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Five Things: Radio DJ Vin Scelsa On Benny Goodman And The Theatricality Of Religion

This week on Five Things, my guest is a professional talker — and we were in his studio, instead of mine. Vin Scelsa is a familiar name to anybody who grew up listening to FM radio in the New York/New Jersey area. He spent nearly 50 years playing music on the radio, starting out at a college station, then a couple of  commercial stations, before heading to public radio.

Vin was on the air the night that John Lennon died in 1980, and he turned WNEW's airwaves into a kind of virtual wake, with callers sharing their grief.  Along the way, he interviewed everybody from David Bowie to Suzanne Vega to Kurt Vonnegut.

I met Vin when we were both working at WFUV in the Bronx, Fordham University’s public radio station, and he did a weekly show called “Idiot’s Delight.” He’s retired now, and I visited him last summer at his home in suburban New Jersey, where he and his wife Freddie had bagels and coffee waiting for me. After we ate and caught up, we went into his home studio to talk.

On the definition of "freeform" radio, which he pioneered:
"It means to me, it always meant to me, that there was no form of music that couldn't fit in, and that every form of music could be viewed on an equal basis with every other form. So yeah, rock and roll was the main form of music that was played, rock/folk, but you could always play jazz, you could always play classical, you could always play world music."

On his early intention to join the priesthood:
"I was easily persuaded by things. I was a very religious kid, even though I didn't go to Catholic school. [My] family is Italian Catholic, so I went to catechism classes, and I responded very well to the theatrics of the Catholic church. A lot of it was frightening, but I responded to it."

On one of several meanings of the title of his show:
"I discovered that there was actually a version of solitaire called Idiot's Delight, that's very very difficult to win. I used to know how to lay the cards out for it, and I never once won. Idiot's Delight as a card game is like shuffling the cards, and whatever cards come up, that's what you play."

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