Over kitchen table discussions, while doing the dishes, or quiet moments over tea – the ‘Irish Saturday’ soundtrack on WROL radio has reigned supreme in most Charlestown Irish American households.
Older residents remember a lifetime of putting on the radio to hear the show, and younger residents share a common bond in remembering the sounds of Irish music and culture in the kitchens and parlors of their grandparents’ homes.
Since 1967, the Town’s residents have listened faithfully to the music of their native land – or their parent’s or grandparent’s native lands – as they tended to the business of the weekend. Getting the news from the Emerald Isle, some of the old traditional songs from the past, and even the new hits from the other side of the pond, WROL’s ‘Irish Hit Parade’ show has stood the test of time and now is more popular than ever.
Host Paul Sullivan stumbled into the job 37 years ago after he had put college on hold to pursue a career in radio. Wanting to expand on a show that was gaining popularity, WROL’s owners saw he had an Irish last name and figured he was perfect for the job. That was 1982, and now the longtime educator in Dedham, has spent a lifetime also moonlighting as the most popular Irish radio host in New England.
“There is a lot to be said for people saying they put our show on the radio in the kitchen,” he said. “Families doing things and having discussions while having our music as a soundtrack is quite real. We’ve been pretty constant for so many years. The music is dependable. We’re there every weekend. It’s like a comfortable old pair of shoes.”
General Sales Manager Carole Howley Simmons said the ‘Irish Saturday’ has expanded in recent years to Sunday, while also expanding in hours on Saturday. Despite the increased availability online of their music and news from overseas, the show is gaining listeners on the radio.
“It’s more popular than ever now,” she said, noting they have millions of listeners and a very healthy audience that streams the show online. “The audience is huge and nobody in the U.S. does it like we do it. It started as a way for those who immigrated to Boston to keep in touch with Ireland and its culture, news and music. Now all the people who grew up in Boston Irish homes listen to it because they remember it as kids and its familiar. We have so many people that have left Boston, and they still tune in.”
Sullivan said he continued as the host of ‘Irish Hit Parade’ for years as a hobby, and as this St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 proved, his star status as a link to the Irish culture in one of the most Irish cities in America. The show had a float in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and broadcasted live from dozens of Irish pubs throughout Greater Boston all weekend.
“It’s amazing if you think about it,” he said. “It’s 37 years ago. It’s a tribute to the fact that no one stays on the radio without someone listening. When I started in 1982 it was really the only place to hear Irish folk, Irish traditional music or Irish news on this side of the ocean. That’s changed. You can pull out a smart phone and listen to Irish music all the time and to think we still have our listeners and are so popular is amazing. We actually now get calls from people in Ireland who say we’re the only place to her traditional Irish music because all they play in Ireland now is rock and roll.”
The ‘Irish Hour’ began in 1967, but no one is quite sure who started it or why it began. However, former host John Latchford was the one that truly catapulted the show into most Irish American homes in the 1970s. Latchford had an importing business in Arlington, and along with the other imports, he would frequently get the latest Irish records hot off the presses. Having those sorts of connections, he could play the latest music and all of the old favorites – plus he had a great, natural radio personality, Sullivan said.
When Sullivan started, the show was broadcast from a small cottage on stilts out in the marshes near Saugus. Now, with WROL owned by Salem Communications, they have a modern studio in Marina Bay, Quincy. That has brought modern equipment and even the online presence for the show – allowing it to grow outside of its traditional market.
But tradition is what drives the ‘Irish Saturday,’ and particularly among those who live in places like Charlestown, or trace strong roots to the Town. “I think there is that tendency when you’re young to rebel against your parents and what they listened to,” Sullivan said. “My generation tossed aside the Irish music for the Beatles or REM. But then at a certain point, you become interested in where you came from and you start to see the validity and value of the music and the culture and the connection to it. That’s where we get this constantly renewed circle of listeners. There’s really something to that. If I know anything about Irish American people, they are American, but they are also very proud of the Irish heritage as well…I love that I could be a part of that connection for so many people.”