While her husband was studying medicine in the mid-70s, Wanda Fischer had a little time to kill. His education kept him away for long hours, so she began volunteering her time at a local radio station in Worcester, where she helped with their program guide.
Fischer quickly developed a reputation for her knowledge of folk music, having been a folk performer herself around the coffee houses of Boston. When the station’s “folk music guy” migrated to California, they offered his gig to Fischer. “I said, ‘I’ve never done radio before,’ and I got all anxious and nervous,” she remembers. Fortunately, she overcame her apprehension. This year, Fischer will commemorate her 40th year with Albany’s WAMC, a regional public radio serving New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
After she spent several years cutting her teeth at the Massachusetts radio station, Fischer and her husband relocated to the Hudson Valley for his residency. She started volunteering behind the scenes at WAMC, toiling in vain to get back on-air. “We were thinking about moving back to Massachusetts so that I could get back on the air,” she recalls.
Then came a lucky break. Fischer received a call from WAMC asking if she had any tapes from her broadcasts at the Worcester station. After reviewing her work, they offered her a show on Saturday evenings—right after Garrison Keillor’s famous variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. “I met [Keillor] a number of years ago, and I told him he was my opening act,” Fischer says, “and he thought that was hysterical.”
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Four decades later, A Prairie Home Companion is no longer, but Fischer is still going strong with her folk-themed broadcast, The Hudson River Sampler, via WAMC. She is grounded in the rich tradition of folk music (she grew up seeing Johnny Cash and June Carter at family gatherings, only realizing they were famous after spotting them on television) while also holding space for the next generation of performers. “I spend the week listening to new stuff that comes in,” says Fischer, who retired from her day job in 2014. “I try to keep up with it, but it’s kind of hard, ‘cause there’s a lot of great new stuff coming out.” Oftentimes, she’ll listen to CD submissions on the speakers of her Subaru Forester, then play standout tracks on Sampler.
While a handful of her broadcasts are pre-recorded, Fischer much prefers to host her show live, allowing listeners to call in with requests. In these instances, she puts her sharp curatorial senses to the test. “Let’s say somebody calls in for a Gordon Lightfoot song,” Fischer primes. “I will then try to build [the program] around that. And that means, sometimes, I’m running up and down the hallway pulling a CD that I hadn’t planned to play.” She even has a cast of regulars—she recognizes them by their voices—who call in with songs weekly.
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Fischer’s powers of expression are not limited to broadcast radio; in 2017, she released her first novel, Empty Seats. It’s a coming-of-age story of three precocious baseball players who have earned spots on a minor league baseball team, full of “triumphs and tears, challenges and championships.”
It’s no surprise that Fischer would choose to write about baseball—she’s a lifelong Red Sox fan, and even served as the “guest in the chair” for one game in 2012, employing her chops from live radio to call the game. Her interest in writing about baseball, too, is anything but new. “When I was younger, I had wanted to be a sportswriter,” Fischer says. “I ran into a guy who played for the California Angels who talked me out of it. He said, ‘The guys don’t want women in the clubhouse.’ So, when I retired, I said, ‘I’m gonna write a baseball novel.’ And I did.”
To celebrate Fischer’s 40 years of hosting the Sampler, the station’s performing arts center (dubbed “The Linda”) will host a performance by several prominent folk musicians, including Anne Hills, Reggie Harris, and Christine Lavin. Tickets are on sale for $25. If you can’t make it in-person, don’t fret—the performance will be broadcasted live during the Sampler’s normal time slot.
Interested in Wanda and The Hudson River Sampler? You can tune in on your radio (90.3 FM) or stream the show at your convenience. For a little taste of what the show is like, check out this episode from June.