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WAIF-FM's Time Machine Goes Back 40 Years

Courtesy Steve Percy
Steve Percy debuted "The Time Machine" on WAIF-FM on June 17, 1981,

Inside WAIF-FM, Cincinnati's community radio station in Walnut Hills, there's a Time Machine.

At least from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday night, WAIF-FM (88.3) listeners have heard The Time Machine since June 17, 1981.

That's when Steve Percy – who grew up in the Bronx listening to rhythm and blues, doo-wop and early rock 'n' roll – first sat down to play his favorite music on the all-volunteer station which celebrated its 45th birthday last December.

"Thanks to the listeners for being so supportive of this small little nonprofit station, it's still alive and well 45 years later," says Percy, 76, who hosts the 40th anniversary of The Time Machine 8-10 p.m. Wednesday, June 16.

Percy came to Cincinnati for the Volunteers In Service To America (now AmeriCorps VISTA) in 1972. He was listening to WAIF-FM in late 1980 or early 1981 and heard a DJ mispronounce The Channels, a 1950s R&B group, as the "shuh-NELLS." He called to correct the DJ, and was invited onto the show as a guest.

Six months later, when a time slot came open, Percy debuted The Time Machine from the original WAIF studios in the Hotel Alms, at Victory Parkway and E. McMillan Street, previously used by WKRC-AM.  WAIF-FM moved to 1434 E. McMillan in 2003.

"One of the goals of WAIF FM is to open the airwaves to the community," Percy says. "Thus WAIF encouraged us to take to the air, even though we did not have DJ training or experience. It was a learning process. My voice was a monotone for a year, with no inflection." The best advice came from DJ John McCarthy, who had mispronounced The Channels. McCarthy told him: "Pretend you're in your living room talking to someone."

The Time Machine takes listeners back to the 1950s harmony groups, such as The Ravens and The Orioles. Listeners also hear their predecessors (The Mills Brothers and Ink Spots) and their successors (The Drifters and Platters).

"It is an American art form," says Percy, who uses the name "The Prince of Harmony" on WAIF-FM. His listeners suggested it.

The Time Machine is "the longest-running radio show of its kind in the country featuring R&B, rock 'n' roll and group harmony of the '50s," says Percy, who left the Walnut Hills agency in 1993 to become a real estate consultant helping nonprofit neighborhood groups develop housing for low- and moderate-income people.

The Prince of Harmony will celebrate his anniversary Wednesday by reading the playlist from his first show, thanking his longtime listeners, and recalling some of his celebrity guests (Carl Dobkins, Jr., Otis Williams, Rosie Hamlin from Rosie and the Originals, Nick Santamaria from The Capris).

In addition to building a loyal audience, Percy also assembled a group of rotating hosts who have carried the show the last 10 years: "Big Mike" McNutt; Rudy Tassini, "The Pittsburgh Kid;" and Bob Reilly, "Captain Bobby Paul."  They essentially took over the show in 2013 when Percy and domestic partner Karen Lewis moved to Virginia. Percy returns quarterly to host. Reilly hosts monthly, and Big Mike and the Pittsburgh Kid do the rest.

"The show would have ended after 32 years, if it wasn't for those guys," Percy says. "Thirty-two years was a long time, but the main reason I stepped back was loyalty to them. The four of us are old guys – we're all in our 70s – and we're still healthy enough to play music on the radio. And we want to keep the show and the music alive." 

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.