When it comes to radio personalities, Boston has had more than its fair share of unforgettable characters manning the airwaves over the decades. And as a result of their entertaining, informing and otherwise capturing the attention of the masses in their varied voices and styles – not to mention some of their on-air antics – their names are as indelibly etched on their listeners’ brains as their radio stations’ call letters, be they WMEX, WBCN, WGBH, WILD, WBUR, WBZ or…whatever.
For example, anyone who’s listened to Boston-area rock or jazz radio from the mid-‘50s onward will probably recognize some of these names: Dale Dorman, Dick Summer, Eric Jackson, Bob Clayton, Bruce Bradley, John Garabedian, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg, Dave Maynard, ChaChi Loprete, Matt Siegel, “Symphony Sid”, Sunny Joe White, Charles Laquidara, “the Woofa-Goofa”, Mark Parenteau, Oedipus, “Little Walter”, Ron Robin, “Skippy White”, Tommy Hadges, Carter Alan, Larry Justice, Ken Shelton, Sabby Lewis.
And anyone who’s listened to Boston-area folk radio from the mid-‘70s onward will definitely recognize this one: Dick Pleasants.
With his famously self-effacing delivery and honeyed baritone, Pleasants was New England’s premier folk-music radio host for the better part of four decades, the link between the region’s wildly eclectic folk scene and his listeners’ eager ears. During his 25 years at WGBH in Boston and nearly 15 at UMass Boston-based WUMB, he was an indefatigable supporter of the genre itself and both established artists and up-and-coming ones, instrumental in helping them maintain and gain the exposure they needed to propel their careers, much in the way Manny Greenhill of Folklore Productions was in his 40-odd years running that company.
In a January 2023 interview with The Boston Globe, singer-songwriter Chris Smither described Pleasants as the critical “third leg” any music scene needs to sustain itself – meaning a supportive radio station – with the other two legs being entry-level venues and a supportive local newspaper. “Dick personified that third leg,’’ he said. “Appearing on his radio shows was something beginning artists aspired to. He was a benchmark, a sign that you had achieved a certain status.’’
Born Richard Ewing Pleasants in Boston on January 28, 1947, and raised in Groton, Massachusetts, he was the third of four siblings and his parents, Richard and Helen, introduced him to folk music at a very early age – in an especially memorable way. “Pete Seeger stayed at my house when I was three,” Pleasants told The Boston Globe in 1984. “My father, who taught French at Groton School, was doing something with the lecture circuit there when they hired Seeger, who had hardly any money at all, but was really important musically at that point [i.e. 1950].”
Always a precocious child, Pleasants began his on-air journey in 1957, at age 10. His friend Peter Gammons – now a prominent print/TV baseball journalist and a well-known vocalist/guitarist on the Boston rock scene – owned some radio equipment that allowed the boys to broadcast their voices and music to about a mile away, and Pleasants discovered his passion for radio immediately as he and Gammons spent hours reaching out through the airwaves to his Groton neighbors. “We used to broadcast around Groton School,” he told The Boston Globe in 1984. “And there were even a few people who would listen to us.” One of those people was 17-year old Groton School student Tom Rush, who teasingly called Pleasants a “faculty brat” in a January 2023 interview with The Boston Globe, quipping that “His dad tried, but largely failed, to teach me French.’’
In 1965, Pleasants graduated from Lawrence Academy in Groton, where he played football, hockey and baseball. Enrolling at Emerson College in Boston, he steeped himself in the coffeehouse culture of folk clubs like Unicorn Coffee House and Club 47, graduated in 1970 and began his professional broadcasting career at WCIB in Falmouth hosting the program Ballads and Blues. Over the next few years, he also worked at WVOI on Martha’s Vineyard, WATD in Marshfield and WCAS in Cambridge.
In October 1978, Pleasants joined WGBH in Boston as co-host (with Marie Rhines) and producer of Folk Heritage, a pioneering series that covered all varieties of folk, from traditional to contemporary, and even included regular segments about the musical instruments used in the genre. After Rhines left the show in September 1979, he was the program’s solo host until 2004, drawing increasing numbers of listeners year by year through his interviews with and live performances by well-known artists including Pete Seeger, Odetta and Tom Paxton and appearances by younger, often New England-based artists. Pleasants hosted live shows from the Lowell Folk Festival, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
In 2004, Pleasants left WGBH for WUMB, promoted as “Folk Radio 91.9” where he continued conducting interviews with leaders on the folk scene on his “Guest Mix” program, among them Judy Collins, Rory Block, Richie Havens, Michelle Shocked, Bill Staines and Bill Morrissey. He was also the founding executive director of the station’s Summer Acoustic Music Week, held annually at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and assisted with the Boston Folk Festival and WUMB-sponsored concerts by Emmy Lou Harris, Natalie MacMaster, Suzanne Vega, Sweet Honey In the Rock and others..
In addition to his work with WBGH and WUMB, Pleasants co-founded and did programming for folk station WADN in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1989 until 1998, when it was acquired by Money Matters Radio and became a business-focused talk station with the call letters WBNW. He was a founding member of the South Shore Folk Music Club, established in 1983, and for years he moonlighted as a promoter through his company Ear To The Ground Productions, booking singer-songwriters including Ontario-based Garnet Rogers, Iowa-based Greg Brown and Cape Cod-based Patty Larkin at the Emerson Arts Umbrella in Concord and other area venues. He launched several folk festivals and folk societies.
On November 8, 2022, Pleasants died at age 75 in Concord due to complications of Parkinson’s disease, for which he was diagnosed over 10 years before and was the reason he stopped doing on-air broadcasts in 2012, working behind the scenes at WUMB from then until 2018, the year Folk Alliance International inducted him into its Hall of Fame. On January 7, 2023, WUMB sponsored a concert in his honor at Somerville Theatre, with a lineup including Chris Smither, Tom Rush, Lori McKenna, Garnet Rogers, Grammy-nominated bluesman Guy Davis and Nashville-based singer-songwriter Kate Campbell.
Asked in a 1984 Boston Globe interview what he enjoyed most about broadcasting, Pleasants had a simple reply, one that speaks directly to the purity of his lifelong pursuit. “I like sharing music and sharing ideas with people. I have grown with the music and with what people derive from the music,” he said. “And without people who listen to the radio, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
(by D.S. Monahan)
Published on February 7, 2023