What drives a man as busy as John Weingart is to continue to host a Sunday night radio show as a volunteer at a place like WPRB-FM, Princeton? Weingart has been hosting “Music You Can’t Hear On The Radio” on the station — Sunday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. — since he was in graduate school at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in the mid 1970s.
Weingart has also booked a popular series of folk and acoustic music concerts at the Prallsville Mill in Stockton since 1985. The next performance there will be by Italian flat picking guitarist and roots music specialist Beppe Gambetta, who performs Saturday, February 15, at 8 p.m., and again on Sunday, February 16, at 3 p.m.
What drives him to continue in this unpaid avocation? It’s the same thing that motivates him with the radio show.
“It’s about finding new music and sharing it with listeners and getting enthusiastic about it and having a good place to do that, and it’s putting together sets of music in ways that I think are creative or clever or interesting and knowing there are some people listening who appreciate the ways sets are being put together,” he says.
“And there’s an odd kind of solitude in locking myself in this room from week to week. It’s a solitary pursuit in ways that I enjoy, so I’m always ambivalent about having guests on my show,” he says. After 38 years of hosting the show, you “get focused and concentrate on things in the studio.”
Weingart, raised in Queens and Manhattan, is the son of a stock broker mother, among the first women to make partner in a small Wall Street investment firm, and a social worker father whose last job was for the city of New York.
Weingart saw the late Pete Seeger perform when he was away at summer camp as a 12-year-old and became hooked on folk music, acoustic blues, and listening to the radio. He attended Brandeis University and received his master’s of public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1975.
A year later he was “very lucky” to be hired at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, where he spent the next 23 years. As director of coastal resources, Weingart was sounding the alarm — to those who would bother to listen — about the dangers of building housing or retail establishments too close the ocean. Weingart left the DEP as assistant commissioner and for the past 14 years has been the associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.
Garden State residents were reminded of his warnings about ocean-front housing when Hurricane Sandy struck here in late October, 2012. A week after Sandy struck Weingart had to cancel one of the Prallsville Mill concerts for the first time ever, a show with acoustic bluesman Geoff Muldaur, a former Rocky Hill resident.
Asked how he began booking shows at Prallsville, Weingart says, “There it was the same motivation as with the radio show, I wanted to help musicians I liked get more of an audience. And also, selfishly, to bring performers I’d like to see in concert to play somewhere nearby,” he says, admitting that, since the advent of more elaborate cable TV and the Internet, “it’s becoming harder and harder to get an audience to come out to these shows.”
And the timing was right. In 1985 Stockton-area residents, many of them newcomers, were interested in restoring the old mill along Route 29 and the Delaware River. Weingart’s first concert there was with Bill Morrissey, the late, Boston-based blues and folk singer, and a starkly original, exciting voice.
“It’s a beautiful historic building that happens to be three miles from my house. It’s a great structure that by complete accident has great acoustics for music. This year, Beppe Gambetta is performing with a trio of musicians who’ve never played in this country. Beppe has a deep understanding of American roots music and deep understanding of Italian folk music, and he’s a wonderfully charming live performer,” Weingart says. “He’s a real artist and a world class guitarist.”
West Coast traditional folk duo Reilly and Maloney come to Prallsville on Saturday, April 5. Says Weingart: “Reilly and Maloney have beautiful voices, and they do an occasional Dylan or John Prine or Springsteen song and then songs from much lesser known songwriters and occasionally things they’ve written themselves. This probably going to be their last East Coast concert.”
Like his radio show at WPRB-FM, where he takes 8 to 10 weeks off during summer months, Weingart has some ambivalence about the concert series at the mill in Stockton.
“I would really like to find some people to help with some of the work of it,” he says, “but I haven’t succeeded with that yet. I love going to the concerts, but I’d love to have a couple of people who would do publicity and help fill some more seats,” he says, noting, with 140 seats, the Prallsville Mill provides an intimate setting for concerts.
“One of the nice things about not doing the radio show during the summer is it gives me a chance to get excited to be back. By the end of the summer I’m really eager to begin hosting the show again.” Just as he gets great satisfaction out of presenting musicians deserving of wider recognition on the airwaves of WPRB-FM and in concert at the mill, Weingart freely admits one thing he doesn’t relish is writing back to people, usually via E-mail, whose CDs he just cannot use on his radio show.
“People send me music, unsolicited, which I love, and then they send E-mails following up asking what I thought of it. If I didn’t love it, I agonize over how to respond. I really ought to just have a standard response,” he says.
One thing he’ll often point out in his E-mails back to the struggling artist is “the music I like never really makes any money, anyway, so maybe that’s good for them.”
What has Weingart learned about himself and his audience during the 38 years of hosting his radio show?
“I love getting E-mails during my show or after my show. I love hearing from people who listen,” he says, “but over the years I’ve learned my audience is not always who I thought it was. It’s generally folk music fans and bluegrass fans but also includes a fair number of people who somehow got to like my show and don’t necessarily define themselves as folk music fans. For a number of years I thought my audience was aging as I was, which is true to some extent, but I love it now when I hear from high school students. I know people use the radio to hear music much less than they used to.”
Weingart admits he’s saved most of his vinyl and has his vinyl and CD collection in a music room at his home, more or less alphabetized across genres like blues, traditional, and contemporary folk music and bluegrass. But he keeps separate shelves for music about politicians and music about New Jersey.
“One of the other things I enjoy about the radio show is playing music that is related to the week’s news. Recently, when Nelson Mandela died, I was happy to be able to play a few songs about him.”
Music You Can’t Hear On The Radio, 7 to 10 p.m., Sunday nights, WPRB, 103.3 FM.
Winter Folk Concerts, Prallsville Mill, Route 29, Stockton. Beppe Gambetta Trio. Saturday, February 15, 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 16, 3 p.m. $35. Reilly & Maloney, Saturday, April 5, 8 p.m. $35. veryseldom.com or Radio@VerySeldom.com.