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Reduced polka programming on radio station WMUA stirs more controversy in the community

  • DAN LITTLEWMUA program director Haley Chauvin hosts a Mandarin pop music show Tuesday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.



Wednesday, January 13, 2016
AMHERST — Polka music playing on campus radio station WMUA would be the first sounds Michael Medeiros would hear when he awoke most Saturday mornings as a college student at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-1990s.

Though he was younger than many in the audience, and knew that the accordion-based music probably annoyed his roommates, Medeiros couldn’t get enough of “Polka Bandstand” and its host, Billy Belina.

“It was a good way to wake up. It’s such a fun show,” said Medeiros, 39, recalling in a telephone interview his fondness for polka during his undergraduate years, and his continued appreciation for the program.

“Billy’s such an engaging personality,” Medeiros said. “He’s like the slightly grumpy uncle you look forward to hearing from.”

After 37 years, Belina’s program, which runs from 9 a.m. to noon, is on the verge of being canceled. “Polka Bandstand” and Mitch Moskal’s “Early Bird Polka,” which airs from 6 a.m. to noon each Saturday, are scheduled to be broadcast for the last time Jan. 23.

This is part of the scaling back of polka music, a mainstay of WMUA’s weekend programming for nearly 40 years. Polka will be broadcast for four hours, from 8 a.m. to noon , beginning Jan. 24, according to a schedule released by program manager Haley Chauvin on Sunday.

“This really is an insult and discrimination to the Polish people in the area,” said Todd Zaganiacz, host of the Sunday morning “Polka Carousel. ”He and Helen Curtin, host of “Polka Celebration,” were informed of the changes by Chauvin on Friday.

Restructuring

The changes fit with the restructuring of the station, announced by the UMass administration last month, which limits programming by community members to 24 hours per week, down from the 32 to 35 hours per week they have been filling during the winter session.

Under the restructuring, based on internal and external reviews conducted by administrators, students will play a greater role in running the station while community members will see a diminished role in on-air programming and the station’s operations. The idea is for WMUA to better meet the educational mission of UMass.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said a number of additional student shows are being scheduled, which is the focus the administration and students both want.

“Certainly polka is very popular and will continue to have airtime, but within the parameters of hours we’ve set,” Blaguszewski said.

Chauvin did not respond to an email seeking comment about the changes to the polka programming.

Zaganiacz said it is painful to see two long-time hosts forced off the air. Belina began his tenure in 1979 and two years later launched a fund drive for the station. Moskal has been on the air for 26 years.

“This is just a travesty in people’s livelihoods that have been on the radio station,” Zaganiacz said.

Discussions, he said, are underway about whether Belina and Moskal can play some part in the Sunday morning polka shows.

Zaganiacz said people rely on WMUA’s polka hours, especially senior citizens and others who do not have access to the Internet for their music.

“They live for this,” Zaganiacz said.

The popularity of polka is demonstrated by the annual fundraising at the station. Zaganiacz said the station has collected nearly $500,000 since the early 1980s, and raised $24,000 from polka hours last fall — even as there was controversy swirling at the station after long-time adviser Glenn Siegel was removed from his position.

Zaganiacz said money raised has been used to remodel three studios at WMUA in the basement of the Campus Center and to buy equipment, including new CD machines and turntables.

Blaguszewski said fundraising remains important.

“The university and students value the programming and financial support the community provides the station,” Blaguszewski said.

Critical of changes

Lenny Gomulka of Ludlow, who was elected to the International Polka Hall of Fame in Chicago in 1988, is critical of the change to polka music.

“I believe it’s a big mistake,” said Gomulka, 63. “I think that whoever is making these moves is not looking at the whole picture.”

The risk is losing ties to the community.

“The station has certainly catered to the community people and people beyond the community,” Gomulka said.

Gomulka wrote and performed the state’s official polka “Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts,” which refers to UMass, in part because of the radio station’s connections to polka.

Medeiros said he can sympathize with students running WMUA. “I appreciate what students are trying to do, but it’s important to not lose that community tie,” Medeiros said.

An online petition, “Keep Polkas Alive at WMUA,” has more than 250 signatures at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/keep-polkas-alive-on-wmua

The petition reads: “This is a disgrace to the Polish community who has supported this station for all these years. By signing this petition, I am demanding the return of all four polka shows and their hosts returned to their regularly scheduled 12-hour weekend block.”

Blaguszewski said he would not speculate on what would come of a petition that has not been submitted to administrators.

Jean Perry, 38, of Fairhaven, said she has made a point of tuning into the polka programming when she is in the area at a cabin retreat outside Shutesbury.

“For over a year now, waking up on Saturdays and Sundays in the cabin means opening my eyes and winding up my crank radio and tuning in to polka,” Perry said in an email. “It’s a weekend tradition now. A rather precious one, in fact.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.