True shared experiences are lacking in the COVID-19 era, but Jon Solomon is here to make sure we have at least one before the year wraps up.
Solomon’s 25-hour Christmas Day marathon has become a holiday staple on Princeton University’s 103.3 WPRB radio station. He has only missed one show since 1988 — in 1995, when he went out to Pasadena, California, to see Northwestern University, his alma mater, play in the Rose Bowl — and wasn’t about to let a pandemic keep him out of the WPRB studio a second time. So he is bringing the studio to his dining room table for the first (and hopefully last) time ever.
“I’ve already heard from a handful of people who are normally together during the holidays and are going to be separate this year —they’ll be listening simultaneously, wherever they might be,” he said. “It reinforces that we need to do it this year, and we need to do it as people are used to.”
Solomon is ready to give listeners a radio-quality experience from his Lawrenceville home. He is borrowing a 16-channel mixer from Reid Sound in Robbinsville, has a turntable and a dual deck CD player from the radio station, and will use his own microphones. This is also the first time he won’t have to load huge chunks of his own collection in and out of the studio — a nice plus, considering he threw his back out carrying crates of records to the studio just before the marathon one year.
“It’ll be like having a pop-up radio station in our dining room,” he said.
And that’s sort of been the MO for many WPRB DJs over the last several months, just on a much smaller scale.
Like with most places, things at WPRB fell into disarray in mid-March. Students left campus, and the building that holds the studio closed down. The station had to defer to pre-made playlists for several weeks, abandoning its signature live, original, boundary-free content. Slowly, though, DJs started to set up at home and record their shows safely — including Solomon and his own Wednesday evening show.
“More and more DJs have been going live since then,” he said. “It’s a steady ramp up towards a return to normalcy. The more like the before times it becomes — where now there’s a set schedule, the station is broadcasting again, there’s new programming almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week — it brings me great comfort driving around just hearing it like it always has been. I guess that’s a very long walk to me saying that I hope the same holds true for the marathon.”
This year is just another phase in the ever-changing nature of the marathon. Solomon’s first show, in 1988, was a 10 p.m.-til-morning slot that just happened to be on Christmas Eve. He came across an empty shift sign-up sheet after most of the station’s hosts — many of them Princeton University students — had gone home for winter break. Solomon, who is Jewish, didn’t have any plans, so he took the slot and played nothing but Christmas music until the morning. Twelve-ish hours became 24 hours the next year. He added an extra hour to the show to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2014, and that has stuck since then.
The actual content of the marathon continues to mutate, too. Some things don’t change — a 42-minute version of “Little Drummer Boy,” a block of Ramones-style Christmas songs and the 45-minute Snaildartha: The Story of Jerry the Christmas Snail – A Soul Jazz Extravaganza are all staples and listener favorites — but, for the most part, Solomon is able to pick and choose from his constantly growing collection.
Solomon ranks every holiday item in his catalog, digital and physical, using a five-star system. He regularly discovers new pieces through blogs, SoundCloud, listeners, and friends. He ventured beyond the music in 2011, when he put out a call asking for recordings of holiday stories from friends, family, musicians, comedians, and others to be played on the show. Some of those submissions — a holiday greeting from wrestler Mick Foley, a recording from writer, comedian, and podcast host Tom Scharpling, an annual new song from musician Joel RL Phelps — have become favorites.
Some listeners have written and recorded songs about and for the marathon. Others call in with unique requests or tune in at the same time every year. Often, Solomon has to work off the cuff. James Brown died in 2006 while Solomon was on the air, so he pulled out every James Brown Christmas song in his collection and played a block. He ran tributes to Lou Reed in 2013 and Prince in 2016 after their deaths, too.
“It’s always very important to me that the program not kind of rest on its laurels from year to year,” Solomon, a Princeton native, said in 2016. “I know people don’t always listen at the same point or at the same time. I want to make sure there’s an infusion of as much new material as possible every year.”
This year is no different, though it does have some added technical concerns. Solomon is not too worried.
“I think folks are going to be pretty understanding if anything goes off the rails,” he said. “This is coming to you live from someone’s home and not the place they normally expect it to be broadcast from.”
Solomon planned on having everything set up and ready to go by Thanksgiving so he could run a few test shows during his regular Wednesday night slot.
“I think I’m going to be as up front with people as possible during it,” he said. “It should sound the same, more or less. I think on my side of the broadcast, that’ll feel nice to me. I hope that’ll be the same for people tuning in all over the world.”
Solomon isn’t too worried about getting too comfortable during the show — though he’s never done a radio show “as adjacent to [his] bed” before, WPRB has a couch that “always beckons,” so he is used to the temptation.
“I think I’m going to have just about everything I need within a couple of feet in every direction,” he said. “I’m mostly worried about getting the right set-up and having it be as close as possible to what an actual radio station would look like or how it would operate. I’m a creature of routine, so it’s good to know that everything is going to be set up in places where I’m not going to have to be like, ‘What does that button do?’ If things go off the rails, there will be some sort of contingency plan.”
Solomon is already planning for some show traditions that he knows will be altered. He has regular in-studio visitors, including his parents, Susan and Robert. They still live in Princeton and stop by the station every year, eventually falling asleep together on the studio’s couch — fans of the show probably know that Solomon posts a mid-slumber photo of them to Twitter or Instagram during the show. One year, he gifted them with a blanket made out of those pictures.
“Unless it’s horribly cold out, I would hope they drive by and wave,” he said. “Though it would be nice to open the front door and feel the air on my face.”
His wife, Nicole (to whom he proposed on-air), and their daughter, Maggie, also appear every year toward the end of the show. This year, listeners might hear from them a little bit more, either “intentionally or accidentally,” Solomon said.
“I’m literally inviting the audience into my home for Christmas,” he said. “The normal companion pieces, like a webcam, I try to have it so that it’s a constant that’s there for you. Am I going to be putting on a stocking cap and smoking a pipe in front of the fireplace? That’s not going to be the case. But I’d like it to be even more of a shared experience for people who sort of know there are lots of folks doing their same thing they are on this hopefully once-in-a-lifetime Christmas.”
Jon Solomon can be found on Twitter and Instagram @jonsolomon. For more information, visit www.wprb.com.