For me and plenty of other people who love decent music, sanity has returned to our Sunday afternoons. Jonathan Schwartz is back on the radio. Internet radio this time – TheJonathanStation.com – but no one really cares. After a long winter and spring with Jonathan absent from the airwaves, we’re just happy to have him back.
Jonathan’s new Sunday show debuted on Father’s Day, and the occasion was fitting. For more than 50 years, wherever he wandered on the dial, from WNEW-FM to WNEW-AM to WQEW-AM to Sirius and finally to WNYC, Jonathan had served as our idiosyncratic master teacher in The Great American Songbook, created by people like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, and his own father, Arthur Schwartz.
On a personal level, he was an almost palpable part of my existence, an angel on my shoulder with unusually good taste. In the late 1970s, as a homesick college freshman with hall-mates who favored Donna Summer and “Le Freak,” I discovered one night that if I opened my window, held my boom box in the air and tilted it at a 90-degree angle, I could hear Jonathan’s voice on WNEW-AM, 150 miles away from my Providence dorm. I could hear Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald too, but it was Jonathan’s voice that mattered the most to me. Still does.
Later, back in New York, I would listen to Jonathan pontificate about his beloved Boston Red Sox and Philip Roth as I wrote speeches and press releases at work. When the kids were little, I drowned out the “Barney” theme song that perennially emanated from my living room by keeping Jonathan at top volume in my kitchen. (The super-sized mimosas I hid in red Solo cups also helped.) Much later, it was Jonathan, and the little packages of graham crackers in my oncologist’s waiting room, that helped sustain me through six months of chemo.
In mid-December, a #MeToo frenzy exploded at WNYC and Jonathan was removed (along with fellow on-air host Leonard Lopate). The station’s paltry attempts at justification only made it apparent that the dismissals were without cause, which made the situation especially heartbreaking. Jonathan issued no public statement. Listeners, including me, promptly cancelled our WNYC sustaining memberships. Many of us congregated on the internet, gravitating to the Facebook group The American Songbook with Jonathan Schwartz – which was not formally affiliated with Jonathan — to express our anger and sadness.
On the Facebook page, listeners, both men and women, pointed to the lack of due process in Jonathan’s removal. Age-ism seemed the likely culprit. (Jonathan was 79 at the time of his removal; Lopate was 77.) It occurred to me, in the current un-nuanced climate, that if Sinatra himself had suddenly materialized and serenaded his female coworkers with a song like Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine” – “Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?” – well, he probably would’ve been fired too.
People joined the Facebook group from as far away as Dubai, and a community took shape around Jonathan’s absence. We mourned. We reminisced. We had a lone malcontent banned from the group. And we did our best to recreate what we’d lost, posting songs that Jonathan would play and even attempting our own “Salute to Baseball” like the one he hosted every Super Bowl weekend. We wondered if we’d ever hear Jonathan on the radio again.
In early April, after searching the internet regularly for news on Jonathan, I spotted a logo on Twitter for a new entity called The Jonathan Station. Shortly after that, the station launched a 24-hour music stream featuring the American Songbook. Finally, on Father’s Day, Jonathan went live for the first time in six months. There’s a photo of him, smiling, on the Facebook page, taken right before the inaugural show. He looks like he’s precisely where he’s supposed to be. One member of the Facebook group said that when she heard Jonathan’s voice, she cried.
There’s something to be said for loyalty, for continuity, for well-deserved resurrections, and for those memorable voices that make your heart sing. I’m not just talking about musicians here.
“Oh! So there you are,” Jonathan began his first show. “It’s become June.” As though he’d never been away.