In retrospect, Jon Solomon says, it’s a good thing Princeton High School never had a radio station of its own. That’s because Solomon — who is preparing for his annual Christmas radio marathon — had to go a few blocks down the street, plead his case, and make his way on to the airwaves of Princeton University’s campus radio station, WPRB-FM, where he has been a long time area radio host.
Solomon says his break came when he was offered a slot to fill in for another DJ who was home visiting relatives on Christmas Day, 1988. Solomon, who was 15 years old, passionately filled the space and air waves for 13 hours until the next DJ finally came in.
Thus began a 25-year-old Christmas Day tradition for Solomon and the hundreds of listeners who tune in to his Christmas Marathon, running this year from 5 p.m. Christmas Eve to 6 p.m. Christmas Day — running 25 hours in honor of the 25th anniversary. Solomon, who was raised Jewish in Princeton, recently did a three-hour Hanukkah show — a first for the host and station — a couple of weeks ago, the night before Thanksgiving.
“I wanted to start a radio station for my high school and did a bunch of research about it, but ended up volunteering at WPRB,” he says, noting he did the right thing and took that overnight slot at WPRB when they offered it to him. He was 15.
That first air-time showed Solomon that there was a big swath of time available on Christmas Eve, and “I signed up for the following year, in 1989. I did 24 hours, and that was the accidental beginning of what has become a tradition now,” he says.
Solomon’s regular shift at WPRB, which has no title, is from 7 to 10 p.m. Wednesday nights. In addition to an eclectic playing list, shows include live performances. Recently the Indiana-based band the Rutabaga and the Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist/solo recording artist Sondra Sun-Odeon were guests.
“Initially the playlist was more a mixture of the records that the station had in its library and the longest songs I could think of,” Solomon says of his programming approach for the 24-hour show.
“As the years went by and I began to develop a collection and as people started sending me records, I had more and more to choose from. It’s all songs about or inspired by the holidays,” he says.
“Sometimes people write and record songs specifically for the show, and in the last couple of years I’ve been commissioning Christmas stories from comedians and musicians. It’s a pretty eclectic assortment of songs that you’re not going to hear on commercial radio stations.”
“Certain songs I’ll hold off on playing until folks call in and request them, and there are all sorts of traditions within the tradition of the program that have developed,” he says. “One such tradition is a story song about ‘Jerry the Christmas Snail’; I’ll typically play that towards the end of the program. I’ve become friendly with the folks that have put it together.”
“Every year I try and collect more re-workings of songs by the punk band the Misfits, and I have 10 different Misfits songs reworked as Christmas songs by different bands. I have music from the British post-punk band the Fall, but probably my favorite Christmas record is from the late ’60s: ‘Merry Christmas: The Sonics, The Wailers, The Galaxies,’ and that’s probably the one record I’ll play every track from over the course of 25 hours.” Solomon says the album is an anthology of West Coast garage-rock bands.
“For the last couple of years, the first two or three hours have all been music I haven’t played on the marathon previously,” Solomon says. “That’s worked out nicely, and I’ll do it again this year. The last few hours there are some faves I save for the end of the show, and the middle of the show is filled by listener requests.”
Naturally, like Christmas music itself, Solomon’s show spans all the genres: pioneer rock, folk, contemporary singer-songwriters, blues, classic R&B, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, punk-rock, and post-punk-pop.
“There are all sorts of curiosities, and the goal is to keep people on their toes but not have it be too jarring from song to song. If I can have an acoustic piece by [folk guitarist] John Fahey work against a black metal song, I’ll play it. I want to keep it interesting for the listeners but also interesting for myself, too,” Solomon says.
“I really enjoy the pre-recorded pieces people have done for the show or songs people have written about the show, which are always very flattering,” he adds.
The opportunity to participate in the radio marathon is still viable. As Solomon notes on his website, www.keepingscoreathome.com, “Record something between now and December 20th and there’s a solid chance it will make it into the show. It can be a reading of a favorite Xmas story, a cover of a holiday song you love, or an original piece. I leave that in your hands. Listen to some of the past works as inspiration if you’ve been stumped when I’ve called on you previously. It would be great if these contributions did not exceed six minutes, but if you run long I am likely going to allow it. I’d love to get so many recordings that I can debut one of these an hour throughout the marathon.”
Solomon — whose father, Robert, is an attorney and mother, Susan, an architectural historian and writer — graduated from Princeton High School in 1991 and studied radio, TV, and film at Northwestern University in Chicago, receiving a degree in 1995. Even when he was in college, he would always come back and do the Christmas show, except the year he graduated.
When not on WPRB, Solomon is busy with his independent record company, Comedy Minus One, and provides DJ work for parties, weddings, or private events, he says from the Lawrenceville home that he shares with his wife, Nicole Scheller, a Hamilton Township special education teacher, and their daughter, Maggie.
His parents, wife, and daughter will visit him during the Christmas marathon, as will some fellow DJs and friends. But, like a lot of longtime DJs — this author, of WRSU-FM, New Brunswick, included — he prefers to focus on what he’s playing, what’s playing next, what might make a good segue, and, in general, keep fraternizing to a minimum. He will drink tea to stay alert, but long ago dismissed coffee for the crash it can cause midway through the program.
After a long snooze the day after Christmas, he’ll wake up and think about things. Inevitably, he says, “There’s always music left over. Once I wake up on the 26th, I realize, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I forgot to play this!’ “
Jon Solomon, 25-Hour Holiday Radio Show on WPRB, 103.3 FM. Tuesday, December 24, 5 p.m. to Wednesday, December 25, 6 p.m. For more information on to listen, go to www.wprb.com or to contact Jon Solomon at keepingscoreathome.com.