The passing of the Saturday night blues torch on WBFO-FM 88.7 began last week when program host Jim Santella hung up his black leather beret after more than four decades in local radio.
The second part plays out from 7 to 11 tonight as broadcaster Pat Feldballe takes a seat behind the microphone that Santella held for 15 years. As Santella explained, the time had come for him to retire.
“What do you do when you’re too old to rock and roll and too young to die?” asked Santella, inspired by the title of a 1976 Jethro Tull album. “I thought I had to get out at some point, and I wanted to get out at the top of my game – or at least somewhere in the middle. The time had come.
“There are some health issues that make it harder for me to do a show,” he continued. “I’ve always been someone who comes to the station prepared. That’s good, but once you’re prepared, you have to deliver it as well. I did not think I was doing the show that I wanted to.”
Santella said he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“I do not shake. I do not quiver,” he said. “The only manifestation is that I get tired quicker, and matters of balance as well. It hasn’t really affected me that much except for the fatigue. I start getting tired around 7 o’clock.”
Santella remains on WBFO with “Theater Talk,” a prerecorded program with critic Tony Chase that airs Friday mornings.
Throughout more than 45 years in local radio, Santella’s signature was a warmhearted voice, according to WBFO station manager Jim Ranney.
“In addition to knowing the blues as good as he did, and being able to share that knowledge with his listeners, what really set Jim Santella apart was his warmth on the radio,” said Ranney. “Everyone who listened felt like Jim was talking just to him. You can’t teach that. Either you have it or you don’t, and Jim had it.”
Santella was born on Buffalo’s East Side. His childhood neighborhood – near Sycamore and Spring streets – was instrumental in shaping his musical taste.
“When I was a kid, I lived across the street from an African-American church,” he said. “On Sunday morning, all this great music was coming out of the church. In a way it was like having Aretha Franklin waking you up.
“I went to a mostly African-American grade school, and kids would bring in their records,” Santella said. “Most of them were R&B or blues records: Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, T-Bone Walker. I knew all about the British invasion. In fact, the first song I played on the air was Cream and ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ ”
Santella was a jazz musician attending the University at Buffalo when he got his start in radio at WBFO.
“My roommate was Joel DiBartolo, who ended up being the bass player on ‘The Tonight Show’ for 17 years,” said Santella. “Even though I was a drummer, I hung out with real musicians.”
Santella, who was inducted in 2005 into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame, worked at WYSL-FM, WPHD-FM, WGRQ-FM, WZIR-FM and WUWU-FM. He and his wife of 15 years, Mary Lou Wiltberger, a retired voice teacher, live in Amherst.
“We’re probably going to travel around a lot more now,” said Santella. “My wife has been so patient taking abbreviated vacations just so I would be back to the radio station, whichever one it was, to do my show.”
Veteran broadcaster Feldballe may have been off the airwaves for 30 years, but he is in front of a microphone every day producing commercial voice-overs for his business, Feldballe Productions. Since the mid-1980s, his voice has advanced Valu Home Centers, Paddock Chevrolet and Time-Life Books. For the last 14 years, Feldballe has been a media instructor in Niagara County Community College’s Arts, Media and Technology Division. In 2009, he, too, was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
As new host of the WBFO blues show, Feldballe hopes to add some new features.
“Because of my production background, I’d like to bring back an ‘unplugged’ show,” Feldballe said. “I’ve got recording experience, and I’d like to hook up with local performers who would perform in an unplugged setting and be on the radio with me. The blues has a lots of babies – roots, American – all kinds of styles that people are into. I know there are plenty of performers who do this kind of thing.”
Like Santella, Feldballe began his radio career at WBFO.
“I just showed up July 4, 1972,” he recalled. “David Benders was manager at the time, and there I was: a warm body who works on the holiday. I didn’t have the personality to be a Top-40 radio guy, but I loved radio.”
Feldballe recalled the all-night show at WBFO: “Nobody wanted to sign off. We were young and wanted to be up all night. The show was called ‘Extension,’ and it ran midnight to whenever. Santella also worked there. Those people taught me more about the craft than I think I learned anywhere else.”
Feldballe spent the rest of the ’70s and some of the ’80s station hopping at WBUF-FM 92.9, WGRQ-FM 96.9, and producing hockey games at WGR-AM 550. A weekend shift of WKBW-AM 1520 would be followed by some time at the old WUWU-FM 107.7.
On Saturday, Feldballe comes home to the blues.
“I hope to carry the blues torch as well as Jim Santella and Anita West [who hosts the Sunday night show],” he said. “I think it’s a pretty cool opportunity.”
email: jkwiatkowski@ buffnews.com