An Appreciation - Legendary Folk DJ Mary Cliff

Mary Cliff's "Traditions" Pulled from the Airwaves
February 8, 2015

For over 40 years by my reckoning, there has been one consistent voice on the public airwaves for folk and roots music in the mid-Atlantic region. Mary Cliff has anchored a weekend night hosting her show "Traditions", featuring music from world-renowned artists to local pub singers, listing the exhaustive area event calendar of folk, bluegrass, blues and anything else roots or world music oriented, and all broadcast at some 50,000 watts in all directions.

She was a mainstay for most of those years on WETA, the flagship classical and non-commercial music station of the DC area. And after the public radio consultants essentially carved any of the "local" and "community" out of that station, she was given a Saturday midnight slot on WAMU - DC's big NPR bastion and home to the Diane Rehm Show. A couple weeks ago, they cut her show with one week's notice, ostensibly to save money and boost bluegrass programming on their miniscule HD3 signal. And now, that legendary voice of our folk music community in the region is suddenly without a show (read more in the Washington Post article here).

Mary Cliff is a big part of why I'm here. There were three or four people who really gave my career a push out of the open mic circuit, all women who played an important role in presenting folk music and getting you heard. Mary Cliff was the one on the local airwaves. She played my music before anyone else did, from a self-produced 1993 cassette. People heard my songs on that big-ass NPR station with regularity over the next 20 years, most anytime that I had a show coming up. I heard my songs driving home from shows. I can't overstate how much that has mattered - getting me invited to do concerts, and getting people out to them as well, but also in the simple validation that my music and I mattered just like the hundreds and hundreds of other artists she played, and that I belonged with them in our region's rich tapestry of music.

I played a showcase concert this weekend for the World Folk Music Association, another organization that played a big role in getting me in front of a lot of people through Dick Cerri and especially Doris Justis (folk singer and event producer). And for the first time in any of our collective memory, we no longer have Mary's voice on the air sharing our music and exhorting people to get out to enjoy live music. Her unceremonious dismissal, masked in the guise of budget cuts and cost savings, is both concurrent with and in stark contrast to the end of legendary Philadelphia folk DJ Gene Shay's nearly 50 year run on the otherwise urbane and hipster WXPN. In one weekend, nearly a century's worth of folk radio experience and knowledge have been silenced from our regional airwaves. It is going to hurt.

I am glad that Mary is alive and well. I am hopeful that her voice, her experience, her wit and her enthusiasm will soon again be shared with our musical community here in the mid-Atlantic, and perhaps beyond. But this seems as good a time as any to say a humble and heartfelt thank you for all you have already done and said. Namaste, sweet friend. I have one ear cocked listening for the sound of your next adventure.

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