Buff's beverage of choice: a Thai Iced Tea at Café East in Kingston.
A Drink with Jimmy Buff
WDST radio personality
FANS OF WDST RADIO WOODSTOCK are used to hearing the best new music by rising artists mixed into their classic rock ’n‘ roll lineup. They can count on intimate interviews with world-class acts, often with deeply researched angles that give listeners more than they expected. It’s this kind of attention to detail and roots veneration that keeps the independent station from being swallowed up by radio conglomerates. It’s too diverse for easy pigeonholing.
A good part of that is thanks to programming director and radio personality Jimmy Buff, who got his start at WNEW-FM in the 1980s at a groundbreaking time and brought that listening aesthetic with him when he moved to the Hudson Valley.
Sitting down with Deborah Medenbach for a Thai Iced Tea at Café East in Kingston, Buff talks about his career in radio, as a top athlete and life in uptown Kingston with his young family.
You worked for WNEW-FM in the 1980s ... ever meet DJ Allison Steele, who was known as “The Nightbird?”
Yes, I did, but not there. I worked for KROCK in New York City in the 1990s and Allison was there. She was probably nearly 70 years old in the mid ’90s and was still on the air.
What I remember about WNEW was that it was the only place you could hear certain kinds of music, and I know you sort of carry that torch in your own career. Did you already have that as a goal, which attracted you to intern at WNEW, or was it a viewpoint you picked up there?
I was terrifically fortunate to get an internship at WNEW-FM. When I started in the mid ’80s, I was 21 and just loved music and that was all. Like you, I grew up listening to those people and to find myself working with them was amazing. It was like learning the Bible from the people who wrote it. That experience totally influenced me. At the same time, corporate radio was really starting to bring the edges in. So people who had championed the new music in the FM sound had gotten really comfortable and were making good salaries, so when consultants came in to tighten things up, myself and others from my generation were asking “Why are you doing that? Why aren’t you fighting for this?” They weren’t inclined to fight.
So when I ended up in Woodstock, the owner of the radio station, Gary Chetkof, also had spent time as a lawyer for the company that owned WNEW-FM. That’s how I knew him. He too had grown up on Long Island listening to that radio station and understood the concept. So that’s very much what we try to do at WDST. The biggest compliment is when people say our station sounds like what they grew up with in the ’70s, and what WNEW could have still been doing ... but now those call letters don’t even exist in New York City anymore. They gave up. We believe it could be on the air, but we’re happy to be the ones doing it in the Hudson Valley.
Your station does a lot of really interesting, hands-on outreach, bringing great acts into the Hudson Valley. Is that approach what’s needed to keep going?
The Town of Woodstock has a long history of good live local music. The Chance, the Bardavon, UPAC, the Bearsville Theater ... at one time in Woodstock you could go out to hear live music five nights a week. We’re maintaining that tradition. What we’re doing today that the Pandoras and Sirius Radios of the world can’t do is that we ARE local. Our community involvement is strong: Dyson Cancer Care, Rosendale Street Festival, the Artist’s Soapbox Derby – we support community events with airtime and interviews. Things that define our area are what we are compelled to do.
Do you go out into small clubs to hear the up-and-coming music or deal with what’s sent to you? How are you staying on top of the drumbeat?
My desk looks like the skyline of New York City made of compact disks and in this digital age, I’m sent emailed MP3s a lot. I’m always listening to music in one way or another.
Any new acts you’re excited about?
I’m excited about Elijah and the Moon, who are working on some new music produced by Simone Felice, and a guy named David Baron, a musician who’s produced new music for Simi Stone and Simone’s album and Steve Weinstein. That’s the kind of music that excites me because it’s homegrown. And Robert Plant and Ryan Adams also have new music coming out this fall.
Tell me about your life in Kingston.
My wife, Tracy Priest, is the Town of Ulster library director. When I met her about 10 years ago she was living on Wall Street in a building owned by Joe Concra, who founded the O+ festival here. I just love the sense of community in this little area; felt really great.
When our relationship got serious and we got married, we moved to Palenville and we had a child: our son, Nathaniel, who’s now 5. It’s a beautiful area but anywhere you wanted to go, you had to travel long distances. I had these visions of coming home and Nathaniel introducing me to his friends Mr. Bear and Mr. Fox. It was remote. So we came here to tap into that extraordinary energy in uptown Kingston and the city as a whole and also to have access to a lot of things for our son. He goes to the Little Gym and to the Montessori Program at George Washington Elementary School, which is another reason we came to this area.
You have a reputation as an athlete. Children sometimes change that. Are you still doing Ironman and triathlon competitions?
No, I’m not. It’s a challenge to devote time to three resources. I still like to get on my bike and ride. Swimming is going to the YMCA for swimming lessons with my son. I’m still an avid runner. I can step out the door at the radio station and run or from my house, I can run out to the rail trail or I can drive 10 minutes to be at Shaupeneak or Overlook mountains. That’s another reason to be here. Within 15 minutes, you’re in some extraordinary nature.
Have you been active in the rail trail projects?
I flirted with the idea of being more involved than I am, but all I can do is offer them my support on the air and in print. The best thing I can do is encourage them on the radio, because I’m a huge believer in those things that change the attitude of an area. It’s a terrific intention that they have and I love watching the progress as they move forward. I look forward to the day when I can get on the trail in the midtown hub and end up at the Walkway over the Hudson and deep into Dutchess County. Eventually you could maybe hook up with the Appalachian Trail.
Were you an athlete when you were down in New York City or was it something you cultivated up here?
I was always a runner. I got into adventure sports up here. The radio station sponsored what was a precursor to the Hudson Valley Triathlon Club in its second year. They always like morning-show hosts to do stunts, so they said, “Why don’t you do this?” I said I didn’t have a bike, so they got me a bike. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a teenager and bikes had gotten a lot better, so I fell in love with riding a bike, to this day. Talking about it on the air, people who were active in that community heard me and invited me to come ride, bike and swim with them. To this day some of those people are still my closest friends. Great community.
What else do you want to tell our readers about living here?
The things that are important to me and my family are so well represented here in the Hudson Valley. For example, farm to table. We have a two-tiered backyard over here and donated the use of our lower yard to the Pine Street Farm, so they are planting stuff there. The other day I was back there with Farmer Phil (as my son calls him), who was showing me how to cut kale off the stalk. I have kale growing in my backyard now. That’s so great! Having my son see someone grow food in our yard that we then eat is awesome, and I’m in the middle of a small city.
About the Drink
Café East owner Deena Ray Turner explained the finer points of making a Thai Iced Tea. The leaves are grown in Thailand and cut nearly to a powdered density. The strong tea is then colored with vegetable dyes to make it a bright red. “They love red there. Color of life,” she said, pouring a good portion of Half-and-Half into the drink to filter its way through the ice cubes like sunset clouds. The result is a light pink/orange beverage with a strong smoky taste. See Turner make the drink here.