synonymous with folk music did not start out listening to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.

Blum, born in Chardon, grew up to the sounds of The Beatles, like most in his generation, and as he entered the 1970s, his musical interest moved toward progressive rock, namely Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. As the punk movement of the late 70s loomed, Blum discovered the music that would come to define his life.

“I heard the New Grass Revival on a show called Folk Festival USA on WKSU,” Blum said. “It caught my ear and just blew me away.”

New Grass Revival featured Sam Bush, a folk legend and a friend of Blum’s. This epiphany would set Blum’s career in motion.

Blum had no radio experience prior to being hired at WKSU in 1980. Before WKSU, Blum worked as a landscaper and an actor, and played in a bluegrass band. Ironically, Blum’s first job at WKSU was as a host for a Saturday night bluegrass program called “Hills and Home.”

“It was between me and a professor for the job,” said Blum of his first on-air position. “They gave it to me because they thought I would stick around longer.”

Twenty-six years later, Blum has gone from part-time DJ to full-time folk connoisseur. He built up a strong folk following by hosting his weekend folk shows, and has helped make the station what it is today.

“Jim is a huge reason behind the success of the station,” said Bob Burford, public relations director for WKSU. “There is a real attraction to the programming of his shows.”

His weekend folk shows are so popular that in 2001, Blum started working on what now is known as folkalley.com. Folkalley.com went online in 2003 and broadcasts folk music and live folk performances 24 hours a day.

“We were pioneering folk radio for 14 hours a week and (with folkalley.com we) knew we could do it and be good at it,” Blum said. “It is both high tech and grassroots at the same time.”

Currently, folkalley.com is heard in 120 countries and has a quarter of a million registered listeners. Blum said this number is impressive, considering there is not much advertising done. Blum credits the growing technology of WKSU, saying “you can either ride along or steer. We steer.”

Along with folkalley.com, Blum has had to take on more responsibilities. Blum contends he owns thousands of CDs and did not buy any of them. They all have been given to him or sent to him by artists or record companies. Blum, being the programmer, has had to listen to all of these CDs at some point, a task he insists is not as easy as it sounds.

“I am constantly listening to music wherever I go and during whatever I am doing,” Blum said. “It is to the point where I can’t listen to music for fun anymore. I have given up the opportunity to listen to music for enjoyment.”

If Blum is sounding a little disillusioned, he is. The rigors of working 60 hours a week are starting to wear him down, and he is not afraid to say it.

“I saw a quote once and it said ‘I am not my job,’ well right now I am,” Blum said. “It started out as a hobby and became my job and now it is consuming me.”

Blum said he wants his life to be less complex. He would like to volunteer more to pet shelters and other causes and admits he would like to take a vacation someday. He owns more than 10 dogs and cats – some rescued from animal shelters – and still resides in Chardon, something he does not like to point out because people drive up to his house to give him CDs.

Opportunity to make life simpler does not appear to be happening anytime soon for Blum. Besides his WKSU duties, Blum also wears what he calls a “creative hat” when he picks the line-up for the annual Kent State Folk Festival. For this year’s 40-year anniversary, he promises a legend is coming with a band he usually does not tour with (he gave a sheepish grin when asked if it was Bruce Springsteen).

With all of these duties, being the voice and face of folk music to so many people is no easy job. But even though the years and growing responsibilities seem to be wearing Blum down, being so important to so many still excites him. He said he still enjoys his job and bringing folk music not just to Ohio, but the world.

Contact off-campus entertainment reporter Ben Plassard at [email protected]