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Remembering when WKSU put its stamp on "Fresh Air"

Fresh Air bw.png
James D. Fisher
When student DJs like Jeff Wootton and Lois Crane took to the WKSU airwaves overnight from 1971-81, they spun an eclectic mix of music heard nowhere else but on "Fresh Air." The show aired its final broadcast 40 years ago: December 30, 1981.

WKSU listeners can tune into "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross every weekday at 2 and 8 p.m. But -- for an earlier generation of Northeast Ohio music lovers, “Fresh Air” meant something completely different. WKSU’s own “Fresh Air” came to an end exactly 40 years ago tonight.

Jeff Wootton was one of dozens of student DJs who brought listeners the "progressive alternative" every night on WKSU. Starting April 11, 1971, the show was an aural kaleidoscope of sounds which weren't heard anywhere else on the radio -- and usually wouldn't be for months or years, until the rest of the industry caught up to them. Electric Miles Davis might segue into early Genesis, which would be followed by a whole side from an imported German album whose name was hard to pronounce.

A one-hour re-creation of what "Fresh Air" sounded like is available here:

Fresh Air: A re-creation

There were even interviews with artists such as Philip Glass and Ultravox in the spin-off show, “The Industrial Wasteland.”

Wootton maintains the archive of "Fresh Air" material, and provided much of the audio for this story. In 2017, he reflected on the show's history:

In 2020, former General Manager John Perry reflected on the end of the show, saying, "we really had no audience [on WKSU], except for a program called 'Fresh Air,' which students did from about 11 o'clock until 1 o'clock in the morning. It was progressive rock -- not the 'Fresh Air' that people are used to nowadays. And it had a little bit of an audience, just not a supportive one." However, in this 1978 documentary about the show, it was noted that the program brought in about a quarter of the $30,000 raised during WKSU's then-most-recent fund drive. DJ Mark Bloch was an undergraduate Broadcasting major at the time, and recalls creating the piece for his Broadcast Documentary class.

"What Is Fresh Air?" -- 1978 documentary

Many acts came to the attention of Northeast Ohio listeners thanks to Kent State — whether through "Fresh Air," or the school's convocation center, which was the area's largest indoor arena for rock concerts for many years. The 2019 book "Small Town, Big Music," chronicled that influence.
And DJ Paul Ciminero has posted this complete broadcast from January 8, 1981, online.
WKSU’s "Fresh Air" ended its decade-long run on December 30, 1981.

Jon Eckerle
WKSU broadcast from different locations in the 1970s -- its dedicated broadcast center would not open until 1992. Here, "Fresh Air" host John Wasylko prepares for a show in what was then the production studio.

Wootton has also produced an oral history of "Fresh Air," and included this list of known former hosts and programmers from the show.

John Anthony

John Awarski

Leslie Ballard (Kepple)

Alan Bartholet

Steve Bage

Mark Bloch

Rob Boucher

Don Brys

Melinda Burns

Bryan Chandler

Paul Ciminero

Lois Crane (Wootton)

Roy Couch

Marty DeFranco

Joseph Dick “JD”

Jeff Esworthy

Ralf Ferrara

Jim Fisher

“Rebel” Flanagan

Mike Flaster

Dave Fuente

Jeff Gelb

Susan Goodwin

Ray Gribble

Bruce Herrold

Marty Hulin

Mark Janousek

Ed Jonke “EJ”

Jim Krivanek

Tim Kuss

Russell Liesenheimer

Dave Lenahan

Larry Leventhal

Bob Liske “Tuna"

Louise Mazure

Phil Meadows

Rich Nageotte

Carl Palmer

Bill Probert

Mike Reisz

Chuck Ruby

Chuck Rutzen

Molly Sacksteder

Chris Sywyj

Paul Sedivy

David Slutsky

Doug Smith

Evan Smith

Amy Smith McGuire

Evelyn St. Claire

Al Stann

Shelly Stile

Denise Stevenson (Higgins)

Craig Sullivan

Harry Suttmiller

Cris Sywyj

John Teeple “Honest John”

Debbie Ullman

Mark Urycki

Jim VanCleef

John Wasylko

Patrice Watson

Susan Westfall

Cheridan Westmorland

Jeff Wootton

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.