How It Started: A Look Back on Folk Alley 20 Years Later

Before Pandora, Apple Radio, and Spotify were just a glimmer in the eyes of the music scene, FolkAlley.com was born, thrived, and grew steadily as the premiere spot for lovers of folk music. The 24/7 internet radio station that originated in 2003 at WKSU, the public radio station in Kent, Ohio, continues to serve the folk music community as part of the FreshGrass Foundation by offering the same eclectic and unique blend of traditional folk, roots, Americana, indie folk, Celtic, and bluegrass it did in 2003.

Although Folk Alley launched 20 years ago, the seeds for it were planted in the 1980s, according to Al Bartholet, the former executive director and general manager at WKSU. “You have to go back earlier than 2003 to when Jim Blum came on board as the part-time host for our folk music programs. His shows ran on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, and they gathered a loyal following.” According to Blum, “The folk show made more money during the pledge drives than any other format.” In the following years, WKSU developed a solid reputation among national NPR stations for playing great folk music.

In the infancy of internet radio, folk music programming had reached a peak, and Bartholet, Blum, and technology director Chuck Poulton were already dreaming of an internet radio station. Bartholet recalls “meeting with like-minded directors at a conference to discuss together this thing called the internet and what strategies they could develop to approach it.” He remembers the chat he and Kerry Swanson, then general manager at KPLU, had about how best to deal with this new technology; they decided that they each had expertise in certain formats—KPLU in jazz, and WKSU in folk—and that each station should build on its core strengths in developing an internet radio presence.

WKSU was already poised to move into the internet radio world, according to Chuck Poulton. “WKSU had endeavored to make a strong effort in the digital space. We were the first NPR station in the nation to have a website and the first to use real audio technology for streaming.” Poulton and Blum had already been building an online archive of Blum’s broadcasts so that by the time Folk Alley launched in 2003, Poulton says, the station had the website and the content to repurpose for Folk Alley. “Building the online archives was a precursor to Folk Alley,” recalls Poulton.

Since Blum was the sole host of the folk music programming on WKSU, the challenge was how to produce content. Eric Nuzum came up with a plan for reorganizing Blum’s format and programs. Poulton and Blum took Blum’s shows and started to run them in three eight-hour blocks throughout the day. “Listeners heard me 24/7,” exclaims Blum. As Blum notes, “I started recording my shows in advance so we could reuse them on Folk Alley.” Folk Alley was born, says Poulton, out of the folk music programming the station had archived and then making it available in a format for folks to be able to listen to it whenever they wanted to.

Before Folk Alley launched, Bartholet recalls telling the staff that “either this is not going to work and it’s going to go down the tubes, or you’re all going to put this on you resumes.” As soon as Folk Alley launched, listeners from around the world started writing in favorable comments, and donations began to pour in—with 23,000 website registrations in the first year alone. What made Folk Alley distinct then and now is that it’s “an internet radio station that sounds most like a terrestrial radio station,” according to Bartholet. “Internet radio stations do not have on-air personalities, but Folk Alley does.”

Ann VerWiebe (WKSU’s then pr and marketing associate) recalls the excitement of Folk Alley’s early days and watching it grow. “We were doing something in folk music that no one else was doing,” she exclaims. “I did an email newsletter called The AlleyChat from the beginning. I started a Facebook page and Twitter account, and all of us promoted Folk Alley in various ways at events. We even had a Folk Alley RV, plastered with Folk Alley’s logo, that we would drive to festivals. All of this had a big impact on what we were doing.”

Another stroke of genius, Bartholet notes, was hiring Linda Fahey in 2005 as the program director for Folk Alley. “She had all her experience from working with A Prairie Home Companion, and she had extensive relationships with other NPR stations.” When she first learned about the job, Fahey laughs, she “wondered if this was a real job.” Once she talked with Bartholet, she glimpsed his vision and passion for Folk Alley: “he wanted it to be the #1 place for folk music content; if people had a question about folk music, he wanted Folk Alley to be the first place they’d turn to.” Fahey also wanted to know what kind of folk music the station was playing. “I was blown away by the mix of music Jim Blum was playing—singer/songwriters, Celtic, trad folk, bluegrass, Cajun, acoustic blues. This was a nicely thought out, very broad-based definition of folk music, and that appealed to me.” Shortly after Fahey joined in 2005, a full-time producer was hired and three other hosts were added to the stream: Maine Public Radio’s Elena See, North Country Public Radio’s Barb Heller, and WKSU’s Jeff St. Clair joined Jim Blum behind the microphone.

In 2006, Folk Alley joined the alliance of NPR Music as one of the 13 founding partner stations contributing content to the “super site,” and helped broadcast from the Newport Folk Festival (in 2009 – 2012), the Americana Music Association’s Honors & Awards show, the Folk Alliance International Conference, as well as many other festivals.

By 2007, membership nearly doubled after Poulton created an infrastructure that would allow listeners who donated $60 or more to Folk Alley to receive a members-only stream that would bypass the fund drive breaks. “This was very popular with our listeners, as you might imagine,” says Fahey. “It still is.”

Today, Folk Alley continues to thrive, though not without having experienced big changes to its original team, management, and administration.

In 2018, a few years after WKSU shifted their programming focus to news and talk, the decision was made to “re-home” Folk Alley. “After 15 years of hard work, we had established quite a loyal audience and a solid membership base. We couldn’t pull the plug on it. Nobody wanted to see that happen,” recalls Fahey. “So, we set out to find a new home with a nonprofit whose primary focus was folk and roots music. We talked to a few people, but nobody had more enthusiasm than Chris Wadsworth, the president of the FreshGrass Foundation. I was blown away by his excitement. After our first meeting, it was hard for me to imagine going anywhere else, though the decision to leave the NPR ecosystem was hard and not made lightly.”

In March of 2019, Folk Alley officially became part of the FreshGrass Foundation and since has seen its listening audience grow along with a significant increase in listener support too.

According to host Elena See, “What’s kind of cool about Folk Alley now is that its core mission has NOT changed in 20 years. It’s a really small team of people who are absolutely dedicated to sharing a unique mix of music with anyone who wants to listen to it—free of charge.”

“The #1 thing we do is 24/7, hosted, internet radio,” says Fahey. “We have a really great team. I love our hosts: Elena See, Matt Reilly, Cindy Howes, and Brad Kolodner, who joined in 2021. They’re pros and fun. We’ve been able to add more content to the service lately, but I’m mindful not to let other additional features and side channels be the ‘tail that wags the dog.’ We’ve remained focused on streaming a quality music mix and our listeners. This service is for them, and we’re humbled and grateful to anyone who donates to keep it going.”

20 years into its journey, Folk Alley continues to thrive by keeping its original vision of playing an eclectic mix of folk music and serving its listeners. “We’ll be here for as long as the listeners allow us to be. Hopefully, that’s another 20 years!,” exclaims Fahey.

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