April 29, a Wednesday, came and went. Sun, wind. Lockdown. For those listening to 100.1 on their FM dials, everyone was treated to a time machine of sorts, back 40 years to the seasons of 1980 and a flurry of voices from the past four decades.
“We were blessed not knowing what we didn’t know,” recalled Sasha Gillman, now in her ninth decade. The local radio station’s beginnings began with a whim on her husband Jerry’s part. The couple moved north from New York City in the 1970s.
“A, he was crazy, and B, he was very smart,” said Sasha Gillman. “We got a house, and Jerry was trying to put an entertainment center together for our living room when he realized he couldn’t get a radio station on the dial. So he decided to make one.”
Both Gillmans came out of media, he as a PR man with a specialty in politics and she in advertising. They bought the land for their home in 1970 and then began building, going back and forth to New York City with their young kids while working to move an existing station’s signal from Delhi to the Hudson Valley.
In the day, radio was considered a big business. The process of establishing the license for what would become WDST seemed endless.
“We bought a house on Tinker Street to fit the station into, and had friends start getting it ready while we went back and forth to Washington to straighten things out with the FCC,” Gillman continued.
Straightening things out with the Federal Communications Commission took time. “We were new to radio but very bright in matters of the world, and hired a consultant to do a business plan so we could get investors, but then discovered that as soon as you file with the FCC you get competition and others come in and try to file on top of your application. The process took well over five years, and it all swallowed our lives completely.”
Word of what the Gillmans were up to moved quick through the community. The idea of a station also started drawing people north from New York City, just as the music industry was also being attracted.
The search for staff
“I had come to Woodstock to open the Joyous Lake, and then the store Sunfrost with my cousin Barry,” added Richard Fusco, on-and-off WDST station manager over the years. “One evening I was watching Woodstock’s public-access radio station and fooling around on the radio dial. I heard the station at the low end of the FM dial.”
Fusco asked the town to give him four hours each afternoon to create an audio channel, and the result was an early version of Woodstock radio. “Later I got a call from Jerry Gillman, around 1977 or so, and we stayed in touch until he got the license all clear by the end of 1979,” he said. “I started working for WDST in January of 1980.”
Before going on the air that winter, Fusco hit up everyone he’d gotten to know in the record business for LPs. He had built a library of music others could only envy.
Sasha Gillman talked local businesses into advertising, and then reached further afield into Kingston and surrounding towns for support. Jerry Gillman started reaching out around town for staff.
“Mostly it was amateurs like ourselves, and we all learned as we went along,” Sasha remembered. “There were lots of musicians around town, people with passions. Jerry’s idea was to use real musicians talking about the music they loved, and he’d concentrate on the news, which he loved.”
Named music director, Fusco was given a time slot to spin records. Leslie Gerber, who wrote liner notes for classic recordings, did a classics show. Eric Andersen and Jan Whitmore did a folk show, as did John Herald and Cindy Cashdollar. Betty MacDonald spun jazz.
Jerry Gillman would read classic literature for an hour each morning. Doug Grunther was given a daily talk show where he’d interview Woodstockers and others who passed through town, from film critic Judith Crist to comedians Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. He’d come in as an investor, and also had a music show.
“I was living in Manhattan working as a tennis instructor in New Jersey and wanted to get into radio when my piano teacher mentioned that he knew this couple who were starting a station in Woodstock,” Grunther recalled. “I went over to their apartment and an hour later gave them a check and they said, ‘You’re part of the team.’ They gave me the keys to their house in Woodstock. I was their first program director.”
Grunther still does his talk show once a week. “I started off doing an oldies show, but after eight weeks got tired of it and asked if I could do a talk show five days a week.”
Piles and piles of records
Ron Van Warmer had just moved to Woodstock when the Gillmans were getting their station under way. His brother Randy had a recording contract with Bearsville Records.
“I heard there was going to be a radio station and started going to where the studios were being built every day, helping out wherever I could,” Van Warmer said. Like Fusco, he started bringing in piles of records for the station library. “When they started doing some test broadcasting they had a news broadcaster who had a sudden breakdown and ran out of the building. Jerry was freaking out so I just said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and he asked who I was, but then he pulled a bunch of news out of the AP ticket-tape machine and had me read it. They offered me $90 a week to do the news. I asked if I could do a music show as well, but they wouldn’t pay for that.”
News, at that point, ran on the hour every hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., plus a half-hour news documentary every week.
Brian Hollander, editor of Woodstock Times until the recent coronavirus crisis, talked about how he’s worked a number of radio jobs around the area before WDST, including stints at WKNY. He’d gotten a license, which was necessary at the time, and spoken with Gillman about his plans a couple of years before his station hit the air. Finally, when things were going on the air, Betty MacDonald suggested Hollander for a two-hour country-music slot, after which he also took on the 5:30 to 10 a.m. morning slot that nobody wanted, and then an evening jazz show to give MacDonald some time off for her performing.
“I lived right across the street from the studio,” said Hollander. “It was a ton of fun.” He could play anything, talk about anything, and occasionally end up with a guest like Sonny Rollins sitting across from him.
“I’d put a long track on and run over to the deli for breakfast. Out of my deejay experience, some local Democrats asked me to run for state senate, after which I came back and started doing the news, then got a job in Albany.”
Changes in ownership
It was all nicknamed The Bulldog, named for the Gillman’s pooch by Fusco. Highlights came quickly: a state senatorial debate in the studio, visits by governor Mario Cuomo and, on Grunther’s show, yuppie Abbie Hoffman when he was still underground. The station won state broadcast awards three years in a row before Sasha got tired of the endless work and stress.
“Someone made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, that gave us a chance to return investors’ money threefold,” she recalled.
That buyer was Richard Landy, a “businessman firstly, secondly and thirdly” as Grunther put it, who wanted to augment the stations he owned in Vermont and Pennsylvania. Three years later, the station sold again to its owner ever since, Gary Chetkof.
“WDST came onto my radar in 1992 when I was working as a lawyer for Metropolitan Broadcasting, which owned WNEW, and the program director, told me this cool station that operated out of a house was up for sale,” Chetkof said. “I thought, ‘What a cool name, Woodstock,’ and figured there’d be a time when satellite and Internet radio came to be and that name could draw. “I’d been up to the town for a tourist day, and found it beautiful and quaint, but also close to Manhattan. And there were hiccups getting the sale lined up, but then I had it and my big thought was, ‘Holy cow, here I am trained as a lawyer and leaving New York and my legal career to run a small business in the country.’”
Just as Landy started to rein in some of the more eclectic elements of The Bulldog, Chetkof felt changes were necessary to build listenership and income. A loyal audience for quirky is one thing, he said, but not sustainable, and often programmed for not many people.
“We did a lot of juggling of programming,” Chetkof said. Grunther was shifted to once a week. Nic Harcourt, who would later move to larger markets in Los Angeles, took the morning show.
News was consolidated, at the time, with WKNY, which Chetkof had also bought from Landy. And very shortly, all got wrapped up in the leadup to the massive Woodstock ‘94 festival, which WDST was able to stream as one of the first radio stations in that pioneering field at the time.
Fusco, who’d moved on from the station during the Landy years to work for a new media company, came back once Chetkof was rebranding everything and started working on a series of projects, including Radio Woodstock’s later move into producing concerts and festivals, including the Mountain Jam franchise, which began as a WDST anniversary event in 2005.
A sense of community
Jimmy Buff, now executive director of the noncommercial Radio Kingston, came up from New York and WNEW in 1993, serving as production director until he became program director the following spring. He got spooked on Upstate living, returned to the City, but kept coming back several times.
“We had real characters there; Dave Dowd, Big Joe Fitz, Mark Zipp, Ellen Z. It was always fun, with amazing musicians coming in all the time, great events, and a great sense of community,” Buff said. “I have great affection for Radio Woodstock and hope they ride this current storm out so they can continue what they’ve been doing so well for 40 years now.”
Van Warmer also moved on more than once. He went with the Gillmans as they started a second station in Wurtsboro (WZAD, The Wizard) and then came back in the 1990s as the overnight man before settling in, most recently, first as station manager and then doing a weekly show.
“It’s always been my fun job,” he said. He remembered the old house’s kitchen meetings, the bulldog’s snores on air, the sense of everybody working at their most passionate.
Fusco spoke about those early years of chaos and community, and also the more recent years, with not only a greater sense of Woodstock as a brand but also a continuing sense of community driven by WDST’s independence.
The station continues use of live deejays in a time of increasing automation. “Radio needs that other dimension, that sense of providing and being part of a community, to really work,” Fusco said. “That’s something WDST has always had.”
Gillman and Hollander both keep the station ready to play at all times on their radio dials. Everyone we spoke with was full of enough great anecdotes to fill several books.
Waiting for normal
Chetkof admitted, at the end, that the current crisis has been difficult in terms of advertising income. It’s even put a crimp in the listener support the station inaugurated in recent years, which would normally involve an outreach drive around now.
As for the anniversary, plans for a big concert in Poughkeepsie with Death Cab for Cutie have had to be scrapped, just as Mountain Jam has.
“It was fun having all our old deejays send in sets on the anniversary itself,” Chetkof said. “We’re also looking into planning things next year when everything returns to normal.”
Many Hudson Valley and Woodstock commemorations, from Byrdcliffe to Robert Fulton and Hendrick Hudson’s journeys, ended up differently from what had been planned. There’s precedent in the current postponement of Radio Woodstock’s anniversary.
Did Chetkof, who’s moving the station from its longstanding digs in Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Studios in Bearsville to an old church along Route 28 in Hurley, have any regrets he’d ever left lawyering in New York City?
He laughed. “You know how much of our staff’s been here 20 years now?” he said. “You hear how many came back to celebrate our fortieth? Whatever happens, this has been nothing but fun.”