Randi Anglin started “Crossroads,” a blues shows at WVBR-FM (93.5), in 1991. Three years later he was ready to move on with his career as a music photographer, and he approached the “traffic manager” at the station who was doing a lot of fill-in shifts for many shows at WVBR and asked him, “So, Frank, do you want to do a blues show?”
Almost twenty-two years later Frank James is still hosting Crossroads. He officially passed the two-decade mark in August 2014 still at the helm of the show, but long since moved on from making sure that all the commercials ran exactly when they were supposed to in the schedule at WVBR. He is now an electronics technician at Mettler Toledo High Speed, which manufactures and assembles industrial scales.
“I joined WVBR in 1987,” said James. “I had graduated from the radio and television program—as it was called at the time—at TC3, and I didn’t get a regular radio gig until several years later.
“I was originally a volunteer at WEOS up in Geneva. I was on the air for one day, and I thought I did so terribly that I never wanted to go back. They called me up and said, ‘Hey why don’t you come back?’” James had simply miscued a few records, a pretty common mistake in those vinyl days.
Given his high standards, what were James’s radio models? “I grew up in the area,” he said. “I was born and brought up in Newfield and listened to WTKO back then.” As a kid he was once a contest winner on WVBR and got to visit the station. “I sat there while my name got drawn out of John Taylor’s Stetson hat. Years later a good friend of mine who was also into radio told me, ‘WVBR has a training program to get people on the air,’ and I said, ‘You don’t have to be a Cornell student?’ and he said, ‘No,’ so I signed right up for it. And that was the start of it.”
James became the traffic manager in the late 1980s during the “Linden Avenue era” of the station. The studios moved from Collegetown to Mitchell Street where they remained until 2014 when a generous gift from Cornell alumnus and television commentator Keith Olbermann allowed them to purchase a building on Stewart Avenue, next to the Carriage House Café. James handled the business side of the Ithaca radio station for three years.
“Then a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to get involved in a new radio station in Elmira,” said James. “A start-up sounded pretty exciting. Unfortunately it didn’t last too long. After a couple years I came back [to WVBR] and was doing a lot of fill-in shows for Rockin’ Remnants, and Maiden Voyage, a jazz show on Saturday mornings, and FM Radio Tracks, the precursor of Vinyl Departure.”
“I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the blues at the time,” he said. “I got my exposure through basic ‘classic’ rock, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton and Cream. And, of course, from George Thoroughgood, when he put his first CDs out, he did a lot of Elmore James covers and that piqued my interest.” But he jumped at the opportunity to host Crossroads when Anglund offered him the regular shift.
Over the years he has developed favorite areas of the blues, including the Chicago style associated with Chess Records. And he has a soft spot of piano ‘barrel-house’ blues like Fats Waller and Sunnyland Slim. (One of his favorite television commercials was one that featured Professor Longhair’s music.) “I might break into a piano blues set whenever possible,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in Chicago. I wasn’t friends with [blues guitarist] Magic Sam. I’m just a kid from Newfield. Basically I knew the radio, but I was still learning the blues.”
Each hour of Crossroads—the show is on from 9 a.m. till noon at Saturday mornings—has a theme. James starts the morning with old classics, including a few acoustic tracks and more ‘modern stuff’ like Muddy Waters. He has decided that blues started in the Mississippi Delta, and he doesn’t try to get ethnomusicological by exploring the blues’ roots in West Africa. “I don’t want to get into the territory covered by other shows,” he said.
James did the show every week for many years and then six or seven years ago he asked “Miss Emm,” an old friend of his, if she would like to host the show on some weekends. Emm, who had lived in New Orleans and loved the blues, jumped at the chance.
“She loves the blues,” said James, “but she didn’t know radio very well, so she and I were like yin and yang. We fit together very well. Then, a few years later, she asked her co-worker David Cleveland if he’d like to do some shows. I said ‘The more the merrier.’”
The Internet has changed his relationship with the audience. “I think [Facebook] has helped the show a lot,” he said. “People can [write], ‘I heard this some time in the second hour,’ and it’s easier for me to look it up [after the show].” The Internet has also allowed him to get more information from people and to find more information about recording artists.
Although he plans the show in roughly thematic fashion, he doesn’t order all the tracks ahead of time, and he will often change course while he is listening to what he is playing.
“I’ve got a stack of records,” James said, “and I know the collection here really well. If someone has a request, I know whether we have it or not. And hearing other music inspires you and very often, I’ll go pawing through the drawers and say, ‘Oh this will go great after this one,’ whether it’s a chain of tempo or melodic themes. I do birthday tributes and things like that. It’s important to remain flexible while you’re doing the show.”
Why does he keep doing it? “It’s fun,” he said. “It’s keeps up that young person’s dream of ‘I want to be a radio DJ,’ which in the real world is getting increasingly hard to do. Here you’re picking your own CDs, not playing what the services have put in front of you.” §